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Towards a Substack Civil Society
How to make Substack and the Internet better in 2023
This post is about many things Substack, but chiefly about its new feature called Substack Notes. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now and invite you to check it out and talk with me and other PysPol subscribers at substack.com/notes or in the Substack mobile app.
Substack has been shipping new features at a very impressive pace.
An incomplete list of improvements in 2022 includes: native video player, the Substack mobile app (with a great podcast player), recommendations, updated podcast episode page, audio paywall, Substack Reader for web, Chat, mentions and cross-posting, and audience insights.
In 2023, the three major moves so far have been the web version of Chat, an ability for writers to invest in Substack, and something called Notes, which was just made public yesterday, but managed to create a bit of a scandal prior to that — when Elon Musk said Substack is “trying to kill Twitter” and, for a while, disallowed linking to Substack in tweets.
After trying Notes for a few weeks now, I’m starting to see how all these things come together (or may come together) into a coherent and incredibly promising whole.
I believe 2023 can become a pivotal year for Substack, in which they define the new era of the Internet — if they play their cards right. At the same time, my (admittedly very vague) understanding of the financial side of running a startup suggests there’s always a danger of playing the cards wrong and having to leave the table.
I’ve been watching the game closely. I’ve even put money on it. This post is me whispering my analysis to other onlookers just loud enough for the players to hear.
The Substack Civil Society
When I explained why I’m investing $2k in Substack, one reader concluded: “So it's an emotional investment more than a financial one.” That is both true and not. It’s true that my goal was not to make money. It is not true — so I claim — that my motive wasn’t rational.
One of the ways to see Substack’s investment move is they’re getting more buy-in from their users: the more skin they have in the game, the less likely they are to jump ship. I see another side to this transaction: the stronger the sense that Substack “belongs” to its users, the more likely the company is to pay attention to their concerns.
I want to see this creation of the writer-investor class as one of the early steps in an emergence of a Substack civil society. I want to see users publicly propose and debate changes to the interface, request new features, oppose, or dare I say go on strikes against decisions that violate the company’s stated values and principles.
This is another way to see this post: I’m trying to be a good citizen and put pressure on the administration to make the right moves.
One of my first Substack Notes proposed a vision for bringing the Chat/Notes ecosystem into harmony. I have thought more about it and want to share the updated version more broadly.
The first issue is that Chat and Notes are very alike. It is not intuitively clear when one should start a thread in their chat and when they should write a new note. Substack’s current stance is that Chat is for a private conversation with subscribers, while Notes is more of a shared space.
I don’t think that makes sense. If we want an ability to write notes just for subscribers (which, yes, we do), the way to do it is by — well — writing a note and choosing a different visibility setting. So that’s a feature worth adding.
The way to give Chat its own value is to turn it into a literal group chat: not a place to write posts with their own comment threads, and then threads within threads (which is what it is now), but a non-structured conversation without a beginning and an end. It should look the way group chats look on Telegram.
Threads within chats may be useful for larger communities, so the ability to turn them on is probably worth keeping, but they shouldn’t be on by default. The reason is they break the conversation up: one user responds to a comment by starting a thread, another responds to the same comment by adding theirs at the same level of exchange. Now, the same conversation is happening in two different places. With more participants, such breaks become very messy. A simpler way is to only have quote-replies on by default — they allow one to make a direct connection between their message and the one they’re replying to without breaking the flow of the conversation.
Such a version of Chat would also invite more participation from members: adding one message to an endless communication stream is a much lower barrier-to-entry than starting a new conversation in a shared space that doesn’t belong to you.
We also need an ability to write private messages. Even though Twitter’s DMs are extremely unwelcoming, people still use them to connect with each other because finding somebody on Twitter is easier than finding their email, and because sending an email feels like a bigger deal. We want to make “DM me on Substack” as common a phrase — or rather more common, in the mid-to-long-term — as “DM me on Twitter.”
I would propose giving users an ability to create any number of chats. One is created by default to go with the author’s main publication (the Psychopolitica newsletter would have a corresponding Psychopolitica chat), and extra ones could be added as necessary. This can become an incredibly powerful networking tool: one can see an emergence of chats for collaboration and cross-promotion, exchange of experience for making it on Substack, clubs for people writing on the same topics or people living in the same region, and, of course (and crucially), chats whose members don’t remember how or why they were created and whose purpose was never made clear — but which house the most freewheeling and effortless shoot-the-shit conversations on the platform.
These changes would also make it more likely for new users to keep using Substack — I know many people who would have abandoned Facebook or its Russian analogue VK long ago if not for the two people they know who keep using them as their primary messengers.
