All of this is a risky game, with potentially chaotic results that we can't predict.
Any kind of algorithmic way of sorting newsletters opens up a deep rabbit hole which may or may not have spikes at the bottom.
At the moment there is no real 'ranking' of Substacks against each other. My Substack is in total isolation from your Substack. In fact, that we are both writing on Substack is largely incidental to readers: they're just reading our newsletters/blogs. The platform recedes into the background, each writer being a defined island and avoiding the trap of traditional social media pseudo-'networking'.
The exception is around recommendations and direct linking from one article to another. This isn't in any way algorithmic, though. It's 100% curated and driven by writer choice. That gives those networked links proper value. I'd rather Substack stuck to that kind of connection-forming, but we'll see how this all plays out...
I love how fast you got on writing about this. I noticed the badges are already appearing on Substacks I subscribe to. Also seeing complimentary paid subscriptions which I didn’t know you could do.
All the shifts in social media and tech are happening so fast I’m getting a nose bleed. New platforms, new AI, new third party tools, changes to old platforms, algorithm updates. It’s a lot. Or I’m just old.
What drew me to Substack in the first place was the opportunity to write about things I am genuinely interested in, with the hope that the material will find its audience, or an audience will find their way to what I write. I try to resist the very real temptation to produce content I don't actually care about, to try to draw subscribers.
I don't what metrics Substack could use to determine which writers to highlight- but I do agree that basing it solely on ability to draw subscribers seems insufficient, and a little "twittery".
Building social proof into a product is very basic level of gamification. It astounds me that Substack only has Leaderboards and best-seller badges at this point. I invite any of you to do your due diligence on researching on how apps scale. If anything Substack is too old-school, not appealing to young consumers enough.
Thanks for the article, John. I'm late to discovering it, but I was on the front and in the discussion when the news was first announced.
I think Substack has (or had) the right idea by not showing number of followers / subscribers, like most platforms do. They have (or had) a wonderful opportunity to do something different, not just in the realm of tech, but in the realm of human behavior.
Generally, people let other people tell them what to like. As Oscar Wilde said, most people’s thoughts are other people’s opinion. Everywhere you turn, someone is taking advantage of this widespread tendency:
Most Popular Posts. Best Seller! Many People Are Saying. Millions of Views! And now, badges.
I’ve often wondered what people might do if platforms did not take aim at this human tendency. People might have to make up their own mind. That could be something.
Now, as a realistic idealist, I understand that one platform doing things outside the norm isn’t in itself going to flip the world. But it would be a start. Instead of basing reading decisions on subscriber metrics, which are skewed due to fear of missing out and the desire to be part of the group, readers could read a few articles and come to their own conclusion.
I like your thinking here. I, too, recognize why Substack did it and why they are looking to become ever more sustainable by showing investors how many paid subscribers they have at a glance but I think it does leave a lot of folks behind. I like many of your suggestions for how newsletters could be badged or described in other terms besides paying subscribers.
We are all here for different reasons. I, for example, am looking to build readership for my novel and other work and decided not to charge subscribers but to focus on engagement and growth. I may shift that at some point but for now, I'm happy with this. I would like to be more discoverable and your ideas could help with that.
I really liked this post. I was saddened by yesterday’s revelation. I’ve been thinking about the economics of this a lot since yesterday. It reminded me of when I worked for one of the mega bookstores in the mid-‘90s.
I always wondered why there weren’t more of these kinds of bookstores. It seemed like such an awesome idea and that people would be jumping on the bandwagon. Even then my managers told me it wasn’t a bandwagon but a sinking ship. Even before the advent of Amazon.com the shop I was working for had been struggling with constant changes taking place in the publishing industry: Do we sell more magazines? Do sell more CDs, DVDs, board game? Can we get any local bands or poets that won’t cause too much noise throughout the shop but draw in more customers? I was like, “Why not more books? You’re a bookstore!”
Well, one of the problems was managing inventory based on where the shops were located. A branch of the store in San Francisco might have three shelves of nothing but computer manuals, which in those days cost about $50 each, but the manuals had a shelf life of just a few months. If your branch was in a college town where you had a lot of humanities majors, you could probably get by ordering 10 copies of the Arden edition of Shakespeare’s works at about $100 a pop and you’d probably sell out. But let’s say you were the in Greenwood, Indiana, where I happened to be. You might have made a mistake when you ordered fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of obscure dual language philosophical works, so you’d be waiting and hoping that one of your sister locations requested the book be to their site or that a third party would enquire if they could purchase it from you at a markup.
In the end I realized that this flourishing literary community of scholars sipping coffee and sitting in leather comfy chairs for hours on end in a climate-controlled space while discussing works of literature against a soundtrack of mellow jazz was ONLY sustainable if the employees at the registers were ringing up enough receipts to pay the rent and utilities for it. It all came down to the realities of economics. Tastes changed. You’d hear comments like, “I realize that *** sci-fi magazine has been a favorite since the 1960s, but we’re selling no more than 3 copies a month, so we’re only going to order 2 copies a month unless that trend changes.” Then when phenomena happened like the Harry Potter books, the entire store would literally be walled with copies of it.
I’m not going to lie, I don’t like the badge idea. But I agree with you that I’d like to see Substack around ten years from now and if that means making changes so that the platform can pay its rent, that’s worth it for me to be able to enjoy this virtual literary salon.
One of the ways Tik Tok blew up was because it gave people with small followings a big chance of growing viral. It was basically easy to be seen. And you're right - how lovely it'll be if Substack promoted NEW Substacks that need audiences?
I have to say my heart sank when I read your post. I was like, great, now I have to try to get the badge to be seen, is that it? I've always been terrible at getting followers - at least in the numbers that would deem me "worthy" or popular. Mostly because I hate manipulating people and also because I can't do *ALL THE THINGS* to be successful on all platforms. (I have limited mental bandwidth and am aggressive at protecting myself from burnout.) I hope Substack doesn't roll with this and consider our voices.
I'm so mad at this you won't believe lol. And I was about to write a post extolling the virtues of Substack to a small writer group I am a part of. As a writer who treats writing as an artform, I don't want to be pressured to get more subscribers, money etc. I want to be free to experiment without penalised. Will we see the rise of "How I earn XXXXX a month on Substack" listicles? Like what Medium is right now, full of content "teaching" you to be a top Medium writer? I've left blogging on my website because of Google's increasingly draconian SEO mandates and I gave up on Medium after one week. Substack was the only place I felt any peace as a writer.