Substack recently launched a new feature called Notes. Notes provide Substack bloggers with a microblog. The Substack Notes interface bears a distinct resemblance to Twitter. Twitter’s CEO, Mr. Elon Musk, noted the resemblance, accused Substack of downloading a portion of Twitter’s database to bootstrap Notes, and briefly (with more than a bit of controversy) throttled Substack links on Twitter. For its part, Substack denied Mr. Musk’s allegation that it had downloaded materials from Twitter to build Notes and the more general insinuation that Notes is a Twitter clone (regardless of how it was built). It is my position that Substack Notes is, in fact, a Twitter clone in terms of functionality – and Substack’s protests otherwise are unavailing (I take no view on the technical dispute between Twitter and Substack and will not cover it in this article). My issues with Substack Notes are similar to issues I raised about open source social media alternatives in 2022.
From the outset, let us grant that Substack Notes looks like Twitter and functions similarly to Twitter in terms of its posting format. Mr. Leon Paternoster noted the obvious ocular similarity on his blog, This Day’s Portion:
I could not have less interest in Substack’s new Notes feature, and, to be honest, I can barely tell what it is. From the screenshot, it looks like Twitter? Why would they create a Twitter clone?Leon Paternoser
He linked to A note on Substack by Mr. Manu Moreale, who had made a similar observation:
Now there’s a Notes feature which is essentially Twitter and Substack is pushing people to use their native app.Manu Moreale
Indeed. Mr. Moreale’s post is also well-worth reading beyond that snippet.
Mr. Chris Best, CEO of Substack, explained his position in an interview with The Verge published on April 13, 2023, at the height of the Twitter-Substack spat. The interview is highly sympathetic toward Substack (probably more out of antipathy for Mr. Musk than love of Substack), and I recommend reading it in full for Substack’s official perspective on what its Notes platform is and what its purpose is in this big world. But we are only interested in a small part of the interview: Substack’s explaining why Notes, which looks, smells, and feels like Twitter, is definitely not Twitter.
First, let us highlight Mr. Best’s central claim in the interview (I encourage you to read the whole thing before agreeing with my interpretation):
So I think that the difference between Substack and a social network is not in how it looks. The difference is the business model. The difference is what you don’t see. You don’t see ads, you don’t see the incentive structure that ads necessarily create … it runs on paid subscriptions.Chris Best
This is the central of Mr. Best’s interview. Substack is different from the big social media players because its revenue comes from subscriptions instead of ads. Mr. Moreale astutely described (or foresaw) this line of reasoning one day prior to the publication of Mr. Best’s interview:
Is the difference between [Substack and Twitter] that Substack doesn’t advertise and instead takes a cut of the premium subscriptions?Manu Moreale
Now before continuing, I state for the record that I prefer Substack’s business model, as it exists as of the publication date of this article, to Twitter’s. I prefer it from the perspective of a person who writes and reads online. Whether Substack’s current trajectory is financially sustainable is a separate matter.
Mr. Best threw his cards on the table – notwithstanding the fact that Substack Notes looks like Twitter, and that Substack bears some other similarities to the popular social media platforms (centralization, an app, etc.), the business model of Substack does set it apart. In response to another question poking at the Notes-Twitter similarities, Mr. Best replied with an analogy that he thought was witty, but I think is inadvertently telling:
[T]o look at Substack Notes and say ‘well, it looks like other products that I’m familiar with’ is looking at a Tesla and saying, ‘It’s the same as an Aston Martin because they both having a steering wheel.’ You drive them, they’ve got for wheels. They’re completely different because the thing that powers them, the fuel, is completely different.Chris Best
I understand what Mr. Best is doing here. First, he is using Tesla as an example to jab Mr. Musk. Second, he is trying to make his ads focus more vivid. I grant his analogy, but he misses its shortcoming.
