Some of you have probably heard about Substack’s “Nazi problem”. I was not going to write about it, but given a) I’m on this platform and b) it says a lot about current media and tech trends, I thought I’d give it a go. Tuesday’s newsletter is usually paywalled, but because this is a more “personal” edition it’s free to everyone. (I do still have a 20% January sale on, and paid subs make a huge difference in being able to keep The Addition going.)
A brief bit of background. This largely all started with a piece in The Atlantic called “Substack Has a Nazi Problem”. Given the general doom-mongering from that publication, you will forgive me for having initially skipped it. Anyway, reporter Jonathan M. Katz (who had a Substack newsletter until a few days ago) reported:
At least 16 of the newsletters that I reviewed have overt Nazi symbols, including the swastika and the sonnenrad, in their logos or in prominent graphics.
Utterly grim, one Nazi is one too many, but this is the internet and what Katz found is hardly a huge proportion of the number of publications using Susbtack.
Then Casey Newton, who writes the excellent Platformer newsletter, followed up. He ultimately reported six overtly Nazi publications to Substack, who eventually got rid of five of them. You should read his reporting and listen to him discuss the issue on the “Hard Fork” podcast.
All the while, Substack was saying that it doesn’t like Nazis but it was sticking to its free speech principles, although actually/differently enforcing its existing, pretty lax, moderation policies. It seems ridiculous that I have to say it, but obviously I don’t like Nazis either. Frankly, the company has made a total hash of the situation, something Adam Tinworth analysed really well here.
The easy bit is to say that Substack shouldn’t have explicit Nazis publishing and monetising on their platform. They shouldn’t. What worries me somewhat is the next cause that campaigners take up. Who else should be driven off this newsletter platform? Will that be as clear-cut a case as Nazis? We’ve had Twitter, which I myself have largely given up with since Elon Musk trashed the joint, and now Susbtack. What is the next platform that a vocal minority is going to decide we can’t use?
Back to Substack’s problems. It is a fantastic platform on which to build an email list and monetise it. You can easily start a podcast on here too. It is all incredibly simple and therefore very appealing. However, it is by no means the most financially efficient way of doing things. Substack takes 10% of every paid subscription (including those paid to Nazis,) whereas others just charge service fees and therefore cost less.
This row has shown newsletter writers who started on Substack that there are cheaper alternatives and given them a great excuse to move across to them.
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Mostly, though, Substack has seemingly got confused about what it is and wants to be. It was great as an out-of-the-box newsletter solution and probably should have stayed as that, but then it introduced Notes in a bid to try and add a social element.
Furthermore, it curates and recommends newsletters, adding to the network effect it is creating. Some of you found me via its recommendations! Publisher? Platform? What actually is Substack? Things have got… messy.
We’ve also learnt that being dependent on one service is bad for creators of all kinds, yet Substack seems to be trying to keep people in its bubble. That can be offputting.
In the future, for various reasons, I might move off Substack. One of those reasons might be because there are lots more Nazis found on here, to the extent that it is a more substantive issue than it seems to be now. Another might be because I want to change or consolidate my tech stack. It might just be because something better has launched.
I doubt I’ll be the only person who currently uses Substack thinking this, and that is what should really worry the company.