Substack makes the latest chapter of The Culling easy!

NOTE: This post is updated semi-regularly with any relevant news on the mentioned newsletters.

Substack has been in the tech/media news lately, for all the wrong reasons. Their position on moderation can be roughly summed up as:

  • Sex is bad
  • Incitement to violence is bad
  • Everything else, including actual Nazis, is OK!

After re-affirming that they would not actively moderate content on their platform, and only offering to remove a few newsletters specifically brought to their attention, a number of prominent newsletters opted to leave Substack, with most moving to Ghost, which, unlike Substack, is not a platform, just a company that provides a blog/platform service and that’s about it. Others went to Buttondown1My own piddly newsletter, recently renamed Doodlings and Noodlings, is debuting on Buttondown this very month, Beehiiv, other hosts or moved to self-hosting.

My stance on this situation is:

  • Substack is free to choose whom they host on their platform
  • I, likewise, can choose to not have any paid subscriptions on Substack, since my payments are helping to fund a lot of hate. See here for details: All the garbage I found on Substack in 1 hour
  • I also can choose to move my own newsletter elsewhere, which I have done

I’ve gone a step further now, by unsubscribing to all free Substack newsletters. In every case, I have written a polite message to the newsletter author letting them know why I have unsubbed. I’m hoping some of them will switch to other hosts, but at this point I think the ones who haven’t are probably leaning more toward not moving. And that’s their choice–as is mine to unsub!

I’ll update this post with any word back I may hear from these newsletters. The two I most recently unsubbed to are:

  • Austin Kleon (paid)
  • Experimental History (free)

UPDATE, January 29, 2024: Apparently I subscribed to a lot of Substack newsletters! 😛 Here’s more I’ve unsubscribed from:

  • Design Lobster (free–no pay option exists)
  • Links I Would Gchat You If We Were Friends (free–no pay option exists). UPDATE, January 29, 2024: The author wrote me back to say she has been in touch with Substack execs and is looking into moving to a different platform. Good to hear!
  • The Status Kuo (free, paid option exists)
  • GameDiscoverCo (free, paid option exists). I didn’t email to explain why I was unsubscribing, probably because I doubt they will move.
  • I’m Fine I’m Fine Just Understand (free, paid option exists). This one is weird, because it’s a comic about a person transitioning and Substack famously already had an exile a few years back for hosting openly transphobic writers. I also didn’t explain why I’m unsubscribing here.

Choosing your evil

I’m typing this in Firefox running on Linux Mint. I am also thoughtfully stroking my neckbeard as I gather my thoughts. Well, not really, but I do need to shave.

I occasionally think and write about making choices on who I do business and interact with, especially on the internet where the products are more intangible–software and services, not physical locations and goods. Avoiding a bad restaurant saves me gas (in multiple ways), avoiding a bad service or software is more about staking out a moral or ethical position, usually accompanied by me noting the fact somewhere online (this blog, social media, etc.) with the intent to broadcast my position to let others know where I stand, and to influence them to join me (JOIN ME), because if I think a company is evil, you should, too!

(I realize it is more nuanced than that, but go with it for now.)

The thing today, though, in 2023 and soon to be 2024, software and services have increasingly been consolidated into an ever-smaller number of mega-corporations, all of which, to varying degrees, engage in platform decay or, as Cory Doctorow more colourfully calls it, enshittification. Basically, this means most of your choices are bad, the degree just varies.

Possible solutions:

  1. Try even harder to go full FOSS (Free and Open Source Software), completely avoiding the offerings of the big companies (this can also apply to services or platforms, though it may be trickier)
  2. Avoid the internet
  3. Some combination of the first two

I’m opting for #3.

I’m writing about this now because I have come to another one of those points where I have to decide if I want to make a stand against a particular service/platform/piece of software, and it’s made me think about the whole thing and how so much of what we do online is wrapped up in one of the big tech companies. For me, this includes:

  • Microsoft:
    • Primary operating system (Windows 11)
    • Primary email (Outlook)
    • Cloud storage (OneDrive)
    • Occasional apps (Excel, Word mostly)
  • Apple:
    • iPhone
    • iPad Pro
    • Secondary computer (Mac Studio)
    • AirPods (for all of the above)
    • iCloud (mostly for photos)
    • Apple Music
    • Apple Watch Traded this for a Garmin Forerunner 255 a year ago
  • Google:
    • Google Maps (occasionally)
    • Gmail (only checking it to keep it active)
    • YouTube

There’s more, but you get the idea. In terms of hardware, I’m deep in the Apple ecosystem and software and services-wise, I am beholden largely to Microsoft. On the plus side, as giant evil tech companies go, I would rank both as less terrible than others, like Google and Meta. Microsoft, who for a time, had almost rehabilitated their reputation by embracing open source, Linux and giving out Windows 10 for free, has fallen in the last few years by going hard into ads, trying to monetize everything (the weather app in Windows 11 now has ads) and junking up their otherwise good Edge browser with shopping and other clutter/services. They have also junked up Windows 11, too (though have also continued to make improvements). Apple touts privacy and security, but it’s really about lock-in and making sure you never step outside their walled gardens, where they control everything. Some people see this as a positive!