From the perspective of a car owner, both the Tesla and Aston Martin have the same practical purpose. Mr. Best himself acknowledges that they both have steering wheels, they both have wheels, and they are both used to commute on roads. The driver interacts with both cars in the same way. The cars are used in furtherance of the same method of transportation. That one is fueled at the gas station and the other with a charger does not change the facts that they are both four-wheeled vehicles for driving on roads and they both require the same license and expertise to use.
Both Twitter and Substack Notes are microblogging systems. Each has a text box. You use the text box to publish short-form posts. Twitter and Substack Notes allow you to like and follow notes from within their respective platforms. You must have an account to post tweets or notes. The tweets and notes exist only on a specific platform, albeit Substack is more open from a reader’s perspective than Twitter. The business purpose of Twitter’s tweets is to convince people to spend more time on Twitter in order to increase Twitter’s value for advertisers, which in turn allows Twitter to make money (or lose less money, depending on the hour). The business purpose of Substack Notes is to convince people to spend more time on Substack in the hopes that those people will spend more time on Substack and purchase subscriptions to Substack writers, from which Substack takes a cut.
I grant Substack’s business model is better from a reader’s perspective and that there are many things about Substack that make it more conductive to yielding good writing than Twitter. But the essence of Notes bears more than a whiff of the essence of tweets.
I had not originally planned to cover Substack Notes in any detail because I am not personally interested in the issue. My interest in Substack is limited to its continuing to make it possible to subscribe it writers via RSS – a subject I covered in a 2021 guide (recently updated). That Substack offers RSS feeds as an option is admirable in that it makes it possible to follow writers and receive updates (including from paid subscription) in a decentralized way – in one’s feed reader, without an app or Substack account (see my introduction to RSS feeds). Moreover, while I prefer RSS to email, that RSS essentially bundles a newsletter with a blog is a valuable service to writers with specific needs and use-cases. I also appreciate Substack’s general tone on free speech and expression (if not its sanctimonious sense of self), especially in the face of criticism for its relatively permissive stance. My only concern with Substack Notes is that it has the feel of a harbinger of a more closed Substack from a reader’s perspective n the future, more like Medium than Substack’s current form.
(Note (pun unintended): I have looked at creating a Substack newsletter for New Leaf Journal writing and other links of interest, much like Mr. Ernie Smith of Tedium has done. One could argue that our Buttondown newsletter serves this purpose. While I may test Substack in the future, my view at the moment is that Substack itself provides no meaningful means of discovery – a fact Mr. Best implicitly acknowledged in noting that many of the big ticket Substack writers rely heavily on Twitter for promotion. It is for this reason that I long ago abandoned syndicating some of our posts to Medium – there is no benefit unless your blog on Medium or Substack is your main project, or at least central to your main project.)
I was inspired to address Notes only because I covered a similar issue with respect to open source social media “alternatives” last year. I have used Mastodon and Pixelfed since 2020. Both Mastodon and Pixelfed are self-hostable open source social media software based on the decentralized Activity Pub protocol. Mastodon is functionally a microblogging Twitter alternative whereas Pixelfed is an Instagram alternative. They are both part of what is commonly known as the Fediverse, a universe of servers hosting Activity Pub based social media software that can communicate with one another. Mastodon is by far the best known and most-used of the Fediverse social software, and my subsequent discussion will focus primarily on it.
Mastodon increased in notoriety after Mr. Musk completed his purchase and takeover of Twitter in late 2022. That led to a surge of users (note this is relative, Mastodon is niche even at its peaks) and think-pieces on Mastodon as a Twitter alternative. However, months before Mastodon’s fifteen minutes, I wrote a piece discussing the clone-like tendency of alternatives to big tech social media. I was inspired to write the post based on a single line in an essay by Mr. Drew DeVault that I found to be agreeable: “But [Mastodon] is still just a Twitter clone.” What Mr. DeVault meant was that Mastodon is aesthetically and functionally similar to Twitter in terms of its posting format and functionality.
