Watching everyone launch Substack newsletters over the past months as the ground under Twitter has shifted due to Elon Musk's takeover and summary destruction of Twitter has made me frustrated and deeply concerned. See, there's already been a wave of Substack early adopters (myself included) who have left the platform based on its leadership's problematic choices. And I haven't seen any signs that they have learned from those choices and made changes. This will probably come too late to change any minds, since dozens of writers I admire and respect have launched newsletters on Substack in the past eight months, but I feel like it's important to share the context about why I left the platform.
A few years ago, I was a HUGE fan of Substack. I'd already been a big proponent of writers and other creative people building and owning their own email lists, rather than investing in platforms that keep the audience one builds locked up in a walled garden that's impossible to export. What's more, Substack was a new model, a platform that allowed a writer to write long-form and be paid by readers for that writing. I launched my own (free) newsletter there, and praised the model during The Next Page, the virtual conference I ran at Kickstarter.
A feminist cis woman and a trans guy, who made their names in the “feminist blogger” subculture of the ‘00s and early ’10s, as I did; those were the marquee names at Substack in 2018, and that’s why they reached out to me. I was sold on this platform with the idea that our values and core audiences were in sync. - Jude Doyle
I was concerned when I saw that Substack had raised $15.3M in funding in July 2019 and even more concerned when they raised another $65M in 2021. Prior to 2019, they'd only raised around $2M. Raising a substantial chunk of money like that meant that they would have to pay it back somehow, with interest. And the way that typically happens in tech is that a company looks for "an exit" which is either selling to a bigger company or doing an IPO (initial public offering) and listing itself on the stock exchange. Either of those things forces a company to act in very specific ways, prioritizing looking good on paper in the short term over creating a solid sustainable company that's good for its users—in this case, writers and readers. Tech Crunch questioned whether the $650M valuation in the Series B funding round was realistic.
On the back of these two ~$80M funding rounds, Substack started paying select writers a sort of advance to launch newsletters, calling it Substack Pro. To me, this gave off echoes of Medium launching and changing business models and pivoting til they'd come full circle a few times. Ultimately, with Medium, journalists got hurt and some great publications got their funding yanked out from under them.
But beyond my historically-informed suspicion any time a company does something that seems too good to be true, there was something else at play.
Substack has become famous for giving massive advances — the kind that were never once offered to me or my colleagues, not up front and not after the platform took off — to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.
Increasingly, Substack is tolerating and funding extreme trans-eliminationist rhetoric: They host Jesse Singal, a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry. I would list Jesse’s targets, but at this point, I don’t know a trans woman in media who doesn’t have a story. Graham Lineham is a transphobic bigot so extreme and abhorrent that he’s been permanently banned from Twitter, Medium, and basically every platform but the one I’m using to talk to you right now. He reportedly considers Substack a major source of income. -Jude Doyle
Reminder: this was all happening in 2021, before Substack raised $65M additional dollars, and before Elon Musk bought Twitter and the current Substack influx happened. We all knew. There were numerous high profile posts and articles about it.
So I have a choice to make, a choice that neither I nor any gender-marginalized person should ever have to make: Either I walk away from a necessary income stream and creative outlet, or I stay and allow my work to fund abuse, harassment, misogyny, and a movement that wants trans people silenced, impoverished, invisible and dead. -Jude Doyle
So back in 2021, trans and feminist authors like like Sarah Gailey, and Annalee Newitz moved to other platforms, such as Ghost.io (like Jude Doyle) and Buttondown, which is the platform I ultimately chose.
And Substack's leadership have made it clear that they are totally fine with how things are.
Substack didn't just hold firm, it doubled down. When Netflix got slammed for a Dave Chappelle comedy special with transphobic material, Best declared at a Wall Street Journal conference, “Dave, if you’re listening, come to Substack.” —Vanity Fair
Carr, McKenzie’s former PandoDaily editor, shared a series of emails he exchanged with McKenzie last year after Carr discontinued his Substack. “I get the free speech argument but there has to be a line. Surely,” Carr wrote. “I think you’ve hit upon the dilemma that’s at the center of everything right now: anti-vaxxing, violent sedition, abortion, gun control, trans rights and of course tech. At what point does someone’s right to free speech outweigh another’s right to live without fearing for their lives? At what point do people like you and me have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable from violent bullies?” —Vanity Fair
I realized I couldn't in good conscience put my (free) labor into something that benefited an organization that harmed vulnerable people as a business practice and editorial policy.
I've been trying out Buttondown for the past year, and one thing I really appreciate about the platform is that their business model is oriented around providing value. I can't find the exact quote anymore, since Buttondown has upgraded a lot since I started using it, but when I began, there was a quote on the pricing page about why they use a flat fee rather than taking a percentage of newsletter subscriptions, and the gist was that charging for the service aligns their incentives the right way, so they continue providing a good service to the people who use it. Substack's incentives are definitely tilted toward bringing on and highlighting people whose words are likely to go viral, which means some inflammatory rhetoric is good for business.
Buttondown is not as slick as Substack, but I'm not looking for slick, I'm looking for the best platform that fits my needs at the intersection of functional and ethical.