Nearly two years ago when I wrote one of the earliest features about Substack for the Times, I called it something akin to a new/old social network, a product I decided I would be using instead of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. My thesis was basically “Tweet less, ‘stack more,” a half-baked plan for feeling better about the time I spend online.
I definitely failed at the whole “tweet less” part. (Who was I kidding?) But my biggest fuckup was missing the core strength of Substack. It is not a complete substitute for social media. It is both complementary, and yet seems in direct tension with, how social networks….work.
A brief history lesson, if you’ll indulge me:
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have largely made money by selling marketers advertising space, and then placing those ads inside of our feeds.
People seemed to be okay with it (at least, initially). Over time, we amassed large networks of friends and followers. Those networks, or “graphs,” are quite valuable, but also are largely stuck where they are. The big companies don’t want to make it easy for you to pick up your graph and leave.
This kind of “capture” is important; as long as the companies hold your graph without making it too easy to leave, they’ve locked you into their ecosystem.
And the system seemed to work. FB and TWTR gave us hours of, uh, entertainment and the ability to communicate with our friends. In return, we let them make money off of those interactions. In other words, we allow the companies, not ourselves, the ability to monetize our personal graphs.
Enter Substack, and a resurgence of interest in the classic email newsletter form. Substack gains attention because A) it’s got big money and big names backing it, B) it’s dead simple to use, C) paid writing gigs are hard to come by and D) there’s no barrier to entry.
The idea catches on in greater numbers: Instead of letting the networks cash in on our time, attention and connections, Substack (and others like it) makes it simpler for writers to make money on their own web of connections. Their own Graphs.
Email newsletters become….hot again? Or at least the field sees a new influx of entrants, flooding in alongside the other, longstanding email newsletters with already large, existing user bases.
The influx of people realize the value of a different, key Graph: The email list.
As we can see, my email list belongs to me, is not stuck inside Facebook and can be exported to go with me wherever I want. Moreover, if I start charging for my newsletter, I’m the one who makes money, not Facebook. (Substack takes a ten percent cut for its trouble.)
In essence, I see the resurgence of the newsletter — and really, the ascendant power of Substack — as the rise of users and writers taking back the power of their own personal graphs and networks. For writers — especially writers trying to eke out a living — the email list portability is crucial. And it’s certainly more attractive for writers to make money from their words rather than cede those dollars over to a social network to stick ads in between their posts. (I’m calculating how much money Twitter has made off of the endless stupid tweets I’ve posted and it’s making me depressed.)
Even better is the simplicity of the email list as the key graph: Everyone has a fucking email address! But not everyone has a Facebook account, and even fewer still have a Twitter handle. The email address is the lowest common denominator of the consumer internet. And hence, the perfect component of creating a personal graph.
~A brief side note: The power of the email list has been obvious for some time to a great many folks who deserve credit for doing this long before venture capital came into the picture. That’s certainly true for Ann Friedman, Helena Fitzgerald and many other women who were early to the newsletter boom using services like TinyLetter and MailChimp. (I got beat up for it, deservedly, at the time I wrote the NYT substack piece for failing to mention them. Kaitlyn Tiffany later had a good overview of the landscape and history of newsletters in the pre-VC era.) ~
It is the dynamic between email newsletters and how social networks and publishers view them that I currently find interesting. I think Facebook and Twitter worry about the rise of an independent, personal graph — the email list — that isn’t reliant entirely on the power of their respective social networks. People already kind of have these graphs in their Gmail address books, but haven’t really put them to good use. Imagine how powerful one might be if they actually made their email addresses work for them! Imagine how worried the social networks could be?
To be clear, the initial relationship between social networks and Substack is symbiotic, not antagonistic. When I first created this newsletter, I blasted it out across Twitter to 160,000+ people (and probably a lot of bots). That has hands down been the biggest early driver of signups.
But what I wonder about is the moment when we might find it less necessary to spend time posting to Facebook and Twitter and more to our own independent email networks. Perhaps one day we start thinking “why am I tweeting all these thoughts out in public when I could be charging for them over email?” Maybe we’ve been giving the milk1 away for free for far too long, and need to start charging for it? Maybe I spend too much time “marketing myself” in dumbass tweets?
I think the social networks see this coming. Twitter, to its credit, already acquired Revue, a newsletter company, and has even explicitly it wants to keep Twitter as “a better home for writers,” bundling Revue with Twitter. Facebook, too, is hard at work on building its own Substack-y type tools as well.
I also think this is going to be a growing issue for traditional news publishers and magazines home to many writers; they, too, want to own the email list, rather than hand a base of subscribers over to a writer who can up and walk out the door.
But to be clear: The power is still overwhelmingly in the hands of publishers and social networks at the moment. They have the audience and name recognition, they have the built-in networks and readership.
I also think making an actual independent living from substack subs alone will be deeply difficult for many writers who don’t already have huge followings. In that sense, they’ll need the power of their social graphs more than ever to even hope to build an email list. “Star writers,” or celebrity journalists, will have a much easier time striking it out on their own if they come with that built-in base of fans willing to pay for their stuff. But again, that following needs to be huge to end up with a substantial amount of revenue; the amount of people willing to pay for your thoughts in a newsletter is far, far smaller than the amount of people willing to put up with your thoughts on Twitter.
Still, the tools for self-publishing and independent distribution are proliferating. Writers are starting to catch on, however late it may be. And the biggest networks and purveyors of media are watching closely.
Thanks for reading. Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted. I love feedback, so email me if you have any. (unless you just want to call me names. Then you can skip it.)
lastly, a note on music: listen to the Black Pumas if you haven’t yet. reminds me of early, non-bad black keys records.
I’m not sure if I’m the cow in this metaphor and my tweets are the “milk,” but you get the idea.