When writing is “decentralized” it just means it’s spread weakly out across the internet, it means different outlets and blogs and webpages all scrounging for attention via a thousand different streams—all of them used to living on the scraps, unprepared for the torrent of attention that centralization will bring. Neither RSS feeds nor hand-rolled email lists onboard the user into an ecosystem where everything has the same rules, the same ways of liking and commenting and subscribing, nor the same format, UI, layout, and mechanisms…
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 🤷♀️