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Elon Musk's War on Substack—and Substack Users
Twitter vs Substack, an Explainer
This week, Substack, our platform host here at Arc Digital, found itself in Twitter’s crosshairs.
On Wednesday, April 5, Substack announced it would soon be releasing Notes, a new microblogging service integrated within its larger discourse ecosystem. The similarities with Twitter were immediately recognizable.
Elon Musk obviously thought the same, which is why Twitter began a retaliatory campaign against Substack the same day.
Recently, I’ve been publishing DiscRep, my discourse rundown, pretty much every single day. Here is my publishing schedule so far this month:
Notice anything missing? There’s no Thursday entry.
That’s because, at some point after Substack’s announcement on April 5, and affecting April 6 in its entirety, Twitter disabled tweet-embedding within Substack posts.
Since embedding tweets is a crucial feature of my discourse rundowns, I couldn’t publish DiscRep on Thursday. (Twitter seemed to reverse this policy by Friday, but my fix, had Twitter not decided to walk this back, would have been to include screenshotted tweets rather than embedded tweets in future DiscRep entries.)
But that’s not the only thing Twitter did.
After reports surfaced of Twitter thwarting tweet-embedding on Substack posts, Twitter users noticed something else: tweets that included Substack links were being severely throttled.
In some cases, users couldn’t even compose tweets with Substack links; in other cases, they couldn’t like, retweet, or reply to tweets containing Substack links.
This seemed different because it wasn’t Twitter withholding one of its features from being used on an external site; now it was Twitter disallowing its own users from freely posting, and engaging with, Substack content. In other words, this move curtailed the freedoms of Twitter users, rather than merely restricted the freedoms of Substack users.
Arc wasn’t affected by this particular action as much as others were, since we use a custom domain. But that, itself, was evidence this was a retaliatory action on Twitter’s part, since it was clear the term “Substack” was what attracted interference. If this was just a technical glitch, why wouldn’t it have affected Substack-hosted sites that happened to have custom domains?
Users, especially ones with a presence on Substack, were indignant.
Josh Barro, who writes the Very Serious newsletter on Substack, tweeted that, for him, this move “greatly reduces the usefulness of Twitter,” and that he would be dropping Twitter unless they reversed the policy. Lots of high-profile users felt the same way.
The most notable defection came from Matt Taibbi, who split with Elon Musk over Twitter’s anti-Substack gambit.
This was huge for the simple reason that Taibbi had been the foremost chronicler of the so-called Twitter Files, a series of revelations about various purported internal shenanigans at Twitter from the pre-Musk days. Taibbi was Musk’s hand-picked “investigator” for this Twitter Files package, but this anti-Substack play seemed to lose Taibbi completely.
In response to Taibbi asking what the hell was happening, (1) a Twitter higher-up, possibly Elon himself, reportedly explained to Taibbi that he would need to shift from using Substack to using Twitter instead; (2) at some point after Taibbi rejected this obviously unserious proposal, Elon unfollowed Taibbi; (3) at some point after that, Elon publicly—and, as far as I can tell, erroneously—claimed Taibbi is a Substack employee; (4) and, finally, as my colleague Nicholas Grossman documented, Twitter removed Taibbi’s tweets from showing up in search results.
What Will I Be Doing?
Although I suggested I might bail on Twitter, I think I’m going to stay. I’ll be using Substack Notes as well—in fact, I already am. But we’re not currently at the point where I have to pick one or the other.
I want to stress how wild it is that I, a longtime Twitter enthusiast, have reached a point where it’s a genuinely live option for me to close my account.
When lots of people on my timeline were scouring for platform alternatives like Mastodon or Post in the wake of Elon’s acquisition of Twitter, I was unmoved. I even repeatedly made fun of Mastodon, largely due to the horrifying account handles it forces you to adopt.
But Elon has actually done it. He’s taken me from I’ll never leave to I might just have to leave with alarming speed.
This is sad, because until recently I always felt Twitter’s pros vastly outweighed its cons. However imperfect, Twitter had always been head and shoulders above the other socials in terms of what it could offer writers and journalists.
