The Platform-Company Problem

On Substack's growing pains...

Substack is currently entering another news cycle of problems, primarily driven by the fact that it has, on some level, had to become more than just a way to distribute newsletters and directly sell content to your readers. Their Substack Pro program, which effectively advances money to writers to post on the platform, which possibly includes a rogue’s gallery of some of the worst human beings like Jesse Singal. I can’t find an exact consistent list, and if I do I’ll edit this to reflect it.

Pro, in and of itself, is not a bad idea - it theoretically gets good writing on your platform, which gets people to use your platform out of association with them and proves that the actual model of delivery works. The problem is that by creating the Pro program, as Anne Trubek notes, you are now effectively choosing what voices to elevate, what voices can dedicate themselves to Substack, and as a result who can dominate the front page of Substack and grow their audience further.

The content moderation defense that Substack previously had was that this was an open platform, and they were simply the people who gave you the space to write. They don’t moderate because you’re dealing with your own audience - that’s none of their business - and thus could have a (to quote their own blog) “hands-off approach to censorship.” By having a Pro program, specifically one controlled and organized by Substack themselves, Substack is indirectly or directly endorsing the views of those that post them.

The “we’re just an impartial delivery mechanism” defense simply does not work anymore when you’re actively working to promote and fund the work that’s happening. Conversely, it’s also a statement of the work that they don’t fund - a self-fulfilling prophecy of problems that will forever dominate their destiny, with each time they chose to fund someone with hateful, shitty views that don’t go against the terms of service becoming a new chance to point out where they didn’t fund a BIPOC writer.

Trubek also notes that this is how the publishing industry works - that journalists that are mad that cretinous hate-machines are being funded by the very mechanism they are funded by should also drop their book deals at the same time that they drop their Substacks.

The key difference is that these are not the same thing at all. The central point at which a book deal is done is not the same thing between two different books in many cases, in the same way that it is with Substack. Substack is, at this time, one company with a relatively small team making decisions, I would guess (I do not know specifically how it works) from the top as to who should be on the platform.

These are the classic growing pains for any startup which allows any user to post anything they want. The initial idea - in the case of Twitter that people could share fun little messages, in the case of Facebook a chance to connect with college friends - has begun to get chewed up by the company-making machine that comes out of venture funding and the search for growth. The initial idea for Substack to make money was and is a good one, but the pressure to grow into a mighty machine that truly rends publishing asunder has and will continue to cause issues like these.

So What Can Substack Do?

I do not think that, despite suggestions to the contrary, a giant amount of people are going to walk off of the Substack platform based on the hateful pieces of shit that have monetized it and may or may not have been paid by the Pro program (I can’t find an exact list of them as discussed). Nevertheless, it will be notable enough to cause issues, and as I’ve said will continue to become worse and worse with every Pro contract signed. Having to say things like this is bad:

We are dismayed by some reactions to the Pro program, especially among those who have been led to believe that we are using it to support anti-trans writers. We love, support, and read trans writers, and they have been an important part of Substack since the very earliest days. 

The problem with being pro-trans lives and tying yourself to “freedom of speech” is that you are still publishing anti-trans writers. If you’re paying those writers, you do not seem pro-trans lives, as you are publishing those that would threaten their lives. If you are potentially paying people who’s careers have done significant damage to the lives of trans people, why should people believe you love and support trans lives?

The actual solution to this is very simple: Substack needs to create a non-profit with a diverse board that handles Substack Pro…immediately. You can’t unwrite the contracts already written, but you effectively start fresh.

Substack Pro should be a separate entity that is represented by a diverse board that makes the decisions as to whom receives funding from Substack. In Substack’s own words, they aspire to make money on each Pro deal, and materially separating Pro’s revenues from Substack itself and moderating who gets its money is a way to avoid the criticism that Substack is facing. It may even be worth making both the expenditures and actions of the board public - or, at the very least, the decision-making of who is being funded, and make those deliberations public too. Hamish and company could even still choose who they want to present to the board - but the oversight and execution of these contracts would not be in the hands of two white guys (and if that decision goes further than Hamish and Chris, then that needs to be documented). Even with the best intentions, you cannot run a truly diverse execution of what amounts to grants for journalists in this way. It’s a tough situation.

Now, the argument against this is that this is just another way to gatekeep access, but how is it worse than the current situation Substack has right now?

An action like this would also cause the Greenwalds and Singals of the world to cry foul - claim that cancel culture has come for the future of writing, and that this all so terribly, deeply unfair. However, these actions do not preclude anyone from using Substack’s regular platform - and I would say that the Pro board would not have any moderation decisions over the content on Substack. Maybe there should be another board for that. I don’t know.

And, yes, the Pro board would come under scrutiny immediately, from both sides. There is simply no avoiding that scrutiny, but such a move would exist to explain and express the logic and considerations under which Pro funds people.

None of this fixes the content moderation issue, which is one that will continue to be one for Substack (and any platform resembling Substack) forever. And I’m not sure it even fully fixes the current issues with Pro. But it’s a start.