The Moderator’s Dilemma
Digital Town Squares, Part 3
The main hurdle for establishing a new “digital town square” is simply to get people to show up there, to get them to go through the hassle of creating yet another online account, figuring out how a new system works, and all going to the same place. This is why various alternative to Twitter that have been suggested over the years haven’t taken off.
But for Substack, that battle is already half won. Substack has quietly become the one other place where everyone in the media business is already hanging out. Many of my colleagues already have Substack accounts as readers of other people’s newsletters. Many have started Substack newsletters as sidelines or, you know, just in case something goes wrong with their main employer. (It’s a good idea. Respected journalist Tim Mak, for example, just got caught in a wave of layoffs at NPR, so he opened a Substack devoted to war reporting in Ukraine.)
There aren’t good figures yet on the total number of users on Notes versus Twitter, and I am sure that Notes still has a very long way to go. But a small number of “power users” generated most of the content on Twitter, and my own impression is that a large number of power users in media and politics are now at least dividing their time between Twitter and Substack.
The Moderator’s Dilemma, Revisited
But Substack is also going to have to face up to the same old Moderator’s Dilemma. As of now, the company is trying to maintain its relatively hands-off approach. This worked relatively well with newsletters, which are easy to keep separate from each other in the eyes of Substack’s customers. For example, Substack has been host to a variety of anti-vaccine newsletters, but they are not that widely known to anyone but their own subscribers. When these people and their readers are drawn into a social network and mix with other Substack readers and contributors, they will naturally begin to clash, and to do so with all the zealotry of devoted conspiracy theorists. So Substack is already facing pressure to engage in more aggressive and censorious moderation.
They have to be prepared for different factions who will demand that they moderate too much, or not enough, or that they crack down on one side of the debate more than the other. They’re going to have to accept to the necessity of making a few broad judgments about what is acceptable—but to keep those judgements few and broad, to make cutoffs in the obvious cases and leaving the non-obvious ones up to readers to decide for themselves. This is a line that has proven difficult to draw, but they won’t be able to avoid it if they want to reduce the number of malicious actors on their platform. Starting a social media component, which encourages all of their readers and contributors to interact, accelerates the point at which they will have to confront this problem.
Then again, a lot of the people I see on Notes are starting out with the lessons we learned from Twitter. Early on, there was a Twitter ethos of never blocking anyone, to show that you were intellectually tough and not afraid to take on all comers. Eventually, we all gave up on this, realizing that we had to block or mute trolls at the first sign of trouble. Life, we decided, is just too short. Many are carrying that lesson over the Notes, which will ensure we have a better experience here from Day One.
But Substack carries one big inbuilt protection against being overwhelmed by trolls. It requires that readers give the company their e-mail addresses and credit cards—that they be potentially paying subscribers, not just malicious lurkers. And for now, at least, its users are dominated by people who are already writing their own newsletters. This means that they are more likely to have something substantive to say, rather than just showing up to shout abuse, and they are more likely to be concerned about their reputations, since they are there to attract subscribers.
The prospect that engaging in social media might actually be profitable, and not just for those with really massive follower counts, is the big differentiation from Twitter. In theory, we writers and professional intellectuals were all on Twitter to promote our work. But this is something Twitter didn’t actually do very well. When you posted there, people tended to respond to you there—and they were notorious for not following your link to read the original article.
The promise of Substack is that the work and even some of the grief and friction of engaging in social media discussions will actually be rewarded, because at least some of your followers will be converted to paying subscribers.
That’s the big contrast to social media as it has been run so far, where we have been expected to provide content for big companies that monetize our traffic and give us little or nothing in return. The incentives for Substack are much different and were summed up recently by Hamish McKenzie: “In terms of business objectives, our over-riding focus is on the writer’s business, since we succeed only if they succeed. And we’re happy only if they’re happy.”
From the perspective of a writer, that sounds terrific. But again, why should you care as a reader? Because these incentives shape the kind of writing you are offered and the kind of discussions we tend to have on big issues. The promise of Substack is that it creates an incentive for more thoughtful and substantive contributions—rather than simply amplifying the freakiest parts of the usual political freak show.
The Internet is still a relatively new medium, and we are all still adjusting to it and finding out how to use it to access reliable information and useful discussion while avoiding disinformation and manipulation. There is still a lot of innovation that needs to be done to get it right, and it will never be perfect. But the rise of Substack is a promising new step in that big experiment.
The Tracinski Letter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.