Substack Notes moderation

Nilay Patel’s Decoder interview with Substack co-founder Chris Best is excellent. If you’ve only seen the excerpt where Chris declines to answer Nilay’s hypothetical moderation question, that clip was not taken out of context. It is exactly how the interview went, but a small part, and they cover a lot about Substack’s business and the founder’s approach to the web.

I’ve been interested in Substack since the beginning because I think they get a lot of things right:

  • Writers get their own space on the open web. It’s an email newsletter, but it’s also a blog with its own domain name and RSS feed.
  • Writers own their subscription list. They can export email addresses of subscribers and move to another email newsletter platform.

It seems clear from listening to Chris that this focus on identity and portability is no accident. Substack believes in empowering writers, and giving them their own “island” on the web, largely free of platform rules. There is little need for content moderation because readers are actively choosing to subscribe to a writer, not stumbling on random viewpoints that may be offensive or controversial.

Enter Substack Notes:

  • Notes uses the same “social graph” as the main Substack platform. You don’t follow people in the way you do on Twitter or Mastodon. You subscribe to both their notes and email newsletter, giving the writer your email address.
  • Notes is driven by algorithms. By default, the first thing you see is an algorithmic timeline (“Home”) that shows you notes from both people you subscribe to and whatever Substack thinks you should see. You can then switch to an alternate timeline (“Subscribed”) with people you’re following, but even there you will see “restacked” notes or replies from other people.
  • Notes has post permalinks at Substack, not at your own domain name. This is a major shift in identity and ownership.

This is a very different design than the rest of Substack. As it grows, Notes will have much more power to amplify viewpoints and be central to how users discover new writers. It will need to be moderated like a traditional social network. It will need some kind of lightweight following model instead of jumping straight to giving a writer your email address.

In the Kickstarter video for in 2017, I talked about how I viewed the distinction between the timeline (the social network) and the blogs we hosted (or that you can host elsewhere):

If we start to separate the publishing from the social network, it unlocks something. It empowers writers to feel like they own their work, even if that’s short posts. And it frees social networks to build a safe community, without worrying about censorship, because no matter what the networks do you can always post to a site with your name on it.

This has guided our approach to moderation all along. I expanded on it in several chapters of Indie Microblogging, especially the one called Open gardens. It remains a unique part of how works compared to pretty much every other platform.

Substack could adopt a similar philosophy with Notes. Instead, they seem stuck on… something. I’m honestly not sure why they haven’t thought this through in a little more detail.

I’m not rooting for Substack to fail, but I do think Notes needs changes. And while I’m offering unsolicited advice, they should drop the “building a new economic engine for culture” tag line. It means nothing. Forget about the VC money, the drama, whatever is happening with Twitter, and get heads down to build something that makes the web better.

Manton Reece @manton