Substack, Ghost and the revenge of the bloggers

Originally published at: Substack, Ghost and the revenge of the bloggers | Boing Boing


I was one of the early backers of Ghost on Kickstarter, and it’s great to see that they have managed to maintain their open source principles even though that has clearly cost them profile.


Referring to the TERds and other alt-right jerks who’ve made their way to Substack (often with big up-front payments) after being de-platformed elsewhere as large-L “Libertarians” is fine. That’s how they tend to refer to themselves, despite the fact that they’re quick to place limits on who “deserves” to live their authentic lives.

“Reactionary Humanism” is interesting, too, though. It captures the fact that these are people who want to express their bigotry without the embarrassing woo aspects of religious fundamentalism.


The ongoing Substack brouhaha appears to be at least three different issues wrapped up in one.

First, there’s the surface issue- In order to boost their numbers and gain publicity, Substack has brought a number of well-known names to their platform with some fairly big deals. And at least one of these people is an abusive fuckwit. Given the amount of publicity this has generated for Substack, this has worked. For now- they’ve got a lot of publicity, and people are signing up for their service. But people have seen how easy it is to set up a similar “Your ideas intrigue me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter” service- all you need is a payment processor and an email exploder after all. So while Substack might end up being a useful service, it isn’t clear that there’s much of a profit margin in it. If they take too much of a cut, the big names can just migrate to another platform. So they might end up like Steam- a lot of people want to buy these things, and we’re the most convenient store front for it.

Second- there’s the conflict between different revenue models for how we pay for writing. With the advent of proper online payments, we’re finally seeing something that was predicted in 1995 by Douglas Adams:

That’s one model of how online magazines work and it is, of course, absolutely free to readers. There’s another which will probably arrive as soon as it becomes possible to move virtual cash around the Internet, and that will involve readers being billed tiny amounts of money for the opportunity to read popular Web pages. Much less than you would, for instance, regularly spend on your normal newspapers and magazines because you wouldn’t have to be paying for all the trees that have to be pulped, the vans that have to be fuelled and the marketing people whose job it is to tell you how brilliant they are. The reader’s money goes straight to the writer, with a proportion to the publisher of the Web site, and all the wood can stay in the forests, the oil can stay in the ground, and all the marketing people can stay out of the Groucho and let decent folk get to the bar.
Why doesn’t all the money go to the writer, I hear you (and indeed myself) asking. Well, maybe it will if he’s happy just to drop his words into the digital ocean in the hope that someone out there will find it. But like any ocean, the digital one has streams and eddies and currents, and publishers will quickly have a role finding good material to draw into those currents where readers will naturally be streaming through looking for stuff, which is more or less what they do at the moment. The difference will lie in the responsiveness of the market, the speed with which those streams will shift and surge, and the way in which power and control will shift to those who are actually contributing something useful rather than just having lunch.
The thing we leave out of the model is, essentially, just a lot of dead wood.

Read the full article here:

We have essentially gone through multiple models of trying to get “writing on the internet” to pay.

  • The first iteration of this was the ad-supported model. Since you’re reading boing boing, I assume you know how that works. Since you’re reading boing boing, I also assume you know how it doesn’t work.
  • The second iteration is the subscription only journal. These appear to only work in niche cases where people will pay for high quality research and information that they can’t get elsewhere- See the FT, Nature, etc.
  • The third is the soft paywall subscription model that many newspapers have migrated to- here, we get part and pat ad funded and subscription funded, paid for by people who are prepared to pay for the cable-style bundle of writers that the magazine or newspaper puts together. The obvious drawback of this method is that while a lot of people are willing to read a little from a wide range of sources, it would be massively expensive to take out a subscription to everything you read a little of. Plus, the reader that subscribes is supporting everything not just the writers that they like. Let’s use the NYT as an example. I want to read the Upshot and Paul Krugman’s columns, but don’t feel that enthused about paying for a bundle that includes a ton of crosswords, Thomas L Friedman and cheerleading America’s Next Top Invasion.
  • Now we have a fourth- the Substack model where we subscribe to exactly what we want. This looks like it could be a hit for established writers, but how does someone start out and get the mass following that would make it pay?

There’s an obvious conflict between the various subscription methods, and they each have an incentive to tell you how the others are never going to succeed, while imploring you to spend your cash on them and them alone.

Third- there’s the inherent conflict between writers for the different modes of journalism.

Being good at ad-supported journalism means being good at getting clicks. The rise of clickbait, content farming, recipes that go on for several pages and outrage bait are all ways to get loads of clicks, but not very many readers will say that this is what they want from their news source, and very few writers actually want to be writing like this.

Being good at NYT or magazine style bundled subscription journalism means being good at getting your writing picked up by editors. but as we’ve already seen from the NYT example, a lot of readers only want part of the curated experience from each subscription-locked journal.

Being good at substack means being good at getting readers who will pay for your specific writing. This channels the success of a certain type of writer, and the subscription sign ups are the one brutal metric that everything runs by. And that’s got to be very disheartening for any of the writers who can’t make substack work. Knowing that you’re either churning out content that people will read but not pay for, or to find out that you’re the “filler” in the bundle must hurt. So there’s a natural tendency for people who are good at the clickbait or the office politics game to do down the new model, because journalism is a brutal zero sum game with shrinking returns, mass redundancies and ever-more-precarious working terms.


Nice absolute unit of a keyboard animgif. Reminds to be a sculptor of ergonomicity.


“power has migrated toward talent” is a funny way to describe an extremely precarious gig economy…

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