An extremely important feature is the ability to forward different kinds of content into different channels of information flow: newsletters “restacked” to Notes (already present), notes to chats and DMs, messages from chats into Notes, and so forth. This would supercharge the word-of-mouth dynamics already present in the Substack ecosystem. (And supercharging word-of-mouth, as opposed to relying on algorithmic spread, is an important advantage of Substack over traditional social media.)
Ability to quote-reply to messages in the web version (already present in the app);
Messages should be always shown in full, but a character limit (3-4k characters) needs to be introduced;
Skip the QR screen on the web, to lower the barrier-to-entry (possibly put it in the side-bar below “New note” instead);
Ability to upload short videos;
Ability to record audio messages.
Notes is not a Twitter clone. It’s closer to being a mixture of Twitter and Telegram (more so if my suggestions for Chat are implemented), and that makes it much more powerful.
In Russia, about 40% of Internet users have Telegram. They primarily use it as a messenger, but there’s also something called Telegram channels, which is very much like Notes. This feature completely reshaped Russia’s media landscape. If Substack revived blogs by bringing them into your email, Telegram revived Russian ones, some years earlier, by bringing them into our messenger.
These channels is how news and rumors and memes spread in Russia. They’re also a source of political analysis, entertainment, information on niche interests, and anything else that’s a picture, short video, or text under 4k characters. Government officials use them as a platform to make official and semi-official statements (even though the same government, on more than one occasion, has unsuccessfully tried to ban Telegram). When I was about to leave the country, that’s where I was getting updates on who gets asked what questions at the border (which prepared me for an uncomfortable questioning by the FSB). Here the ability to forward such info to chats and DMs was crucial for its wildfire-like spread.
One other thing Telegram has that Notes doesn’t have yet is an easy way to navigate individual feeds one subscribes to. The fact that Notes allow both for short- and long-form content makes the overall Subscribed / Home feed an eclectic reading experience. I expect some of the people I read to publish a couple of thoughtful 1-2k character pieces a day, and others to post random one-liners (or memes) with higher frequency. This can be a great thing — in fact, the emergence of different genres of notes is one of the main thing I’m looking forward to — but it will get messy if they are always forced into the same bucket.
I would propose removing the Suggested tab on the right — since I’m already getting suggestions in the Home tab, it seems somewhat redundant — and use the freed up space for a list of individual feeds I subscribe to (moved to the left of the feed). Having control of the reading experience I have already chosen is more important than getting extra suggestions I may or may not enjoy, and keeping both of these features on the screen would make it too crowded.
It’s very important to make the mechanism behind the Home tab transparent: there needs to be an explainer page with a concrete and exhaustive list of kinds of content that gets into one’s feed by default (e.g., feeds you subscribe to + feeds that those you subscribe to recommend + notes that have replies from those you subscribe to). Substack’s anti-algorithm stance is a big selling point, and it shouldn’t be undermined.
If somebody is in my Home tab, their profile page should say how exactly they fit into my “extended network:” “recommended by X,” “followed by Y,” “you follow on Twitter,” or whatever else the case might be.
A bigger step in the same direction — providing ways to discover new content but keeping the user in charge — would be to allow the reader to create their own Notes filters. In this vision, Home and Subscribed tabs come by default, and custom tabs can be added manually.
Users that subscribe to my newsletter;
Users that those I subscribe to subscribe to;
Users that those I subscribe to recommend;
Users that read the same newsletters as I do;
Notes that people I subscribe to replied or liked;
Notes that fall into categories I select manually;
Notes from specific people I select manually.
Another logical step to improve discoverability is to add a Notes version of the Explore tab. Compare and contrast the experience with newsletters and notes:
Newsletters: I go to Politics and see a list of posts. I need to pick one based on the headline, click on it, and then I’ve got a whole article to read. Given that I already found myself in the Explore tab, I’m probably in a scout-mode, not in a reading-long-articles mode, so I bail out before figuring out if I want to subscribe.
Notes: I go to Politics and see a feed of much shorter posts, through which I can scroll until something catches my eye. If I like it, I click on the Subscribe button on this same screen and continue to scroll further.
I’d like the post previews to be longer, ~200-250 words — if not in the general feed, then in individual feeds, so that I have to click on “See more” less often;
An ability to automatically cross-post notes as emails and as messages in my publication’s chat;
An ability to save images by right-clicking or tapping and holding;
An ability to add (previews of?) recent Notes to the newsletter’s homepage, instead/below Most Popular in the Magazine theme;
Clicking on the post shouldn’t lead the user into the comments, because it makes it impossible to select and copy text (clicking on “Replies…” should).
