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On Substack

And the future of this newsletter


Emily VanDerWerff

Mar 15 2021

7 min read


Late last week, Jude Doyle (whose newsletter is one of my favorites) made a persuasive argument that Substack had built its platform atop the unpaid labor of writers from marginalized communities. The platform then took the money made from those writers’ work and used it to pay substantial advances toward writers known for writing articles widely decried within trans circles.

These issues are not exclusive to trans circles or even LGTBQ+ circles. You only need to look at Glenn Greenwald’s proximity to the vicious online mob that descended on New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz to see other ways the lack of accountability that is built into the editor-free newsletter model can create horrible outcomes. (It’s also worth noting that this conversation dovetails with a separate one about how Substack is now large enough to likely require some sort of content moderation, to ensure that the service is not being used to platform hate speech, about which more in a moment.)

I found Doyle’s argument compelling, but I was loathe to move this newsletter from Substack for a variety of reasons (some of which I will delve into momentarily). I had started this newsletter on a whim, when Tinyletter increasingly seemed untenable as a publishing platform, and I had been proud of how quickly it had grown into something bigger than me sending random thoughts to a handful of subscribers.

My hope was that Substack would respond in a way that made clearer just whom they had given money to publish on the platform. I do not mind sharing a platform with people whose views I harshly disagree with. I’m on Twitter, after all. I do not like the thought of the money my subscribers pay me being used to subsidize those people to be on this site when so many other writers whose voices actually need amplification remain in a financial bind. (Paying writers whose voices need amplification is the exact reason I started the paid edition of this newsletter, after all!)

But Substack’s response was genuinely terrible. At least half of this PR nightmare for them could have been avoided if they had simply come clean about whom they had given money for their “Substack Pro” program, in similar fashion to how they announced their Substack fellows. The lack of transparency created a vague sense that everyone on the platform who is at all controversial is underwritten by the company somehow, and though the company could have immediately cleared any of this up by saying “[X controversial person] is not on Substack Pro,” or “[X controversial person] is on Substack Pro,” it mostly obfuscated, which furthers the sense that the company is underwriting several of the internet’s worst people.

Substack’s explanation for all of the above contains this short passage:

No writer who says anything important is universally loved; and in fact, sometimes those who engender the fiercest opposition are the ones most deserving of support. This is why the free press is important. A hero can be thought a villain, and a villain a hero.

It’s one thing to agree with the above intellectually (I more or less do). But in the case of many of the writers who have provoked the harshest criticism, the criticism isn’t about a contest of ideas. It’s about just how completely those writers treat everything from trans identities to harassment of women online as an intellectual parlor game, rather than as something that has real stakes and will impact real lives, simply because treating these issues as a parlor game garners more clicks.

But this is not an abstracted game to be talked about over dinner parties. People live and die based on how these issues are understood. It’s all well and good to support the trans people you know individually in your life; it’s quite another thing to play devil’s advocate about policies that will materially impact the lives of many, many trans people, particularly young trans girls.

The only person on Substack whom I consider an active threat to trans people is Graham Linehan, whose virulent anti-trans bigotry has seen him deplatformed on all major mainstream sites other than Substack. I believe he’s violated Substack’s code of conduct (which explicitly prohibits the sort of writing he does as a matter of course) many, many times over. But while I find several other writers on the platform odious, I’m fine being on the same platform as them so long as they are getting the same deal as everybody else and are not being given preferential treatment for some reason.

But I cannot know whether Substack specifically recruited these people for their Substack Pro program or not, because Substack’s lack of transparency has created a confusing soup of misinformation, and it’s become clearer throughout the weekend that whatever structural support that was in place for many of the big names to join the platform just wasn’t there for writers who cover, say, LGBTQ+ issues. (For my part, when I was working to launch the paid edition of Episodes, Substack offered a small bit of support, for which I’m grateful, but little beyond a handful of quick emails. Nor was anything offered beyond that.)

Were I just writing for myself still, I would likely just move this newsletter to another platform and be done with it. But I’m not. I have subscribers, and I have freelancers to pay. I have other complications as well. The agreement I have with Vox Media is based on me running a paid newsletter on Substack, and changing that (while probably doable) will take some time and negotiation. I have a number of freelance articles I have commissioned that I am dedicated to running in some form or another. I’m not going to leave those writers on the hook. (Many of those writers are trans; a few have contacted me about being uncomfortable with publishing on Substack, given the current conversation.)

While I am nowhere near the largest newsletter out there, I have just under 3,000 subscribers and around 175 paid subscribers. I am far from Substack’s highest priority, but the money you’ve given me will likely add around $800 to their coffers throughout 2021 — a drop in the bucket of their annual budget, I’m sure, but not nothing. Also, given the rate at which my subscriber base has grown in the last month alone, I suspect I’ll be pulling in a fair amount more by the end of the year. My projection assumes my numbers remain, essentially, flat.

But I’m adding what little leverage I have to the movement to find some alternative to this platform. I’m exploring my options to move to another site — and ideally move all of your subscriptions over, too. My hope is that you won’t be charged again, and your subscription will run for as long as your term is meant to. But I’m also exploring my options to make change of some sort within Substack, as outlined in this Twitter thread from writer Alicia Kennedy.

No platform is going to be without sin, and every platform will have terrible people on it. But the platforms I’m exploring are ones where your money will not go to lining the pockets of people who are interested in trans people mostly as an odd hypothetical. My hope is that I can find or create such a platform, and if I can’t, we’ll figure that out.

I’m pausing the newsletter for this week, as I try to figure out what’s next. We’ll be back Monday with our usual nonsense, along with a freelance article about the cooption of Broadway protest songs and a conversation about the M. Night Shyamalan film The Last Airbender. (Look, this is the only newsletter that gives you a newsletter like this one and a conversation about The Last Airbender.)

Thank you for reading this newsletter all these years, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’re a paid subscriber, you can comment. If you’re a free subscriber, you can reply to this email, and I’ll see it.

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