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I think you're incredibly indulgent to Annalee who accuses people she disagrees with of "hate speech". So Matt Y is guilty of 'hate-speech' is he?

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Mar 20, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

That’s because Noah is one of the good guys. He brings the temperature down and people together to talk about contentious topics. We’re doomed if every post keeps ratcheting up the rhetoric.

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Good point.

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And too late.

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By the scam logic, Instagram, Youtube, Patreon and Twitch are all scams. Each one sells the idea that you could become a famous creator and make lots of money. You could even argue that Twitch and Youtube have their own somewhat secretive editorial policy, approving or denying creator content with no clear consistency across the board.

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author

Exactly.

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I wouldn't call them scams, but Newitz is right. They are publishers with an editorial policy. They pay certain people to write for them just like Harper Collins or the New York Times. The difference is that those two tell you whom they pay, and it doesn't matter if anyone who wants to can also publish on their site. Substack has chosen an editorial policy and made a point of keeping it secret. Some writers on the site are Substack's writers. The rest are stalking horses.

Substack is not running its site out of a desire to further the arts or some other altruistic purpose. They are running a site in hopes of turning a profit on it whether this be by taking a cut of subscriptions and/or selling advertising. Real life requires living in moral gray areas. For example, I buy gasoline which is not produced by angels on earth doing wonderful things for baby seals.

Like many internet based startups, they claim to be one thing, but when one looks closely or when they decide the deception has gone on long enough, they turn out to be something else. At some point, they will expect something from me, mostly likely money or attention to advertising. As others have noted, the entry costs are low, if one ignores the star salaries they pay their writers, so why should I give them money or pay attention to their advertising if I don't like their editorial policies?

The usual business plan for companies like Substack is to offer a service at little or low cost, treat those critical to its mission generously and build market share, ideally to the point where it can control entry to the market. Uber, Google, Amazon, Facebook and a host of others have successfully taken this approach. Once they control entry, they can start charging more, cut service quality, screwing their suppliers and knifing competitors. This may or may not be possible in the magazine business with its low entry costs, but Substack will have to try, and that is why Newitz is right to call it a scam.

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I don't see any evidence of an editorial policy. Maybe it's there, but I don't see it in the available evidence. What they are doing is as consistent with profit-maximization as anything else. The fact is that a number of high-profile "controversial" writers have had a hard time in recent years, as online journalism has become more progressive, more cause-driven. Some of these folks are popular and it makes economic sense to bring them on board. It could easily have gone in the other direction, if progressive writers were having a hard time being heard. But Substack needs to do better in terms of transparency.

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1) Profit maximizing is an editorial policy. That's why Facebook publishes conspiracy theories and misinformation. As Fred Clark once noted, no one would buy a book debunking the theory that Missouri does not exist.

2) The list, public or hidden, of authors given advances, chosen for whatever reason, is editorial policy. The choice to hide or reveal that list is editorial policy.

I have no problem with editorial policy. I would just prefer Substack to be open about it, and if I decide I don't like their policy to avoid buying from them or otherwise supporting them.

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I think the criticism of the "editorial policy" is that it is biased on one political direction. I think that's the fair reading.

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That's fair. I may have no problem with Substack's editorial policy, but a critical component has been hidden. It's like a newspaper with a secret masthead.

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Arguably some of those examples are scammier as there are algorithms pushing content to viewers in an untransparent way that impacts how creators make money.

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how is that a scam? unethical, maybe.

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Always enjoy your articles, thank you!

Substack is not about trying to make it as a writer as opposed to working as a writer elsewhere. It’s about people who are not writers creating quality content, on a regular basis (the newsletter is a trick to commit to artificial deadlines), who otherwise wouldn’t even try. Not every YouTuber wants to have a Hollywood TV show. There’s a lot of great stuff on Substack that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

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author

Absolutely true

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I think Substack as a concept is great, and great for the writers - right now. There are few enough early adopters that can command fairly large subscription fees (e.g.$10/mo). But as more and more writers jump to Substack that becomes untenable. I currently follow about a dozen Finance/Economics feeds. About 1/2 have jumped to Substack. Once they all go, it would cost me $120/mo. And that's just that topic area.