Notifications are very important for Chat, Notes, and newsletters alike. Too may will soon get annoying and make the user hate the app. Too little and they will not find out about the content they would have loved.
So it is essential to make the muting and unmuting of notifications intuitively simple. Tap & hold or right-click on a chat or a notes feed, and you can choose: mute/unmute, forever or for a period of time.
(While we’re on the subject, an orange dot next to a chat that shows that there are new messages inside should be duplicated for Notes.)
Subscribe vs. Follow
A very important issue that’s hard to untangle is the different levels of buy-in that subscribing to notes and to emails require. I follow about 150 people on Twitter (which is 50 people more than the target number), and this is considered extremely reserved — many users follow thousands of accounts. But nobody wants to receive a hundred of different newsletters into their email inbox.
The tension is between the interests of the writer and the reader.
As a reader, I need a way to “follow” an author — to be able to read their notes, access their chat, and perhaps read their newsletter posts on the web / in the app — without agreeing to receive emails from them. (Note: this has already been added, after requests from writers who beta-tested the feature.)
As a writer, I don’t want to lose the main advantage of using Substack, which is owning my email list and being able to reach my subscribers directly. I also don’t want the introduction of Notes to hinder the growth of my subscriber-list.
I don’t have a clean solution for this, but I do have a few relevant thoughts.
One, this “Substack civil society” thing that I’m advocating would lessen the importance of the ability to leave and take everything with you. The more you can influence your environment, the less need there is for alternatives.
Two, I think the authors should be able to export the emails of the people that “follow” them but don’t subscribe to emails. If they pack things and go, they can offer such people a new arrangement.
Three, Notes and Chat both can be used to grow the email list and make money (if an option to choose visibility settings for notes is introduced). Since the author owns not only the emails but also the financial relationships with their subscribers, that softens the issue considerably.
Four — and this is the most practical and immediately important point — it should be very easy to sort one’s subscriptions out.
Perhaps, whenever one clicks “Subscribe” or “Unsubscribe” they should be presented with a check-list: Newsletter, Notes, Chat.
Certainly, there should be a much more intuitive Manage Subscriptions page where settings can be updated in bulk by checking and unchecking relevant boxes. There are a lot of different ways to go about this, but this issue requires urgent attention.
Once the ecosystem is harmonized and cleaned-up, the obvious next step is bring the whole thing into an desktop app. There’s so much power in this network that I can see it successfully competing with the browser.
I made many suggestions in this post, some major and some minor. Let me reiterate the changes I see as crucial:
A navigation bar for note feeds one subscribes to;
An ability to subscribe to notes without subscribing to emails;
A revamp of Chat in the style of Whatsapp, iMessage, Telegram and the like, with DMs as an essential element (of these three, Telegram has the best interface, so it’s worth taking a close look at it);
An ability to create own filters for Notes that show up in the feed; at a minimum, full transparency of the algorithm behind the Home tab;
An ability to forward all kinds of content into all kinds of channels: notes to email, emails to notes, both to chat, chat messages to notes, etc.
One kind of feedback I’d love to see is a message from the Substack team reading something like “Kudos for guessing what’s been on our 6-month roadmap already.”
A different, and perhaps more ambitious, kind of reaction I am hoping for is a sustained dialogue between the owners and the users of the platform about the nitty-gritty of its operations and future development.
This second consequence may be bigger than Substack per se.
Substack’s CEOhas recently made a prediction: "Online media is going to bifurcate, and every platform is either going to have to turn into TikTok, or turn into Substack." The first kind will be powered by AI and ads, and the second by humans and subscriptions. The first will disempower their users, the second will put them in charge.
My argument is networks that focus on humans will need these humans to be more involved than they’re used to. Just like a democracy relies on an informed and engaged citizenry, these human-first subscription networks will thrive if their users get continuously better at understanding the structure of their environment — and this is all Internet, not just Substack — and at finding ways to positively influence its evolution.
For this, we need to do a lot of paying attention, thinking, and talking to one another.
So this is another way to view this post: as an invitation to try to figure out what we want the Internet of the 2020s to be like, and how we might go about advancing this vision, together.
Raritan Quarterly presents a new story concerning totalitarian art, state executions, retributive violence, Kyu Sakamoto samples, and other worthy subjects of literary critique. Collected in Raritan: A Quarterly Review vol. XLII, no. 2, 13 pages. The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org