Substack Considered Harmful

"Echo and the Lightman" by duane.schoon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To
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Editor's Note: I used ChatGPT to help me be less of a windbag. The intent, if not the exact phrasing, is entirely mine.

Setting The Scene

In my previous post I wrote about my waning interest in contemporary politics due to the disproportionate toll it takes on my time, energy and well being.

The terminus on that journey of realization turned out to be the simple concrete act of turning off a bunch of politics streams I had coming into my information feed. Among them were a number of Substacks.

The resulting mental breathing room enabled me to integrate a number of parallel trains of thought whose tracks might never have crossed otherwise.

As a technologist, I feel very strongly that ethics are important. It's important that as individuals we take personal responsibility for the ethical outcomes from what we build. I also think it behooves us as a community to at least be mindful of the ethical outcomes of what we build as a community.

You would have to be living under a rock not to have at least encountered the idea that many of the algorithmically driven social media platforms are having a net corrosive effect on our health, both as a society and as individuals. I recently read an excellent book on the topic entitled Social Warming: The Dangerous and Polarising Effects of Social Media. Far from being some kind of paranoid neo-luddite screed, this is a very thoughtful and erudite examination of how these algorithms mesh with the low level "herd" aspects of human behavior to disastrous effect. It's a compelling and accessible read that I recommend to everyone.

While the book and much of the modern discourse on this topic rightly surround platforms like Facebook and, sadly, increasingly Twitter, platforms like Substack which might seem to provide ready solutions may be causing some unique problems of its own.

Harmful, You Say?

So, let's talk about Substack. For the uninitiated, this is a platform where pundits, journalists, and generally anyone who wants to write can publish their short or long form work and have it be read by "subscribers". Most offer "tiers" where free tier folks get the occasionally throw-away post and paid subscribers get "The Good Stuff" which may include various perks.

Sounds good, right? There needs to be a platform where independent journalists, deplatformed pundits and others can exercise their constitutionally granted rights of free speech. That IS good, at least on the face of it.

I see a number of problems, ranging from the merely annoying to potentially quite serious.

Frankly My Dear, You Still Need an Editor

Traditionally when a writer submits their work for publication, whether to a newspaper, magazine, or even an organization's blog or newsletter, an editor carefully proof-reads the piece, both for obvious problems like grammar and spelling errors, but perhaps even more importantly for conciseness and suitability to task. Does the piece live up to the name on the masthead? Will it repay the reader for their contribution in time and effort?

These are important questions, and I often find myself wondering if many Substack writers as them of themselves at all anymore.

I don't really care what manner of fun T-shirts you're wearing these days, or that you feel persecuted by the mainstream press who unfairly cancelled you. These are commiseration best performed with friends over a beverage of choice rather than broadcast to a larger audience.

Am I saying that every substack writer suffers from this? No. I know of at least 1 or 2 who don't, and I suepect that either they've retained an editor or the have an in-built talent for it themselves.

Amplified Echo Chambers Are Not The Answer

One of the problems that's been much discussed but to my mind poorly understood is the tendency for many modern social media platforms to create hyper-polarized tribes or herds, all engaging in certain very self similar brands of rhetoric.

While Substack does in fact reduce the size of each group, it does nothing to combat the information bubbles that people form around themselves and their tribe.

Creating a multitude of cults of personality, each complete with its own mimetic megaphone and echo chamber seems like a recipe for trouble.

Only this time,everyone thinks they're being open minded and erudite.

More Commons, Fewer Megaphones

One of the gifts the early internet bestowed upon its participants was an appreciation for how beautiful communities can be in the small.

In those early days, forums like USENET and bulletin board systems created safe spaces where people could interact with people of all walks of life without regard to their political or religious beliefs.

While Substack might appear similar, I maintain that there are some very crucial differences, most particularly the one way nature of the platform. Sure, readers can participate and comment on what's written, but the entire enterprise is centered around one person. One mind. One set of beliefs and tribal alliances.

let's Build Small, Beautiful Communities!

As technologists, we have a unique opoprtunity to help shape the nature of online life. I'm not suggesting that we resurrect the old models, but instead build new ones that actually work for our users and don't destroy society in the balance.

Slack and Discord are actually great examples of this, as are blogs. I look forward to finding other creative ways to help build a better world one tiny community at a time through technology :)