Substack or Bust
A centralized blogging platform has evolved into the 'trifecta for online writers.' What are the consequences of not joining?
“If you’re not on Substack, there’s a good chance I won’t read your writing.”
Month by month in 2022, I heard this sentiment more and more. Honestly, it irked me. It felt like Substack betrayed the spirit of independent publishing.
I looked back through my daily logs and found times when I called the platform ‘slimy’ and even ‘fascist.’ A centralized blogging platform is taking over. They’ve spawned a gravitational force that’s sucking in attention and warping habits. They’re making it impossible for readers and writers to resist.
But on day one of 2023 (after weeks of consideration), I caved. I opened my mind, updated my models, and jumped in.
Personally: I just decommissioned my website and moved everything onto Substack.
Philosophically: It feels like this platform is solving an age-old problem of the Internet.
The spirit of self-publishing
Over the last two years, I looked at online writing from an angle of independence. I wanted to own my website, domain, UX, aesthetics, and email list. Basically: autonomy. I saw my website as a piece of digital real estate that I’d own forever. I’d design the museum and the timeless objects that live in it.
In my circles, it's considered bad form to host your writing on social networks.
A gatekeeper owns your audience and experience. You blend in with an ocean of templates. Sure, Twitter & Substack are still isolated mini-games to redirect attention back to your site, but it’s no place to lay your foundations. These platforms fade in and out like fashion. As they come and go, creators shift from bandwagon to bandwagon. Look at Medium.
My error was conflating Substack with Medium. They’re both ‘social networks for blogging,’ right?
Substack is evolving faster than I can update my model of it. It’s no longer just an ‘email newsletter’ platform. It’s the trifecta for online writers: email distribution, network effects, and a personal website. It’s an all-in-one solution. This wasn’t the case a few months ago.
In case you’re out of the loop, here are 7 ways that Substack fuses features and defies categories:
You own your audience — Social networks don’t typically enable this. The social graph is usually based on accounts, not email addresses. In Medium and Twitter, your audience is trapped in the network. On Substack, you can export your subscriber list as a .CSV and import it somewhere else. There’s no lock-in risk.
Custom domains — This has been out since October 2020, but most people don’t know about it or use it. It costs a one-time fee of $50. This is a no-brainer (the starter plan on Ghost is $100+ a year). A custom domain on Substack gives you a dual benefit: domain authority paired with Substack’s discovery engine.
Navigation bar — This one’s a big unlock. Most Substack’s have “Home | Archive | About” in their navigation bar. This causes all pages to look the same. Now you can customize this bar to make it feel like your own place. You can build pages for your business, photography, or whatever you need. I have one page for my Logs (a public real-time journal), and another for Links (my favorite articles I read each month). You can hide the “Archive” and “About” pages, and even add tabs for your essay categories.
Essay categories — Another upgrade this year is the ability to use essay categories. A Substack profile is typically a reverse chronological feed of all posts, highlighting the recent. Now you can subdivide your portfolio and guide your readers. I’ve broken my writing into 5 ‘sections’ (each with its own URL): Craft, Creators, Culture, Stories, Updates.
Aesthetics — A past criticism of the platform is that all Substacks look boring, flat, and identical. At the start of the year, you could pick from 1 of 3 layouts. Now you can also customize your background/accent color and pick from 1 of 5 fonts (Mono font FTW). Based on a post in December 2022, it looks like they’re in the early stages of letting creators build custom websites on top of Substack’s network. This was surrounded by controversy since they used Ghost’s code without credit, but it points to a future where your front-end is completely flexible.
Comment section — Personal websites usually have no comment module, or if they do, it’s crickets. On Substack, it’s the norm to see articles bursting with likes and comments on the bottom. Instead of essay writing being a one-way broadcast, it turns it into a conversation. Writing is social.
Growth features — Substack network effects are responsible for 40% of free subscriptions for the average writer (up from 10% at the start of the year). This is nuts, but it also makes sense given all the new features we’ve seen come out. Writers can recommend each other and piggyback off each other’s audience growth. Also, the rise of mentions and cross-posting are starting to make this feel like a true social network for long-form.
