In 2022 as Substack was gaining popularity as the hottest new blogging platform, I had amassed of list over thirty blogs I was following. I would refresh the blogs daily, but this proved cumbersome and I would sometimes lose track of certain blogs if they hadn’t been updated in a while. I could use the official Substack app, but I wanted a solution that would work on a browser and not just limited to Substack. I could use an RSS reader, but I didn’t like any of the options and thought it would be better to create my own.
December 2022 was ‘peak Substack’ as prominent Substack bloggers Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss unveiled the so-called ‘Twitter Files’, promoted by Twitter’s new owner and boss Elon Musk, leveraging Musk’s huge brand to drive traffic and presumably adding many subscribers to their respective blogs. But by early 2023, perhaps having soured of the attention Substack had gotten, Elon inexplicably declared war on the blogging platform by blocking Substack links from being posted on X/Twitter and preventing Substack blogs from embedding tweets. It didn’t help also that Substack had used its newfound publicity to launch a competitor to Twitter, called Substack Notes.
This seemed petty, but I could understand why Musk would feel used, having repurposed his Twitter account to act as unpaid promotor for Substack, which derived considerable traffic and revenue from the Twitter Files at no cost. Initially, I predicted Substack would prevail. But by mid 2023, with the Twitter Files a distant memory, a sort of ‘Substack fatigue’ had begun to set in. Many of the bloggers I follow are posting much more often on Twitter and less on Substack. X/Twitter also responded by copying Substack at its own game by creating a paid subscription service and longer-form tweets, in addition to revenue-sharing on a per-impression basis.
Consequently, my aggregator has become increasingly fallow as blogs go weeks without updating, or have stopped updating completely. I’m not sure if it’s worth renewing the domain name for the aggregator. I don’t want to say Substack is in trouble, as it’s premature to make such a pronouncement, but there are three key problems: first, the à la carte subscription model as implemented by Substack does not scale, as opposed to something like Netflix; second, microblogging on Twitter has/will supplant long-form blogging; third, paywalls are bad for virality and creating an audience, which is necessary for having any subscribers at all.
If I was to subscribe to all forty of the blogs in my aggregator it would cost me at least $200/month at the minimum of $5/month plan per blog. That seems like too much. If I’m subscribed to an author who every month writes a single knockout paywalled article, that would be worth the $5/month, but this would not scale to dozens of authors. By comparison for $15.49/month I get access to everything on Netflix.
Also, some writers update much more often than others, and some don’t update anymore at all. Why are writers who post nothing as deserving of money as those who post a lot or on a consistent schedule? Even if I want to support their ’cause’, I am still paying for a service as a customer. If I am a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, I only have to pay for his books; I don’t have to pay a monthly subscription to support the existence of Malcolm Gladwell. Given his sporadic publishing schedule, with books sometimes many years apart, this would be considerably more expensive than buying his books individually.
Same for movies. If I had to pay Tom Cruise forty-six times for each month in between Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Top Gun: Maverick, I would object (or at least want an autograph or free Scientology classes or something). This is yet another example of everything becoming a service, which is another tax and a hidden form of inflation. Although it’s mainstream entertainment like movies, books, and TV that has resisted this trend so far.
An obvious answer is for Substack to change its business model to a pay-per-action or pay-per-article billing plan, similar to Patreon in this regard. It’s not ideal, because it can still get very expensive if I’m following many people, but this seems better than monthly billing. Or moving from à la carte to an option to subscribe to many Substack blogs at once or even all blogs at a discount. The downside is top Substack publishers would earn less money, but lesser-known authors could get more earnings and exposure by being pooled into a discounted subscription plan, similar to cable TV.
Additionally, the problem with paywalls is it limits virality. Putting the best content behind paywalls is like shooting oneself in the foot by limiting the reach of said content, whereas with Twitter the goal is to maximize reach as much as possible. All too often I’ll come across a Substack article that starts well and then abruptly ends at a paywall, without any foreshadowing of an impending paywall, which makes me disinclined to want to share it and even annoyed. I am sure others feel the same way.
As Twitter continues to overshadow Substack, this will only get worse. I can understand why Substack writers are moving to Twitter and using Substack less: not only does Twitter pay users for engagement and has a subscription service, but writing tweets is a hell of a lot easier than writing a full-blown blog post. I can attest that it’s easier (sorry Mr. Lincoln, I think you’re wrong), and this is from someone who writes a lot of blog posts. Despite this experience, each post still takes a decent amount of work. A tweet is so much easier, and I’m getting paid, to boot.
Yeah, I get it: as a career path or hobby, except for some outliers, writing does not pay well, but many authors and entertainers still earn a good living without having to adopt a subscription model.