In the long run I think this will probably evolve into a Spotify or Readly model - one fee gets you all-you-can-eat. Again the few early adopters are raking it in, but I don't see that lasting.

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I wonder this about Substack. A 1-month subscription the NYTimes is $16. But Noah is asking for $10/month just for his Substack. Substack is basically just an editorial section; you're not paying for any long-form reporting, deep investigation, photo essays, or any of that other stuff. But just 2 Substack subscriptions costs more than everything you get daily from the New York Times.

I guess it means that there's a very small niche (Yglesias seems to be one of the top people on Substack and he's got under 10,000 subscribers) of hyper-active news-phile hobbyists who would pay much more than $16/month for "news" but the New York Times can't properly segment and price discriminate their customers, so instead that extra value is being captured by a handful of opinion writers.

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A problem with the NYT raising prices is that a lot of their content has negative value, like their terrible horse race politics desk and half their opinion writers. It might be okay to pay a small amount for the many good NYT writers, but I don't want to fund Peter Baker.

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I came here to write something similar to what Harold wrote above. The lack of an editorial policy is demonstrated by Doyle, et al being able to lie about Yglesias and – especially – Singal, who *never* had a Pro deal, because he...didn’t have a built in audience, which is the *key* driver of the program (obviously)!

The ire against Singal gives the game away: He had no Pro deal; they want to make him toxic enough that Substack has to choose between him (and yes, the others who may have had a Pro deal who also engage in wrongthink) and what they perceive to be their large cadre of allies. I hope they are mistaken, and that mainstream Substackers don’t take the bait and amplify their Tipper Gore-like cause.

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it certainly looks like an attempt to de-platform writers they disagree with.

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I see Substack as the latest in the Kickstarter/Patreon/OnlyFans trend of internet services that make smaller projects viable through direct support from fans. And since a bigger audience just makes this more lucrative, what works for smaller projects works even better for bigger ones, which then get all the attention.

The Pro stuff looks like a straightforward risk-reward trade-off. I don't understand complaints that it's somehow misleading when it's obvious why someone would be offered one: If you already have a sizable audience. If you aren't sure if your audience will follow you to Substack and pay, perhaps Substack will take that bet, buying variable and uncertain cash flows with a lump sum or an annuity. Another company could offer this arrangement to the same effect, though it would be slightly more cumbersome.

This kind of makes me think the actual complaint is "Greenwald et al are on Substack and making money and I don't like that." I understand, as I don't like most of the people cited, but that's not Substack's fault.

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“Jealous people losing a sense of power” is pretty much it, IMO.

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How many crazy things to Doyle et al have to write before people stop taking them seriously? Doyle and Newitz's case here seems "blatantly wrong on every level" - Will that ever be meaningful?

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This seems pretty much on the money. The one thing I'd add is that there *is* something a bit shady about how Substack rolled out though.

In short, when it was new, Substack got a lot of buzz because

(1) In a short period of time, lots of famous writers jumped ship from established media brands to write on Substack instead; and

(2) There appeared to be no central or coordinating force making them do so;

(3) so a lot of people (like me) reasonably inferred something like "boy, this model must have legs if so many writers all came to the same conclusion."

Whether you conceived of that conclusion as "There is more money to be made by being your own brand and not a cog in [NYT/Vox/whatever]" or "Revolt against editors!!" or something else, the non-disclosure of Substack's enticement methods allowed it to get more buzz than being honest would've been (by allowing people to believe (2) above). And there's something a little icky about that.

I don't think that any of this is a huge deal—certainly not as big a deal as it has become among the Twitterati. But I think that's what the folks who are upset are getting at—but not quite grasping.

