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Substack Embraces Tolerance

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Will Duffield

Most platforms begin with few rules and create new policies in response to particular controversies and crises. A platform’s early content moderation decisions set the tone for later ones. Early platform choices set internal precedent, external expectations, and render the platform more or less appealing to certain subsets of users.

Substack has passed through its first major moderation controversy without altering its content policies. Substack could reject calls to moderate more because, compared to other social media platforms, it is structured more like a print publication. This design decision eliminates many on-platforms opportunities for immediate engagement and interpersonal conflict.

Substack is a service that offers writers the ability to publish paid email newsletters, managing user accounts, payment processing, and distribution. It looks a lot like traditional journalism or opinion writing, albeit without the oversight or control usually provided by editors.

Substack has long been home to small communities of activists of all stripes. For the most part, opposing parties do not interact, beyond sniping at one another in paragraph length salvos often read only by their respective subscribers. Recently, several liberal writers who have broken with the progressive party line, particularly on transgender issues, have recently drawn considerable audiences to Substack. Feminist writer Jude Sady Doyle objected to Substack paying purportedly anti-trans writers advances via its Substack Pro program, naming Matt Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald, Jessie Signal, and Freddie deBoer. She issued an ultimatum to the platform, echoed by other activists – if Substack did not prohibit purportedly trans-exclusionary writing, Doyle would leave. Substack refused to budge, and the frustrated activists have exited. Email is, after all, an open protocol.

In calls for more restrictive platform policies, gatekeeping and user experience concerns are often comingled. Complaints will cite speech that might present a danger if believed or acted upon, such as misinformation, alongside harassing or merely offensive speech that creates an unpleasant experience for other users. However, in providing a platform for newsletters rather than conversation, Substack has reimposed elements of print culture on social media, leaving little room for the user experience rationale.

L.M. Sacasas contends that disagreement in print is less volatile than face-to-face argument, because print distances the speaker from his words.

writing, and especially print, renders the word seemingly inert and thing-like. It tames the word in a very specific sense: by removing it from the potentially volatile and emotionally laden context of the face-to-face encounter . . . experientially, it is one thing to encounter this content in written form at a temporal and spatial remove from the author, whose very significance becomes dubious, and it is another to encounter these words directly and immediately from the mouth of the speaker, whose personal significance is unavoidable.”

Even when text-based, social media narrows the distance between author, text, and reader. On Twitter, an avatar is appended to every message, reminding readers of the tweet’s author, and his follower count. Crucially, a means to immediately and publicly respond is also attached. This is what gives Twitter it’s incredible speed, mass virality, and, yes, vicious real-time spats between public figures. However, the resulting scrum looks more like a text-based shouting match than an exchange of letters.

Substack does away with these features. It provides no immediate opportunity for response, nor does it algorithmically promote popular newsletters. Users don’t receive anything they haven’t explicitly opted in to, and beyond hyperlinks, writers cannot engage with one another. Substack has rules, but it offers few opportunities to violate them. While the platform prohibits threats, harassment, calls for violence, and the publication of private information, it need only worry about violations within long-form newsletters.

To be fair, Substack may benefit from the existence of platforms for direct engagement, effectively offshoring some conflict between writers. Some of the complaints by departing writers involved Twitter “mentions”. Nevertheless, in most circumstances, this doesn’t create a moderation problem for Substack. While conflicts between Substack writers and institutional journalists make for good Twitter moments, Substack is naturally inclined to side with those who have jumped-ship to their service.

As a result, demands made of Substack have, thus far, either appealed exclusively to gatekeeping concerns, or contorted the usual user experience argument beyond recognition.

UCLA Professor Sarah T. Roberts called Substack “a dangerous direct threat” to journalism, arguing that Substack writers, unbound by newsroom norms and oversight, will undermine public faith in newsgathering institutions. While Substack’s popularity is more likely an effect, rather than a cause, of declining trust in traditional journalism, this is at least a relevant concern.

In the controversy over Jesse Signal and Glenn Greenwald’s use of the platform, however, their presence was presented as a user experience concern. Jude Sady Doyle argued that because Substack allegedly used writers’ fees to fund its Substack Pro program (Substack has stated that it does not fund Substack Pro advances with writers’ fees) it implicated her in the ongoing threat Signal and Greenwald ostensibly pose to transgender people. She writes, “by using the platform, I am inevitably enmeshing myself in that system of oppression, working for the people who are working for our destruction,” making her continued use of the platform untenable. This is far from a traditional user experience complaint. While Greenwald and Signal can use Substack to write things Doyle disagrees with, their use of the platform does not in any way intrude upon or interfere with her use. While Doyle might find sharing a platform with such writers intolerable, without features that shrink the distance between author, text, and reader, this concern seems like mere intolerance.

If Substack is to maintain its distance, it must take care not to reintroduce opportunities for the sort of direct, conversational interaction that gives rise to conflict, and urgency to calls for moderation. It’s recent expansion of the comments section feature toes this line. While comments necessarily offer an avenue for direct response, they had long been limited to paying subscribers. In February, they allowed authors to open comments to non-paying followers who necessarily have less skin the game. This lowers the barrier to trolling, as would-be-comment trolls no longer need to pay for posting privileges, although authors may still turn off comments entirely, or maintain the old subscribers-only rule. Nevertheless, the more Substack provides avenues for direct or immediate feedback and engagement, the more it will have to resolve conflicts between users.

If anything, when creating new avenues of interaction, Substack should focus on opportunities for engagement between written works, rather than immediate conversations between authors or readers. Tanner Greer has criticized Substack’s subscription model for siloing writers.

By default, Substack splits intellectual activity into vertical silos, with readers at the bottom and authors at the top but no horizontal connections between them. In a world where most content exists behind paywalls and is distributed through private channels, neither the high tempo conversations driven by twitter virality nor the blogophere’s slower cycle of post and response will be possible.

When most content is available only to subscribers, most writers, or even most writers within a particular subculture or specialty, will not be able to keep up with one another’s work. Substack might offer some affordances for links between Substack pieces. This approach would increase opportunities for cross-citation and interaction between writers while maintaining the distance between author and text that the service has cultivated.

Thus far, Substack’s literary, newsletter model has limited opportunities for direct engagement, and with them, the conflict that so often inspires impassioned reactions, conflict, and moderation demands. However, purely gatekeeping concerns, especially those related to misinformation, won’t go away, and Substack will likely face increasing pressure to police off-platform conflicts between writers. If Substack can maintain its print culture dynamics as it scales and adds features, this early precedent will position it well to resist future demands.


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