I have made efforts to move away from the big tech companies–as mentioned, I’m making this post in Linux Mint–but my efforts are a bit scattershot, a bit piecemeal. I am always looking to improve.

And now I’ve reached a point where I’m making another small step to move away from a service that has adopted policies and positions I fundamentally disagree with. It’s not even the first time this particular company has garnered press over their stance.

I’m speaking of Substack. I wrote about the company previously. That was almost two years ago, and in the time since the platform has become even more popular with right-wing extremists, including literal Nazis. The founders of Substack recently confirmed that they are OK with Nazis being on their platform because censorship is bad, and they are also good with collecting Nazi money from those that charge for subs. Popehat, aka Ken White, neatly deconstructs Substack’s position here.

I am OK with Substack cozying up to Nazis and taking their money–it’s their choice to do so. Likewise, it is my choice to not be associated with a company or service that cozies up to Nazis and takes their money. I’ve decided to move my piddly newsletter, which I recently chose to revive, off of Substack, probably to another service called Buttondown, though that’s not 100% confirmed yet.

I’ll update on how this goes, as well as further updating about how others are responding to Substack’s now official position of “Nazis are OK!” I subscribe to several Substacks myself, and am very curious to see how the authors of these will react.

Substack gonna Substack (again)

I have a piddly little newsletter on Substack and after four issues, have been mulling over what to do for Issue #5 and all others going forward. In the end I decided I needed to offer more than funny/random links, I needed to offer stuff that was uniquely me, because you can’t get that stuff anywhere else unless someone clones me in my sleep.

And while it’s been challenging to get together all-original stuff™ for future newsletters, Substack keep making it harder for me to think of having a future on the platform, because I continue to question their motives and their competence.

I found their editorial on “censorship” to be a facile and weak defense of being hands-off in moderating content on their platform. It just means they are allowing hate and disinformation to find a home on Substack. They seem to be blind to where this may ultimately lead–but with more writers abandoning Substack, they might figure it out eventually.

Here’s a recent story on writers leaving on Mashable: Why Substack writers are leaving the platform, again

But while this is an ongoing (and serious) concern, it’s not even what I’m going to discuss here. It’s the release of their new iOS app and the rollout of it, and how it feels like a calculated move to benefit Substack, possibly at the expense of the writers it offers a home to.

In its initial release (which they will be changing–more on this in a bit), anyone installing the app on an iPhone or iPad would see an option to “pause email notifications” as shown in the tweet below. This option was enabled by default.

(I’ve also included a redundant image of the screenshot in the event the tweet goes away.)

Pause email notifications = Never see a newsletter in your inbox again

From Casey Newton’s Platformer (hosted on Substack):

(Substack co-founder and CEO Chris) Best told me there were practical considerations for this design choice. Many people enable notifications for both Substack and email, and receiving duplicate notifications might be frustrating.

But the company also believes in the superiority of the app as a place to read. “Email is great for all of the reasons it has always been great,” Best said. “It’s low friction. It’s this direct connection where you can reach out, unmediated by the algorithm. But it’s obviously not the best version of that reading experience.”

Let’s step back and examine what Substack, at its base level is, and how it works:

  • Substack hosts newsletters from a variety of writers on a variety of topics
  • In exchange for 10% of revenue (if the writer offers paid subscriptions) Substack handles almost all of the business/technical stuff. The writer uses the provided editor/tools to put together a newsletter, hits the Publish button, and is done.
  • The newsletter then makes its way to the email inbox of anyone who has subscribed (and is also available for viewing on the Substack website)

It’s pretty simple and works as expected.

What that “Pause email notifications” does is not pause notifications. The wording is either deliberately or ineptly misleading. What it does is prevent newsletters from being sent to a subscriber’s email address. That meant that if you installed the app and didn’t change the defaults when setting it up, you would never again get any newsletters from Substack in your inbox, which is, you know, the entire point of Substack. That the CEO apparently thought this was fine because email is “not the best version of that reading experience” is telling. I find it hard to believe the ambiguous wording of this option was anything but deliberate, in order to get people to shut off newsletter emails entirely and make the app the only handy way to view newsletters (I suspect few people search for them on the Substack website, but do not have any definitive info on this one way or the other).

They have since changed this toggle to default to off after getting a great big ol’ backlash over it (no surprise there–perhaps they thought it would be smaller and they’d be able to ride it out) and have said a future update will remove the option from the onboarding process of the app and will just be something that can be toggled on under settings, should the user wish to do so.

I toggled this option off when I installed the app on my iPhone after realizing what it would do. This morning, I noticed several of my newsletters did not arrive in my inbox as they should have. I opened the app and the option was toggled back on. Great.

