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Substack Was a Ticking Time Bomb

When the writer Ryan Broderick joined Substack in 2020, it felt, he told me, like an “oasis.” The email-newsletter platform gave him a direct line to his readers. He did not have to deal with the chaos and controversy of social media. Substack was far from perfect, he knew—COVID conspiracies flourished, and on at least one occasion, trans writers on the platform were doxxed and harassed—but compared with the rest of the internet, he found the conditions tolerable. Until they weren’t. On Wednesday, he sent out an edition of his newsletter titled “It’s Time to Leave Substack.”

Substack now finds itself in the middle of a crisis. In late November, an investigation in The Atlantic turned up “scores of white-supremacist, neo-Confederate, and explicitly Nazi newsletters on Substack.” Because the site takes a cut of subscription revenue, this meant that Substack was making money off extremists. In response, nearly 250 Substack writers demanded in an open letter that the site explain why it was “platforming and monetizing Nazis.” Meanwhile, an opposing group of nearly 100 writers published its own open letter rejecting calls for greater moderation. Last month, a Substack co-founder, Hamish McKenzie, responded with a blog post articulating the company’s position: “We don’t think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.”

After several of the site’s highest-profile writers either left or threatened to leave, Substack reversed course earlier this week. Several Nazi publications would be shut down, the company said, but going forward, it would proactively remove only “credible threats of physical harm.” This resolution has not been received warmly. Broderick’s departure was followed by another on Thursday evening: The prominent Substack writer Casey Newton announced that he, too, would soon leave the service.

The most obvious thing to say about all of this is, well, obviously. Virtually all major platforms on the internet—Facebook, X, Reddit, YouTube—have dealt with some sort of moderation controversy, if not several of them. “Sooner or later, everyone has to face this question,” J. M. Berger, a senior fellow at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who studies extremism and social media, told me, adding that “it doesn’t take a deep knowledge of online platforms to see this coming.” There was never any reason to think Substack would be different.

Except that Substack did try to frame itself as different. When the site launched in 2017, there was considerable ambiguity about what it even was. A media company trying to pioneer a new model of journalism? A social-media company trying to correct the ills and excesses of its predecessors? A modest software for sending out email newsletters? In terms of policing content, Substack opted for that last option: There would be no heavy-handed, top-down moderation. (Or, more cynically, few pesky editorial standards or values to adhere to.) Each newsletter writer would be responsible for moderating their own subcommunity. Substack promised to stay out of writers’ way, to be “pure infrastructure,” as Newton wrote last week in his newsletter, Platformer. That is part of what has made the site so popular—more than 17,000 writers earn money from their newsletters. The most widely read ones bring in millions in subscription revenue.

And yet from the beginning, Substack clearly aspired to be more than just “pure infrastructure.” It actively courted big-name writers, including Newton. It offered them advances, as a publishing house might, and experimented with a program that offered some legal counsel, as a newspaper might. “We started Substack because we were fed up about the effects of the social-media diet,” McKenzie told The New Yorker in 2020. The company wanted to have it both ways: to exert the cultural influence of a major media company without shouldering any more responsibility (or economic burden) than is expected of a mere service provider, such as Gmail. (Substack did not respond to a request for comment.)

If there once was some doubt, Substack has over the years leaned harder and harder into its identity as a social-media company. It has introduced a Twitter replica, Substack Notes, along with recommendations, digest emails, and a “Follow” button. In other words, rather than allowing readers and writers to remain in their own private fiefdoms, Substack pushed them to coexist in one shared space. Sign up for a newsletter on Substack and the site will urge you to sign up for others it thinks you might like. That has been advantageous for writers—Newton reported that he gained 70,000 free subscribers in 2023, in large part because of these tools—and also a liability. “If Substack can grow a publication like ours that quickly, it can grow other kinds of publications, too,” Newton wrote in the post announcing his departure. This shift from an amorphous, uncategorizable service provider to a no-question-about-it social-media company may have sealed Substack’s fate, but a moderation conflict was always in the cards.

Because these days, hardly anything on the internet is “pure infrastructure,” whether or not it has grander aspirations. Or at least hardly anything gets treated that way. When it was brought to the attention of Mailchimp—an email-marketing platform with no discernible aspirations to be a social-media powerhouse—that it hosted the newsletter of the white-supremacist podcaster Stefan Molyneux, the company shut down his account the next day. Amazon’s self-publishing arm has come under fire for offering extremists and neo-Nazis unprecedented access to publishing tools. And in 2017, the website-builder Squarespace cut off several white-supremacist sites, apparently in response to an online petition.

Even more Substack writers may soon leave the site, turning to alternatives such as Ghost and Beehiiv. Not that doing so guarantees they won’t have to deal with this again. If another platform manages to amass anything like the stable of writers that Substack did, it will face the same problems. Broderick, for his part, is feeling pretty good about his decision to leave, as are his readers, many of whom have “been treating this like a public holiday.” “Announcing I’m leaving Substack feels very similar to when I announced that I was going to Substack,” Broderick said. “There’s a real feeling of giddiness and scared excitement.” Which makes sense, in a way: Substack has become what it aspired to replace.

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