Why You Should Be on Substack
Building a readership, and how markets and innovation can help protect free speech online
I recently helped convince Bryan Caplan to get on Substack. We started talking about this a few months ago when I noticed that, despite being a major fan of his work, I had almost completely stopped reading his blog. More and more, I was reading things on Substack that I probably wouldn’t have given a chance to before, while missing things from even my favorite writers when they were being published somewhere else.
Having convinced Bryan, I’m going to try to convince others too. This is in part for self-interested reasons. I don’t want to miss valuable content, and ideally would like everything I read to be on one convenient app. Moreover, Substack has shown an impressive commitment to free speech so far, and I think it’s better for our public discourse if blogs come to have more of a role to play in it relative to less intelligent sources of content like cable news and Twitter. In case you’re wondering, Substack is not paying me for this piece, so I’m writing it out of conviction given my experience with the product and thoughts about what can improve public discourse and help free speech.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate how important convenient access now is for online products given the proliferation of news and entertainment options. For example, I subscribe to three streaming services: Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix. I’ll often watch the first two when I know what show or movie I’m looking for. But when it comes time to “app surf” and look for new content, I find myself gravitating more and more towards Netflix. This is not because I’m sure their shows and movies are better, though I suspect they might be, but because I am mostly otherwise indifferent between surfing on one app versus another and therefore go with the one with the most frictionless experience. If it takes say three seconds to start playing a new show on Netflix and ten seconds on Amazon Prime, and I only have a few minutes to app surf a day, then Netflix gives me more than three times the return on my time. My cable provider, Charter Spectrum, is much worse on this front than any streaming app, and although I used to browse through the TV guide display to find new and interesting shows, I practically never do that now.
The same principle applies to where I get my news. Throughout much of my adult life, I’ve subscribed to three newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. A decade ago I would wait until I got each newspaper in my inbox every morning and read what I thought looked interesting. Then they all got apps, and those became a much more convenient way to keep up with the news. The NYT was the first to develop a really good one, and I found myself reading more of that paper and less of the other two. Until recently the WP app was particularly bad. Every time I clicked on a story, it was basically a crapshoot as to whether I was still even logged in. In the last couple of months, the WP unveiled a brand new app that is much easier to use, and it is now competing with the NYT as my main source of news.
The secret to the success of Substack is that, like Netflix, it has perfected the frictionless experience. This is true for both consumers and producers of content. Some months ago, I was talking to an academic with a blog, and I told her she should get on Substack because I liked the fact that it was so easy to sign up for e-mails. She told me that I could just go to her WordPress site, scroll or direct my eyes to the right place, and subscribe to her blog too. What’s the big deal? Sounds like the same thing. I tried to get through to her that I’m a very busy guy who already finds it difficult to keep up with everything I want to read, and I’m sure other potential readers are in the same position, so five seconds versus one second to sign up for a blog is a big difference. Also, it’s not just the sign-up. WordPress seemed like an amazing and innovative platform a decade ago, but using it today feels like one’s time and attention are constantly being taxed with regard to almost everything about the experience. Relatedly, I used to rely on RSS, but I one day got a new computer and it stopped working. I spent maybe a few minutes trying to figure out what happened, and then moved on and just stopped following a few blogs I used to like.
Now, to be honest, if she were Tyler Cowen, I would have probably taken the five seconds to sign up for her blog, and been willing to visit the site every now and then. With Bryan, I did try to sign up to receive his e-mails, but the system had a glitch and I gave up. But for someone I have never read before, a slight burden will often make all the difference as to whether or not I will end up giving them a chance.
The case for Substack became even stronger with the release of its app just last month. It’s at least as good as those of the NYT and WP, and provides a much better experience than I got when I used to send all my Substacks to an e-mail folder and then scroll through it every now and then. I’ve never once been logged out of Substack against my will, whether on the app or through my browser, which is something that is extremely rare for any website. They even got rid of passwords! When I need to log in on a new device or browser, they simply send a link through e-mail. Yes, in theory using passwords should be no big deal now, as they are automatically saved in your browser. In theory. In practice, perhaps a quarter of the time when I try to log in with a password I think I’ve previously saved, something goes wrong.
It’s the same thing from the side of being a writer. The style of the site is minimalist, with a few necessary buttons at the top of the page I am writing on now. Every few seconds, it automatically saves what I’ve been doing. When I want to copy and paste a graphic from somewhere else, it works better than other sites. People are able to find my Substack easily through Twitter, and it took practically no time to integrate my profiles across both platforms together.
