Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
Substack Doesn’t Love the Little Guy
The platform’s promotional efforts are mostly aimed at the biggest accounts.
Early this month Dan Stone, posted on Substack’s account to make a pitch to writers who have lost their jobs in the latest brutal round of media layoffs. Stone pointed to a number of writers who had come to substack after losing their jobs in traditional media: Hamilton Nolan formerly of Gawker; Tim Mak formerly of NPR; Seymour Hersh, formerly of lots of very high profile places before he became a disgraceful genocide denying conspiracy theorist.
It's nice that big name, legacy news media journalists facing layoffs can parlay their high profile into substack success and continue to do good work (or disgraceful genocide denial, in Hersh’s case.) But what about the journalists who weren’t necessarily big names? What about mid level slogger freelancers banging away in semi obscurity who aren’t likely to rocket to checkmark status immediately upon declaring their substack open to business? What does substack offer them?
Based on who substack focuses on in their promotional efforts, the answer is “not a whole lot.” The other recent post on Substack’s account that focuses on highlighting writers is on Rob Henderson, an academic who earns a full time living on substack. He’s meant to be an inspiration to the little guy—he’s promoting substack rather than the other way around.
Substack does have a regular shoutout thread where anyone can boost anyone else. But a crowdsourced recommendation doesn’t have the oomph of the platform itself putting its name and resources behind someone worthy. A small account cheering on another small account is going to have a small impact. It’s nice, but it isn’t likely to generate a lot of income.
Of course, substack’s incentives here are clear enough. The biggest accounts are the ones that make them the most money. Highlighting someone popular is a way to drive more business to a proven seller. It also makes substack look good. They can say that some people are very successful (which is good advertising for the site). And they can argue that they are hosting thought leaders, doing important journalistic work.
There are other models though. Bandcamp, the music listening site, has a profit-sharing business similar to Substack’s. But Bandcamp resolutely avoids a focus on the most successful artists; when I was writing for Bandcamp Daily some time back, editors actively discouraged me from writing about mainstream acts. Instead, the site tries to cover weird trends, experimental releases, vaporware, dungeon synth, small club scenes in Durbin, South Africa, or Rio de Janeiro. The vibe is, “we all love weird music let us help you find something you didn’t know you needed!” As opposed to substack’s focus, which is, “Here is the most important thing that everybody reads; you should read it too.”
Part of the issue is politics; Bandcamp’s editorial is quite left leaning, and they in general seem committed to lifting up everyone (with perhaps some caveats.) Substack in contrast is run by centristy tech bros who struggle to condemn blatant racism. Their indifference to how their content moderation policies will affect marginalized people is of a piece with their promotional efforts; they are focused on the perspectives of the affluent and powerful, rather than on the less influential and less wealthy.
Still, even within those perceptual constraints, it seems like Substack could do better promoting small accounts—not least because it would help their bottom line to do so. A couple thousand small accounts making 100 bucks a piece isn’t untold riches, but it starts to be real money.
And if Substack really wants Notes to be a place of amity and good fellowship, it would benefit from acting as if it cares about all its partners, not just those with the big check marks. Talking to people on Substack, there’s a fair bit of bitterness about the lack of interest in the grunts. People want to feel seen and valued. Substack doesn’t do a great job of doing that. In part as a result, I’ve already seen some writers on Notes abandon the site in discouragement and general disgust.
I did talk to one Substack employee who said the site was trying to give better coverage to smaller accounts. We’ll see if things change in the coming weeks or months. I hope so; I like Substack. I’d like it more if it felt a bit more like a workshop where we’re all learning from each other, and a bit less like a corporate content mill, where we’re all supposed to admire and aspire to be the best sellers.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.