The “follow” button is Substack's attempt to extinguish newsletter competition

I like to be right (who doesn’t?), but for some predictions I would like to be proven wrong. One of these is that Substack is a time bomb. Turns out it blown up earlier than I imagined.

In August 2023, Substack released a weird new feature: a button to follow people on its network. Why does a newsletter platform, which by definition employs this feature (we “follow” a newsletter when we subscribe to it), need to have a “follow” button?

According to the official blog post,

A follow offers a lightweight way to start a relationship with a writer or reader, with the option to convert it into a subscription at any time. By following them, you can stay up to date with what they’re reading, liking, publishing, and subscribing to—through the Notes feed and on their profiles.

This is so “social media” that Substack app asks for access to contacts to synchronize them and discover friends who are also in the Substack.

At the end of 2023, newsletters owners on Substack noticed a change in behavior on the platform, according to The Wrap: a significant increase in the number of followers on Substack and the stagnation of new subscribers to the newsletters.


It may seem just a detail, but it’s in fact something very important. Signing up for a newsletter is the link that unites creator and followers. This link, although important, is straightforward: an e-mail address cession, an event that is easy to understand and a data point easy to handle and move around.

From the beginning, Substack has tried to differentiate itself from social platforms that have turned followers into hostages — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — by boasting the email portability. When someone wanted to leave — as many did after the recent Nazi fiasco — it would be just a matter of taking their subscribers (their email addresses list, I mean) to another service.

The same doesn’t apply to “followers”. These are Substack’s. On the help page of the “follow” feature, there is a question in this regard:

Do I get my followers’ emails? If I leave Substack, can I get my follower list?

No. Following is a lighter weight action that helps potential subscribers get to know you via notes before committing to a subscription.

It’s the “embrace, extend, and extinguish” playbook as crystal as it’s possible, but in hyper speed (less than four years into making). The follow button marks the attempt to start up the extinguish phase, “when extensions become a de facto standard because of their dominant market share, they marginalize competitors who are unable to support the new extensions”.

I’m not sure if Substack is already a de facto standard in newsletters realm, but it seems they think they are.


Would the people who started or migrated their newsletters to Substack in the newsletter boom from 2021 onwards make the move if they knew they were committing to another social media platform?

Also, note that this is not an isolated event. The follow button is just another feature of several that, put together, turns Substack into a “unique” thing, in the sense of irreplaceable. Before it, we had an app, chat, Notes (their Twitter clone), direct messages (another thing that supplants the email), mentions and cross-posting, videos (??), not to mention the newsletter recommendation algorithm, full of dark patterns that help (or used to) inflate the number of subscribers.

This prediction was an easy one. The signs were on the wall, growing, exposed on the Substack’s blog (or, should I sayi, its social profile?) in Substack itself.

Sometimes I look like a scratched record, but the truth is that it’s increasingly hard to trust startups backed by venture capital.

« New family plans and pricing on Fastmail Mozilla is testing a Firefox built in text translator »