None of this would matter if a lot of great writers were not already on the platform. The best app in the world is useless if it doesn’t have good content. Luckily, there is no shortage of good writers on Substack now, creating a network effect that will only grow over time.
All of this means that if you’re already an established writer that I enjoy reading, please get on Substack so I don’t miss anything new (I’m talking to you, Tanner Greer and Steve Hsu). Also, you should probably think about transferring your archive. If you’re a new writer who hopes to break through, I’m always happy to read and promote new and underappreciated content, but I need to see it first, and I’m unlikely to if you’re publishing anywhere else.
Putting aside the experience of using the product, one reason I’m happy to write an article like this is that Substack has been the largest platform of late to take an explicitly pro-free speech position when it comes to content moderation.
Like many others, I’ve been in recent years disturbed by big tech censorship, but not disturbed enough to stop using Google, YouTube, or Twitter, which are still great and useful products. If there were realistic alternatives that protected free speech, I would prefer them, but again, life is short, I’m very busy, and convenience matters a lot. There have been a lot of calls in recent years to use the heavy hand of government to create a level playing field for conservatives and dissident liberals online. This has often been accompanied by curt dismissals of opponents of government intervention through sarcastic refrains like you can’t “build your own Google.” The growing success of Substack shows that markets can have an important role to play here. No, Substack didn’t recreate and replace Google, but until recently blogging was generally acknowledged to be a dying art form after a golden age in the early days of the internet. Substack has helped bring it back, and more independent and interesting voices seem to be gaining at the expense of established media outlets and those who work best with 280 characters or less. This shows that there is still room for dynamism and innovation to help solve problems that seem intractable. Sometimes, a market solution doesn’t involve making a carbon copy of an established product, but creating something completely new, or in this case resurrecting a practice that appeared to be on the decline. Those opposed to big tech censorship have been too quick to recommend running to the government for help – even in cases where it’s likely to make the problem worse – while discounting solutions that rely on market mechanisms. Elon Musk recently becoming the largest owner of Twitter is another reason to be optimistic.
All that being said, Substack can still improve. Most importantly, it needs to work on letting people become paid subscribers to blogs through the app. Recently I got to the bottom of a post and saw that I needed to subscribe in order to read the rest. It was either impossible to do so on the app, or in what amounts to the same thing, I couldn’t figure out how to do it within two seconds, which meant I moved on. If more people start reading posts through the app but subscribing through it remains difficult or impossible, that is going to be very bad for the platform.
The app also needs a desktop version. Finally, when I look at graphics on the app and I turn my phone sideways, the pictures don’t move, which makes some charts and figures very hard to read. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to text myself an article from the app and open it in a browser in order to understand a graphic.
Compared to almost anything else on the internet, however, these problems are minor, and my experience with Substack gives me confidence that their engineers will soon solve them.
I suspect the paid subscriber problem is due in large part to Apple’s restrictive iOS TOS. But reader apps now have the ability to have a link to send the person out to the Regular Web and do the subscription there. I’m sure it’s on Substack’s app dev to-do list
As much as I love a new platform committed to free speech, the business model is absolutely terrible. Bundling exists for a reason: a simple economics lesson shows it benefits both the suppliers and the consumers.
I can't justify paying $50-$100 per year for one writer when for that price I can get The Atlantic or most of the cost of NYT/WSJ. All my favorite writers are on substack but I don't pay for any. We live in an age of abundance; just as you won't spend 10 seconds to subscribe for free to a new blog, I won't pull out my credit card when there are hundreds of great free articles in my inbox, and thousands with my subscriptions to NYT/WSJ/Atlantic.
If someone does pay, it's because they're obsessed with you and already agree with everything you say. Paywalling articles therefore reduces your reach and influence to almost zero. It's sad how many great articles are now being read by so few because of paywalls. Fortunately you realize this and operate on a patronage model, but that's not viable for most.
The solution already exists: a magazine (gasp!). I would happily pay $200/year or maybe more to get access to 20-100 excellent substack writers, some of whom I mostly agree with and some I do not. Substack could offer an "unlimited" plan (not sure how/if that would work) or writers could bundle themselves like The Dispatch.
The problem is not independent subscriptions, but free speech. Andrew Sullivan got fired and you would too if you worked for a mainstream publication. All we need is a quality magazine committed to diverse viewpoints, not a whole new business model.