I feel like this article forgets about Medium, which at one time seemed like it would become the central repository for writing on the internet — but Substack offers a better compensation model for writers, and an easier way to follow writing with the newsletter subscription approach. I agree that Substack feels like it’s about at this network effect point.
I’m a proponent of the own-your-content IndieWeb approach so a new silo frustrates me, while acknowledging that it’s ideal from a user standpoint to have a consistent experience and provides a discovery platform. My compromise when I ran a Substack was to cross-post on my own domain. (What would be lovely from an IndieWeb standpoint would be for Substack to accept Webmentions as comments so this post would appear under the original article, but that’s not going to happen — there’s no incentive for Substack or creators to support decentralized users in their siloed ecosystem.)
I am encouraged by the number of people committing to longform writing online, especially in a world where hot takes and microblogging are top. (I agree that blogger isn’t an appropriate name for newsletter writers — they are different formats — and would propose ‘essayist’ for writers of article-centric newsletters, unless that sounds too pretentious 😂)
There’s something about newsletters that feels different to write than a blog, and it seems to be more welcoming and inviting to new writers (whether inherently or via zeitgeist) as well as traditionally published authors drawn by easy monetization and the plug-and-play interface.
The same thing that makes it easy for readers to join — consistency — makes it harder for writers to create their own brand beyond Substack: every Substack newsletter looks the same. They offer some personalization but the emails that land in inboxes look nearly identical. I frankly have no idea which writer is which. Last year I subscribed to a bunch of Substacks from women in their 20s through 40s, and it was disorienting to have no idea who wrote the current email I was reading, and which previous emails were by them. I wound up unsubscribing from pretty much all of them because I couldn’t figure out consistently which ones I liked 🤷♀️ While blog posts may look the same in my feed reader, I can click through to open the article in its original website to remind myself who the author is. The unique look of the website is enough visual cue for me, while apparently a logo in an email header isn’t.
This makes me think of Etsy, which could be a glimpse forward of the risks of a silo for writers who lock themselves into the Substack model, like lower payments or mandatory advertising to get traffic to your newsletter. I try to be conscientious about it now I’ve noticed it, but the usual answer about where something came from is “a seller on Etsy” rather than the actual shop’s name. Likewise, I’ll find myself prefacing comments with “some Substack I follow” — which I might also say about a blog, but I’m more likely to actually remember the author’s name of a blog because it’s a distinct entity in my mind versus part of the Substack collective. Earlier today, I was reading a new email newsletter, and didn’t realize the same author also wrote another newsletter I already follow, but they happened to link to an article in it 🤷♀️
3 replies on “Substackification”
Glad to know I’m not the only one that feels that way… I called it the gentrification of newsletters in a recent blog post (https://alongtheray.com/torture-test-passed-substacking-dad-newsletter-gentrification) because many of them follow the same model, write the same, look the same, etc.
I ended up unsubscribing from a bunch as a result.
I’m hoping this is just a temporary “hot”ness thing where when it cools down things go back to normal newslettering on their own but I can see the appeal behind Substack’s ease of use (and free model).
I also can’t begrudge others for doing what they want but I hope they keep their personality somehow and be different?
Yes! Gentrification of newsletters is a great way to describe it!
The monotony of the writing is weird. As you say, it’s like people have this narrow mindset of what a successful newsletter looks like, following the style of other substackers. I would guess this is the first time many have written for the web beyond the micro format of Twitter. We’re reading the early years before they’ve settled into a style — it took me several years of blogging to find a natural voice and shake off what I thought blogging should sound like. I have a suspicion that over the next couple years anyone who started a newsletter hoping to make it big because “newsletters are hot” but don’t have much of their own voice or distinct perspective will trickle away. Or, maybe consistent writing practice will develop their voice?
People who haven’t written longform for the web might not have put much thought into what makes a successful piece of writing, as well as a body of work more thematically connected as I usually expect of a newsletter. My opinion is that most things can be made interesting if someone is passionate about their subject. I recall reading an entire email series about dust several years ago! It’s hard to stand out as an essayist — a bunch of the ones I signed up for exposed their mental health challenges in ways that felt like manipulative vulnerability, where their struggles were the *only* thing they shared. I wonder if that comes from transitioning from posting on social media to writing essays, and the tone for the forms isn’t the same? Seems like I’ve pared those back and kept more informational newsletters.
This Article was mentioned on tracydurnell.com