Twitter’s network effects make it the premier social media platform of its kind. Most people in the knowledge economy are there. If you’re looking up an author whose work you just read, or a writer whose article you want to share, it’s likelier that they have a Twitter account than not. That’s a formidable advantage.
Substack Notes, by contrast, only has a handful of active users right now. That’s to be expected, obviously, since it’s not yet available to the masses. The feature is still in beta. I expect a torrent of interest and activity on there the moment they open it up to the public. But even then, the sheer number of writers, and potential readers, who are active on Twitter just dwarfs anything Substack Notes will be able to offer, at least initially.
Beyond Twitter’s substantial active user base, and perhaps partly because of it, I expect Twitter to remain the premier place for breaking news. Lots of news organizations do breaking news quite well, but tweets are more rapid-fire than articles, and reporters will continue to utilize it precisely because of that.
So why use Substack Notes at all, then?
What Substack Notes Has Going For It
The greatest reason for Substack Notes optimism is its deep connection to a massive newsletter service already teeming with content creators. Substack isn’t a brand new company debuting a Twitter alternative; its Notes feature is being rolled out as part of a larger discourse ecosystem that already has significant buy-in from writers, and a significant number of readers.
Why is this an important factor? It means Substack Notes is not a completely new service, like Mastodon, that potential Twitter deserters would need to do considerable amount of work to figure out. Substack is a known entity, and it’s the writing platform of choice for many content creators.
Notes, then, is greatly aided by the fact that it’s a fundamentally integrative service, not a completely novel one. And the fact that it functions a lot like Twitter means the learning curve to using it is extremely low—at least for people already familiar with Twitter.
Its most important feature, as far as I can tell at this point, is the monetization options it affords creators.
You might say, ‘Hang on, Twitter has offered monetization options for a while now.’
Yes, but, even in the pre-Elon days, as a standalone social media platform built on the back of uncompensated digital labor, there’s always been a culture on Twitter that sees monetizable add-ons as fundamentally alien. The Superfollowers thing was weird simply because people were used to following feeds for free. But Substack Notes comes along and, well, the same feature feels far less weird, partly because that’s how Substack-on-Main operates.
So Substack’s Notes function benefits from the internal customs and norms already present on the parent site—customs and norms that are uncompromisingly pro-content creator.
Twitter couldn’t get its newsletter service, Revue (which it aquired precisely to outflank sites like Substack), to work. Contrastingly, Substack’s newsletter service is thriving.
The Problem is Elon
I’m not going to beat around the bush: Twitter’s problems are almost entirely Elon-centric.
Obviously, there are bad things and bad actors on the site that Elon has nothing to do with. But those are problems all of us had already learned to live with. The truly game-changing factor in my own progression from thinking I’d never leave to actually considering leaving is, well, Elon.
If I were to bail on Twitter to exclusively post on Substack Notes, these would be the three reasons I’d do so.
Elon’s pay-to-more-enjoyably-play scheme
Elon’s mockery of free speech and his petty vindictiveness
Elon’s obsequieousness toward charlatans and bad-faith actors
The common denominator here is Elon, which is why Twitter’s greatest flaws are all Elon-centric.
(1) Elon’s pay-to-more-enjoyably-play scheme
Elon’s strategy for Twitter is not quite pay-to-play, because the free tier still exists and is the plan most people are on. But I’ve called it pay-to-more-enjoyably-play.
It is an absurdity for Elon to charge people for features that, if they were given freely, would enhance their ability to make him money.
The features—like algorithmic prioritization of one’s tweets and replies, a curated list of tweets linking to external content that one’s community has most interacted with, bookmark folders, the ability to post longer tweets and longer videos, etc.—augment a Twitter user’s capacity to produce content, and increases their interest in doing so.
Lots of these features are indeed alluring—my favorite is Top Articles—yet given a choice between paying for them and using the service’s free tier, for me it’s an easy decision to go with the latter.
Additionally, knowing that these tools are technologically available yet inaccessible unless you pay makes me want to go somewhere else; it makes me want to go to a platform that doesn’t fundamentally see me as a mark.
Elon’s subscription-based vision for Twitter is backwards: his site is valuable because of the content people freely generate on there every day—content that is monetizable for Elon. Instead of rewarding this, he imposes an additional cost.
