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What's It Like to Go (Sort of) Viral on Substack?
It's nice, though a little weird. And I can see some moderation challenges.
Kitties wondering whether they will go viral on Notes.
I hopped onto Substack’s Notes just about 24 hours ago, not long after it launched. After a bit of initial confusion, I found my legs and applied them to the keyboard, in a mixed metaphor of more or less happy microblogging.
I was hoping vaguely for maybe a dozen new followers, and maybe, maybe, maybe even one new paid subscriber. My expectations were modest.
And they were wildly overshot. When I got onto notes I had around 1225 followers, built up since last October. Now as I type this I have 1870. More than a third of my subscribers have joined since yesterday.
Which is, to be clear, kind of nuts.
I’ve also had a boom in paid subscriptions. When I joined notes I had 41—not much of a challenge to the Substack elite. Now I have more like 60. I’m still not impressing the top tier, but a 33% increase in about 24 hours has left me feeling lightly stunned.
(As I was writing this, subscriptions, free and paid, accelerated significantly. I’m not going to recalculate because I literally can’t keep up at this point.)
For a while I thought everyone was experiencing growth like this. But a brief survey on Notes suggests that’s not the case. Some other creators—like Parker Molloy, whose substack I wrote for last week—had a big boom which looks like it may have outstripped mine. Teddy Wilson of Radical Reports says he had an impressive 7% increase in free subscribers. Most others I spoke to seem to have gotten small bumps. My growth wasn’t unprecedented, but it does seem to be out on the far end of the scale—as Substack itself seemed to confirm.
But how did you go viral, Noah?
This is an easy question, and I can answer it instantly: I don’t know.
Really, I have no idea. I chatted and burbled on Notes for a bit, as is my wont on social media. I posted a little article about whether or how substack was competing with twitter. That got a fair bit of traffic. Some of my notes also got a number of likes and restacks.
But the big thing that seems to have done it, according to a number of people who joined notes, is that my posts were the first things they saw when they logged on. The algorithm decided to love me.
Now, why did the algorithm love me? Again, I have no idea. Twitter’s algorithm is a little mysterious, but over years people have at least somewhat figured out some of the basics. Virality is linked at least somewhat to likes and RTs. Get enough engagement and you get boosted into everyone’s feed.
I got a certain number of likes and engagements on Notes. But not that many. Maybe with not many people using the site yet it doesn’t take that many, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Or maybe, one user suggested, I’m boosted because I’m recommended by Aaron Rupar, a substacker with a huge audience—I write at his site Public Notice weekly.
Or! Maybe Substack saw some people gaining a little traction and gave them a nudge to have some examples of success.
The feeling of flying blind—of not really having any sense of why everyone is seeing my posts—is really different from my (often extremely unpleasant) experiences going viral on twitter. Usually those viral episodes involved a particular tweet boosted by a particular power user, and/or a tweet or tweets chosen for dogpiles by fascists, the dirtbag left, or some other unpleasant group.
Substack’s mechanisms, at this point, are more opaque. It felt a little like one of those alternate reality plots where you wake up and you’re a (very minor) rock star, and you have to keep stifling the impulse to explain over and over that, no, you didn’t do anything, it wasn’t you, what is going on? Help? (But it’s still kind of nice.)
If You’re Going to Go Viral, It’s Better to Be Paid
As I said, and as many can attest, going viral on twitter can be miserable. That’s in part because twitter is a cesspit of fascism, bigotry, and harassment.
But it’s also because going viral has a ton of potential downsides and few ways to turn it to good account. Going viral can mean days or weeks of harassment; it can also easily bring you to the attention of very dangerous people with links to the right wing media bubble. Sometimes you can bootstrap virality into more opportunities. But more often you get death threats rather than income.
Substack substantially changes that dynamic. Since the site is optimized to try to encourage people to pay writers for their work, when you get a lot of eyeballs on you, you are likely to make some money. I think I made $400-$450 in subscriptions or so. Matthew Yglesias isn’t feeling threatened, but if I made that much every day, I could stop pitching and just write here. Even if it only lasts a short time, the subscriptions make a small dint in precarity; it’s been like getting a commission. Maybe even two.
…But Maybe There Are Downsides, Too
Getting paid is a big plus. But there also aren’t so far the major downsides you get on twitter. I’ve seen some vicious and bigoted posts on Substack, but harassment networks haven’t really gotten organized there yet. So, at the moment, getting an engagement boost is all happy glow and no Nazis threatening to call my employers or show up at my house.
I’m not sure that will continue though. Substack has some very large accounts that cultivate bigotry and /or toxic fandoms—Glinner and Glenn Greenwald are the obvious ones who leap to mind. Substack works a lot like twitter, and it’s not hard to imagine big accounts leading dogpiles, especially if the moderators aren’t willing to reign in their cash cows (which social media moderators often are not.)
That’s especially the case because on Substack the cash cows make real cash. Substack has a direct financial interest in its writers, as opposed to twitter where they’re just selling ads against power users—a model that’s at least slightly more abstract than actual profit sharing.
It’s not just moderators who may have perverse incentives. If going viral on Notes means you make more money, people are all going to want to go viral. I certainly would like to continue having the engagement I’ve had—thus my rush to bang out this post!
Incentivizing creators to write more is relatively benign. But we all know that one thing that can make you go viral is bad behavior. Substackers with certain kinds of audiences may have powerful financial reasons to behave in certain antisocial ways.
Going viral on notes in a small way has been very pleasant. It makes me want to be on the platform more and to write more on Substack. But I can see a plausible future in which the potential to go viral supercharges some of the worst tendencies of twitter. Hopefully, Substack has a lot of moderators and has anticipated some of the worst situations and planned out how to handle them. If they haven’t, they should get on that.
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