In short, it's a "I can't believe they fooled me. I'm angry; they must have done something wrong." reaction.

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All of the writers these “critics” complain about (except for Singal, who never would have been offered a deal when he started his newsletter in 2019, and perhaps Linehan, who I know nothing about) jumped ship in the last year, not when Substack first rolled out. If you first heard about Substack because you read one of these writers on Substack in the last year, that should tell you something about the value of the Pro program!

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I think the bigger question is around the business model. Why should we expect people to continue paying $5/month for the unedited writings of one person, when they can get a digital subscription to the entire nyt for the same price? I just don’t see this being sustainable in the long run.

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To Every Action There Is An Equal And Opposite Criticism.

Substack has become another convenient target for the outrage industry, mostly because it has money -- from VCs I presume -- and is spending that money to achieve its goals. The horror! The horror!

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I generally agree with this, and I think if the people criticizing Substack are including Matthew Yglesias (who opposes extreme forms of cancel culture while generally agreeing with progressives on object-level policies) and Fredrik DeBoer (who by his own admission (https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/statement) falsely accused someone of rape due to severe bipolar disorder for which he is now being treated, whose "vendetta" (https://doyles.substack.com/p/in-queers-we-trust-all-others-pay) against Sarah Jones appears to be nothing worse than an article arguing that the social structure of modern journalism causes many journalists to be narrow-minded toward other people but hypocritically much less critical of other journalists ( https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/freddie-nitro-edition-there-you-go https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/non-nitro-edition-substack-and-media ), and who is a leftist who criticizes parts of modern progressivism mainly because he thinks they're ineffective ( https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/antiracism-is-not-a-pr-campaign-for-black-people https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/what-is-the-blm-ask https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/you-cant-censor-away-extremism-or )) among the dangerous reactionaries Substack is enabling, then that says more about what a narrow Overton Window Doyle & al. are trying to restrict people to than it does about Substack's ideological goals.

As far as content policy violations are concerned, Doyle's case seems to be exaggerated or false. DeBoer has, as far as I know, not violated any of Substack's rules (https://substack.com/content) in the writing he posted on Substack. To condemn Matt Yglesias, Doyle cites harassment of Emily VanDerWerff on Twitter (summarized at https://emilyvdw.substack.com/p/the-witch ), which, while awful, was not done or supported by Yglesias himself. Glenn Greenwald is said to be "direct[ing] harassment at a female New York Times reporter", Taylor Lorenz, but the article in question (https://greenwald.substack.com/p/criticizing-public-figures-including) says nothing of the sort: instead, it accuses her of making false accusations (which seems plausible, but I do not know enough about the situation to know whether this is accurate), then criticizes her and other reporters for trying to portray legitimate criticism of them as harassment in order to delegitimize it, so that Doyle portraying Greenwald and DeBoer's criticism as harassment actually supports Greenwald's point. Graham Linehan has been accused (e.g. https://www.metafilter.com/190808/They-paid-a-secret-group-of-writers#8080099 ) of doxxing trans-women: the article in question (https://grahamlinehan.substack.com/p/these-are-not-lesbians) consists of a series of pictures, ages, and sometimes first names and brief autobiographical paragraphs posted by trans-women on a lesbian dating site, and since Substack's anti-doxxing policy only bans "publish[ing] or post[ing] other people's private information (such as home phone number and address)", it seems likely that Substack did not consider the rule to cover what Linehan did; moreover, these pictures are clearly meant as evidence for Linehan's rhetorical point (i.e., that trans-women should not be considered women) rather than as targets for harassment. The only example of content violating the content rules that I have seen is by Mencius Moldbug:

Content rules (https://substack.com/content): "Substack cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that call for violence, exclusion, or segregation based on protected classes."