As Geoff Shullenberger observed:
In suppressing Substack, Musk is making his site far less useful to a major subset of journalists who have been more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. Some of the most prominent are the people he brought in on the Twitter Files! Seems like a very dumb move.
When Elon railed on The New York Times for publicly announcing they would not pay for Twitter Blue, Elon called the outlet “propaganda” and trashed their Twitter strategy. Yet, as James Surowiecki noted:
The New York Times pays the people who produce its content. It doesn’t own a business built entirely on unpaid labor, and then try to charge those people for the right to give you their content for free.
(2) Elon’s mockery of free speech and his petty vindictiveness
Elon has also punctured his reputation as a free speech warrior. He has also revealed himself to be quite petty and vindictive. I’m going to say more about this in a future Belvyland post, so I’ll withhold a lot of my fire here, but here’s a brief rundown of what I mean by this.
When Elon first announced his intentions to purchase Twitter, part of the draw for many people was that he would be better on free speech issues than prior Twitter regimes.
He’s been worse.
Right now, if you search “Substack” on Twitter, you get results that don’t say “Substack” but say “newsletter” instead. He has literally blocked Twitter users from searching for Substack content.
He also made sure to punish The New York Times for having the gall to announce—as noncombatively as possible, by the way—that they didn’t think paying loads of money to Elon in order to retain their blue check was worth it. In response, he ensured they were the first, or among the first, to lose their blue check—and that’s in addition to unprofessionally slandering them in reply tweets.
(3) Elon’s obsequieousness toward charlatans and bad-faith actors
I don’t need the owner of the social media platform I use to be a huge Times fan. The Times catches heat from every direction; they’re a big-boy outfit and can handle it. What’s frustrating, to me at least, is watching the platform owner do his best Ian Miles Cheong impersonation in every other tweet. He’s essentially a glorified reply guy for some of the worst accounts on the site.
All Elon had to do was restrain himself from being an obsequious digital butler serving Catturd2’s every whim and wish. No one needed the Twitter chief to be an out and out leftist. They just couldn't respect someone who doggedly pursued edgelordian glory at every possible turn.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about.
Why the hell is this tweet, which contains information lots of people had been speculating about for an entire day, posted as a reply to Bret Weinstein, one of the discourse’s biggest wankjobs?
I know Bret has a large audience. But so do lots of others. The truth is, Elon dedicates special attention to placating the most conspiratorial chudlords on his platform. As a result, he severely misunderstands his own site, because these people send him inaccurate signals about what it means to set up a thriving discourse ecosystem there.
Earlier in the year, I gave a satirical example of something a lot of us were noticing: Elon’s credulous simping over the worst discourse villains in the game.
Elon has been an abject disaster as Twitter chief. If I were to enumerate the ways he’s torpedoed his own site, I’d need a lot more space.
I didn’t even cover how incompetently he managed Twitter’s most valuable status symbol; I didn’t cover how disastrously he squandered advertiser revenue streams; I didn’t cover how Twitter’s valuation has precipitously dropped since he’s acquired the company—and this isn’t my own gut feeling, or even someone’s critical gloss on Twitter’s financials, but Elon’s own appraisal!
For all of this, I’d truly need a post three or four times the size of this one.
Still, I want to end by saying something positive about Substack rather than something negative about Elon.
This is how the Substack founders chose to respond to Twitter’s actions:
We’re disappointed that Twitter has chosen to restrict writers’ ability to share their work. Writers deserve the freedom to share links to Substack or anywhere else. This abrupt change is a reminder of why writers deserve a model that puts them in charge, that rewards great work with money, and that protects the free press and free speech. Their livelihoods should not be tied to platforms where they don’t own their relationship with their audience, and where the rules can change on a whim.
And this is why, even if we were still in a pre-Elon Twitter era, Substack Notes might well be my pick for best social platform. Its parent platform has proven its commitment to free speech, to equipping writers with the tools to make a living doing what they love, and to coming out with technology that is both easy to use and a pleasure to use.
The fact that Notes is integrated into a larger discourse ecosystem whose architecture is avowedly pro-content creator makes it the best on paper. All that’s left is to prove it can be the best platform in reality. Elon created an opening for Notes—let’s see what Substack can do with it.