On Recent Developments at Substack
Guys, I know.
Many people have reached out to me to discuss Substack’s not-always-stellar history of managing a diverse breadth of opinions and/or policies on monetization.
Let me make it clear: This was always an issue, and I have always been aware of it. It’s gotten worse of late. And now I just feel like Marc Maron trying to figure out what to do with his friends who voted for Trump.
So what, as I keep being asked, am I going to do about it? Guys, I don’t know yet.
For the last year, I’ve taken the stance that there are basically no good actors on the internet, particularly in terms of enormous global sites with VC funding backing them, and especially enormous global sites with VC funding that exist primarily or exclusively as blank spaces for people to use for self-expression. Since the content we create for those sites directly and continually, dynamically, determines their character, instantly fleeing any site that also hosts an asshole does nothing but abdicate any and all online spaces to become the exclusive domain of committed assholes.
Citation: Twitter, and also everything else always.
On top of that, I’ve always been conscious that, as a marginalized person on a couple of axes, I rely on the hands-off policies of those same sites in order to be able to freely use my own voice in an increasingly-rigid political culture that would really like it if me and mine, and a lot of others less privileged than me and mine, would holistically shut the fuck up.
Yes, Substack has and does allow dipshit fascist transphobic and otherwise morally-cancerous fuckgiblets to post freely and make money from their platform. They also allow a lot of marginalized creators to flourish and make a livelihood here. Like every other site I’ve ever known, all of whom have been incredibly reluctant to crack down on extreme right-wing content despite that very policy allowing it to proliferate wildly and bring us to a very bad historical place. Do I want them to kick out anyone making money on hate? Yep. Do I understand the slippery slope argument about free speech? That it’s much easier to take no stance and allow everything, trusting the users to sort it out, than to take the step of defining what opinions can be allowed to be heard? Yep.
I do not know if I’m going to stay here. I just don’t know. I came to Substack because of the Twitter diaspora. I managed to build a small audience, built mostly on hating fascism and idiocy. I like the community I and all of you have built here and I’m reluctant to migrate and lose people. But I don’t want to support the Badness by being here. And yet, if I go, does that not just abandon another space because bad people are also here, handing them control of yet another hugely-recognized platform, control they could never achieve on their own just on numbers and popularity, while the people who have any moral compass whatsoever have to continually start over from scratch?
Which one helps the goblin horde more, staying or going?
I just don’t know.
I’m not afraid of a who-can-yell-louder fight, because I’m a loud-ass bitch. I hate the fact that every time Nazis pop up anywhere and the infrastructure of the site doesn’t immediately sign up to be the ones to handle them for us, take the heat for handling them (and if we’re being honest there’s a lot of heat for that), and also never set foot out of line in handling us, we voluntarily scatter and give them literally the most precious resource they could want and cannot get any other way with all the money in the world: online real estate in which the name on the door grants them legitimacy, moral standing, and mainstream visibility they could never build on their own.
It feels like helping them bait a trap: normal people with jobs and busy schedules go to sites like Substack and Twitter because they have a good reputation as a place to find truth, fun, community, and/or good-faith intellectual engagement. But once they’re in, they find little but gibbering Lovecraftian pain-worshipping madness in there because all the sensible people left ages ago. But most everyday normal humans with jobs and schedules don’t hear about the controversies that highly-online creators do, and are pressured to take a stance on. So they just think the madness must be what sensible people are saying these days, since that’s what those sites built themselves on: being a free and open venue for professional, interesting, smart, and at least nominally not bug-eyed monsters to say thoughtful or otherwise entertaining things. Eventually people figure it out, but reputations take years to die, and in the meantime a whole shit-ton of regular everyday humans with jobs and schedules have been radicalized because there wasn’t anybody left on the reputational sites to tell the truth.
And the sensible oh-so-progressive very-smart set is once again struggling to rebuild on five-to-seven other indie sites no one’s visiting yet, all of whom will eventually platform the Badness one way or another and force us to make more decisions, but we all feel pretty virtuous about it so it’s fine, right?
I’m just not sure the right thing to do is shut it all down here. Everyone seems to have just accepted digital inertia and gone back to Twitter with their tails between their legs, despite everything in that pit getting worse every single day, and no I won’t call it X, what a terrible thing to do to a perfectly good letter. It doesn’t escape my notice that almost everyone who’s talked to me about Substack hitting itself in the face with a rake all the time has done so on Twitter, a site orders of magnitude worse in this Year of Our Overlords 2024 by any measure you care to dream up.
It is exhausting just trying to exist with any level of moral consistency online nowadays. And the people who keep being handed the keys to several kingdoms don’t ever bother to worry about it. They just let us tear ourselves apart trying to do the right thing while they feast. It’s all a game to them. It’s not remotely a game to us. So there’s no equivalence.
But if all a Nazi has to do to disperse and thus at least temporarily silence legions of established free voices is make a free account on a free website, we are fucked. Because none of them will ever flee a platform that hosts leftists or even moderate rhetoric. They love it when we’re concentrated in one place where they can dive in and start gnawing on the wires. It’s no fun at all to just hang out with other Nazis, other Nazis never get upset or hurt, and if no one’s getting upset or hurt, it makes Nazis sad and bored. They’ll follow us wherever we go. They literally followed us here from Twitter, and they’ll follow us to the next one, whereupon we’ll run as soon as they find us and set up shop.
And while these sites could ban these users, let’s be real, most of them won’t, because capitalism, sure, but also because that level of moderation is a ton of work with no best practices framework anyone can agree on. And the result of all that work will never be praise, oh good god no, we here on the left do not praise brave, good actions, we take them as the new bare minimum, ignore or actively disdain the people who stood up and tried to do what we asked, then demand more. (Remember I said this as the election heats up because it’s gonna be a very upsetting theme.)
So the goblins will win. Over and over.
But I still don’t know what I should do. Because I don’t feel good about staying and I don’t feel good about going and I feel worst about letting all this make me go quiet as its done for a bit now. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to post anything new because Substack taking the easy way out somehow makes me a bad person for typing into this text box instead of another one. And yeah, Buttondown seems like a good alternative for now, despite the name which I very much dislike. They claim all of you would migrate over there, but I kind of doubt that’s how anything works. My Patreon has never stopped being active and my main hub, and I’ve always cross-posted a lot of Substack material there, though never all, out of respect for those who pay to subscribe to both. Nevertheless, I very nearly pulled the plug the other day and shifted to Buttondown—but I just can’t shake the sense that giving up over and over is just that. Giving up. Over and over.
So I’m leaving the comments open to discuss it. I’m open to being convinced, either way. I don’t suppose it matters all that much what an individual user like me does or does not do, but if I believe anything, I do believe everything matters, at least in aggregate, and I am just extremely torn.
Cue the music. You know how it goes.
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