On Substack Centralization

15/11/2022

Time and again we get the feeling that human history is doomed to the same old script over and over again, only with slightly different characters and contexts.

A few years ago Substack emerged as a prime destination for weekend writers and people who want to take the radical act of writing longform text on the web seriously. Not by chance: it is an easy-to-use, fancy, and ever evolving tool. Most importantly, it is totally free unless you charge for your newsletter, and there is no pressure to charge for it at all.

It’s not a surprise, then, that a centralization on Substack is underway. Besides seeing more and more newsletters with addresses ending in substack.com, my attention was drawn to the phenomenon by this post from Erik Hoel (at his Substack page!). In it, Hoel extols some of the alegedly decentralized features of Substack, its network effects, and the growth potential it unleashes in newsletters of all sizes.

It’s not unlike what happened on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and what happens in parallel on TikTok. Produce your content there, on a powerful yet easy-to-use third party platform free of charge, in exchange for people’s attention. Or else, you end up in a situation like Medium’s, which seems to pivot every six months, leaving a trace of confused and disapointed writers behind.

This works well until the day the platform starts wanting to capitalize, to realize its promise (of profits). Then your reach collapses, and if you want to communicate with people who have followed/subscribed to your profile at some point in the past, you need to pay.

Substack is still in the growth phase and has a cool, anti-social media vibe. At heart, it’s a classic startup, with USD 80+ million raised in four rounds of investment by firms like a16z, Y Combinator, and Quiet Capital — the usual ones.

For all the good that Substack does (and it’s quite a lot), the balance of concentrating active web and email writing in a startup only tends to the negative. Because it’s only a matter of time before the writers’ belching begins. When it does, the next Substack better be ready. These turnarounds are usually abrupt and destructive.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

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