What I have since done:

  • Removed the app from both my iPhone and iPad
  • Begun setting up a trial on Ghost to see how easily I can move my piddly little newsletter over
  • Mulled cancelling the subs I have paid subscriptions for. I am very good at mulling.

At this point, I have little confidence that the people behind Substack care about the effects of spreading disinformation and hate (they will continue to rail against “censorship” all day long, I suppose, while their platform continues to grow ever more toxic). I have no confidence in their vision for the platform, as the way they initially set up the onboarding experience of the iOS app suggests an attempt to corral writers’ work into an app over which they will have no control. I am no longer comfortable providing them money through the subs I have.

I love the idea of Substack. But I am rapidly souring on the people behind it and the decisions they are making. It sucks.

Substack, “freedom” and my stupid little newsletter

I created a newsletter on Substack because it’s free, all the cool kids are doing it, and I thought it might be a good way to exercise some creativity, coupled with a dose of discipline. The discipline part is maybe in need of some fine-tuning. I stalled after four issues, trying to rethink what I wanted to do with the newsletter and having only vague notions but no actual content to go along with any bold re-visioning. But eventually!

In the meantime, the editorial staff of Substack pushed out a newsletter to everyone on the platform because they’re feeling the heat by hosting anti-vax writers decrying censorship.

You can read it by clicking the link below. And DO read the comments!

Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.

As I read through the comments, I noted that they seemed to be mostly, “Boo censorship! Yay Substack!” at the start and continued mostly along those lines. Further in, though, you start to see the “uncensored on Substack” voices appear. That’s right, the lunatic fringe, safely protected on Substack because of freedom (until they cause legal troubles or other reasons, one of which I will get to shortly). These people use Substack to peddle conspiracy theories and the usual bullshit we’ve all grown used to. Substack lets them because they don’t believe in censorship, even though refusing to publish these writers would have nothing to do with censorship any more than requiring a driver’s license is censoring driving (insert your own terrible analogy here, I’ve got plenty more to spare!)

Substack’s staff doesn’t seem to want to take responsibility for the content it hosts, much like the social media companies they sneeringly look down on in the above editorial. I get it, as the platform grows, it becomes a massive pile of work to control, with the headaches to go with it. So they wrap themselves in the righteousness of being anti-censorship while allowing increasingly lunatic content to flourish.

And guess where that leads? That’s right, to Substack being known as “oh yeah, they’re the guys that host all the crank newsletters.” More reputable writers and creators who don’t peddle bullshit and lies will start moving off Substack, and more cranks will move in. Substack will defend itself as a champion of freedom as it swirls down the metaphorical bowl.

Or maybe not. Maybe it will all work out, or it turns out to be much ado about nothing. But the fact that this kind of theorizing is already in the air is not a good omen for the platform. I’m hardly the first to express these thoughts. I’m probably like the twenty-third, at least.

It’s made me think whether I want to stick with Substack, and it makes other issues with the platform (their editor is surprisingly bare bones for a place that targets writers) stand out more in relief. For now, I mull, which goes well with the mulling I am doing over the content of the newsletter. But I’ll make a decision soon.

(Originally I was going to quote from the editorial and object to certain reasoning and/or leaps of logic, but I don’t feel the piece warrants that kind of dissection. I found it pretty facile, that’s my hot take.)

I started a newsletter

No, I don’t know why. But I can explain how I got here:

  1. I decided I wanted to move away from Gmail for [reasons]
  2. I began searching for other email services
  3. I initially settled on because I already had a subscription to Office Microsoft 365, anyway
  4. is mostly fine but doesn’t really do anything new with email, and the UI is bland and boring. I began looking again.
  5. I settled on trying out HEY email. Yes, they like you to spell it all shouty like that. HEY got me a new email address and I like the way it looks. It does a few things differently and while I’m not yet convinced I’ll stay with it long term, it’s a fine second email service for me to play around with.
  6. HEY offers something called HEY World, which lets you write an email that gets posted to your own custom mini-blog. Mine is here:
  7. Two friends humored me and subscribed, but the whole thing is pretty basic. But it gave me a taste of something different, and eventually I wanted more.
  8. Today is also the day that Austin Kleon moved his weekly newsletter to Substack. I read several other Substack-hosted newsletters and began mulling moving my random thoughts from HEY World to Substack, where I can experiment and be weird on the internet.

Which brings me to my Substack newsletter, cleverly titled Stan’s Random Newsletter. You can see it here: (I also have a handy link on the right sidebar of this blog.)

Can I just keep posting random nonsense here on my blog? Yes! Will I continue doing so? Yes! So why use Substack? Because there’s something about a newsletter that’s different, even if it’s simply the convenience of sending the random thoughts directly to someone via email. If they like the random thoughts, they can get more without doing anything. No websites to remember, no fuss, no muss (what is muss, anyway?)

I have no idea how long I’ll keep this up or what will come of it, but I’ll play around with it for a while and see where it goes. I’ll start by padding it out with some of my HEY World posts, because a smart author knows how to utilize existing resources. Or something.