Can centralization be liberating?
Substack is creating a product so good, it’s getting harder for writers to resist. Is centralization bad? In All writing is centralizing on Substack by, he unpacks how it’s not just inevitable, it’s for the better.
“Almost everyone is radically underestimating the upsides of this centralization of writers onto one website, how powerfully it will amplify the voices of those who take advantage of it, and the benefits it will bring both authors and readers when Substack has hoovered up not just bloggers, but a significant portion of the traditional publishing world as well.”
If Substack goes the way of YouTube and Spotify, we might reach a point where it would be a mistake to not be on the platform. If you’re not where the readers are, you’re going to be left behind. It’s Substack or bust.
As a writer who has found great joy in building my personal website, I’ve felt tension between independence and a platform. But the more I let it sit, the more I became open to Substack’s model of centralization. Erik Hoel describes their position as “digital federalism,” or a kind of “centralized decentralization.”
To keep it simple, Substack has less ‘bad guy vibes’ than other centralized platforms (Facebook, TikTok, and co.). Centralized platforms typically feel like feudal landlords. They lock in your audience, sell your data, and give you a rigid concrete template that you're forced to operate in. It’s a required sacrifice, because the platform owns the readers.
But Substack has a different attitude. They 1) give you a plot of land, 2) let you do what you want with it, 3) build the roads to get people to your land, and 4) tax you if you make money off it.
The whole thing feels pretty American.
The Internet has struggled to find its balance between decentralization and centralization. Either it’s a non-cohesive spattering of island sites, or a digital tyranny by a billion dollar company. This feels like a solid compromise.
In 2023, I’m committing to Substack.
I’m using the new year, this new platform, and my existing momentum to re-ignite my writing practice.
I’m embodying the phrase “writing is social.” I want to step up and be a better citizen of the Internet. I want to engage with other writers, comment on their work, feature their essays, collaborate on topics, and maybe even co-write some essays.
I’m committing to meaty essays (~1,500 words and up). I did a lot of long-form editing last year, but I didn’t carve out the space to write essays for myself. While I published almost 200,000 words, it was mostly in the form of logs, newsletters, and meta-reflections. I have whale-scale ideas swimming around my head, and this is the year I get them out.
I’m reviving my archive of old essays. I’ve been publishing to my site for two years, but I’ve fumbled in distribution. Of my ~150 posts, I migrated my favorite 28 onto Substack. These are the ideas I still have conviction in. Little by little, I might edit and re-distribute some of my older work.
Subscribe here for free to get new posts to your email inbox or Substack app.
A closing quote from Erik Hoel:
So where is a “literary wave” in a “cultural growth industry” you can ride? Here. Probably here. Certainly, it’s the clearest I’ve seen in my lifetime. And one might wonder why it didn’t happen before for writing on the internet, given how adroitly we can manipulate, send, store, and share the written word, but I think that’s because the sort of Big Cultural Wave I’m talking about requires compounding, and a streamlined centralized service that’s reached its tipping point provides that.
How do you feel about the latest evolution of Substack?
Given the new features, would you consider using Substack as your sole online home?
To the Substack veterans here – what’s something a noob like me should keep in mind?
Great to see you here Michael. Although I’ve been here for over a year (since October 2021, end of WoP 7) it is refreshing to read what a newcomer broadly thinks about the migration process in 2023. I found Substack, by a significant factor, calmed my designer brain (which seeks to forever want to tweak and improve on non-writing related things of the writing experience) and allowed me to just hit publish. I have great affinity for the clean and simple substack draft environment, it’s seems to put my mind in the right frame for writing, just like seeing delicious food can make one salivate in preparation of eating. The network effects on the platform are noticeable even for a small writer like myself. And the heart button... Just perfection. Oh and TIL one can customize the nav bar! Anyways, excellent breakdown and welcome.
Y E S
For me, writing is social. The comments section on my newsletter has been on fire recently, and that helps with motivation for when I am in the dip. I'm opting out of the private chat function on Substack at this point.