Moldbug (https://graymirror.substack.com/p/5-the-land-its-people-and-their-dogs): "Columbia [his hypothetical neoreactionary-ruled America] does not currently have any autochthonous tribes, but “down on the rez” it has a lot of humans of recent autochthonous descent, who are indeed failing to thrive. They seem to need more freedom and challenge than agriculture-adapted populations, probably because tending crops is boring as hell. ... [P]re-agricultural populations are like Italian racecars: specialized. They do very poorly, except in their adaptive environment. Yes, this is probably a DNA thing. (For the skull-caliper buffs out there, domestication also decreases brain size in animals.) Unfortunately, an authentic autochthonous lifestyle demands a lot of land per human. Then again, Columbia has a lot of land per human. The idea of a state-sized prairie or forest ecopark with humans as the apex predator, though fantastic, is not at all absurd. It is a small step in principle from leaving uncontacted autochthonous tribes alone, Sentinel Island style, to voluntarily *restoring* an authentic ancestral culture."

And I have seen no indication whatsoever that Substack Pro is funding him.

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Thanks for the heads up. No I know to avoid the scribbles of Ms Newitz in the future. Self referential art is sooo postmodern :-)

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Medium does the same thing. It pays writers and doesn’t disclose who and hopes more people will choose to write on their platform in hopes of making money. In Medium’s case, it’s harder for an aspiring writer to calculate how much they could make on Medium vs. Substack.

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Do you believe that Substack should be liable for defamation suits filed against content on its platform? As you’ve said, we should treat every writer as if they are paid by Substack. It seems only reasonable then that they’d be considered the publisher of any libelous statement, regardless of author, big or small.

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Well, what about YouTube? Should they be liable for defamation? After all, they pay YouTube content creators a portion of the ads they pull in.

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No, because they don’t select their content creators based on editorial positions. That is precisely, exactly, directly, the problem here. YouTube is a platform, Substack is a publisher.

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Is not Substack's contention that they also do not select content creators based on editorial positions, but based on expected return (the 85% of royalties from the first year) from their initial investment (the "cash advance")?

I don't find convincing the argument that the Substack Pro is inherently editorial - after all, it is certainly the case that YouTube, like Substack, platforms individuals at multiple tiers, offering additional advantages for those on the higher tiers - but this is typically not the source of criticism of YouTube, because it's well within normal accepted behavior for a platform, and has an obvious business motivation (promoting the best revenue generators on your platform).

YouTube *has* undergone some criticism because they deplatformed (rather than merely underplatforming) individuals who were otherwise generally profitable content creators for YouTube. Some have argued that this makes YouTube more publisher than platform. Frankly, given that current norms are that all platforms reserve *some* right for content moderation so long as they are a generally open platform, I don't really find that line of argument convincing. For the same reason then, as Substack is a generally open platform, I don't find the argument that by only offering Pro advances to some content creators, but not others, even others who might have been high follower content creators, that Substack has morphed from platform into publisher.

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I feel like I should point out that the "platform vs publisher" distinction you see thrown around a lot is not really a legal distinction. A website is generally not liable for the content its users post, no matter how strict their moderation policy is. As you point out, every website that has a comments section needs to exercise *some* editorial control, if only to filter out the actual discussion from the bots trying to sell viagra.

The distinction might matter on moral grounds, as in "should people unsubscribe/send angry angry emails to Substack over their editorial decisions?", but "should they be legally liable" is probably the wrong question.

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Coming very late to this party, but I have found Substack to be quite annoying and not worth my subscription. My experience was this. I subscribed to one newsletter, made a comment (which was respectfully disagreeing with the author and asking for more clarification), and got a very, very rude reply in response. I don't think authors should be allowed to troll their subscribers in this way. All I wanted was an explanation of why she linked three items which seemed to me unrelated. All she had to do was explain her thinking to me. But no, she chose to insult me and I ended my subscription. And now I'm resolved never to pay for any of this content in the future!

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I'm kinda late to the discussion, but this is the stuff Graham has been doing on his blog (cw: transphobia, misgendering, harassment):

https://grace.substack.com/p/graham-linehan-should-be-kicked-off

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