There are more technical differences between Mastodon and Twitter than there are between Substack Notes and Twitter. Like Substack, Mastodon does not rely on advertising revenue. However, the difference is more stark because Mastodon is self-hostable software. There is no central Mastodon like there is a central Substack (set aside the fact that the flagship Mastodon instance, Mastodon Social, is by far the biggest instance and that between it and the other large instances, there is more than a bit of de facto centralization in the Mastodon universe). While one could host a Mastodon instance with ads (note former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social is a proprietary fork of Mastodon and Soapbox), one could hardly say that Mastodon has ads. It does not have subscriptions; it does not even have a business model. While there is only one Substack, there are many Mastodon instances, including some single-user Mastodon servers. Substack only interacts with itself (lest you take a broad view of its RSS/newsletter functionality), but Mastodon instances interact with each other (granting that some blacklist liberally) and can even interact with other Activity Pub-based servers (e.g., Pixelfed, PeerTube, Pleroma, and WordPress with a plugin).
Of course, even with these significant differences – more significant than the business model difference between Substack and Twitter – I still agreed with Mr. DeVault that while Mastodon is not an “exact clone of Twitter,” it is, at its heart, a Twitter clone. Mastodon is not the only social media alternative with a case of clone-itis. Pixelfed, which I generally like more than Mastodon, is unabashedly an Instagram clone. Pleroma and Misskey are Twitter clones like Mastodon. Friendica aspires to be a Facebook clone. PeerTube is a YouTube clone (that is a much-needed clone, however). Clone-itis is not restricted to the Fediverse. Minds, a centralized open source social platform that I covered, is a Twitter clone with Facebook characteristics. Mr. Jack Dorsey’s new open source project, Bluesky, is definitely a Twitter clone. Odyssee, which has lost some steam with the drop in crypto prices, makes no secret of the fact that it is a YouTube clone.
I noted in my essay that you must make a certain assumption in determining that the problem with a popular social media platform is everything except its functionality and user interface:
However, in the case of creating an alternative to an established, centralized, commercial social media platform, one should consider whether the only problems that exist in the established platform have to do with centralization, advertising, and algorithms. If the answer is yes, creating a Twitter alternative is as simple as making a microblogging platform that replicates most of Twitter’s functionality with a few tweaks and a new coat of paint. However, if there are issues that stem from the design and user interface of Twitter itself, it is far less clear that creating a decentralized version of Twitter will cure it of all of its ills.
I had previously made my views on Twitter’s design clear in a March 2021 article wherein I discussed an interesting passage by Mr. Haruki Murakami on social media. Mr. Murakami opined that “[g]enerally speaking, the quality of writing [on social media] isn’t very good.” In my essay on Mr. Murakami’s quote, I explained why I agreed:
Social media encourages users to seek reactions – whether through self-indulgent commentary and updates or chasing whatever is trending at the moment. Reaction porn is not useful or pleasant, let alone something that people would want to read for generations to come. Thus, even posters who may otherwise be recognized for their writing talent can produce awful content on social media.Nicholas A. Ferrell
Regular readers will know that I favor open source software and people owning their own online presences, writing, and reading without a big tech middleman treating them as products for an advertising end-user. Thus, I am sympathetic to many aspects of Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter just as I am sympathetic to Substack’s arguments about its pecuniary business model. But, setting aside other concerns I have with Mastodon (de facto centralization and too opinionated) and Substack (potential to head in the wrong direction when it needs more money), neither Mastodon nor Substack Notes fix the fundamental problem with Twitter. Short format ephemeral quips are not conducive to inspiring good writing, and the reaction incentive structure causes people to erroneously associate engagement and virality with good writing. That some people can use microblogs effectively supports the idea that some individuals should run microblogs or incorporate microblogs into larger projects, not that microblogs are a good foundation for a platform or service.
I conclude this essay, which has run longer than I originally expected, by once again asserting that the true alternative to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or the like is not the same thing with decentralization or a different business model. The fediverse’s decentralization and open source and Substack’s subscription-based business model are improvements on the formula which unfortunately contributed to turning an open internet into a centralized fiefdoms. Please, someone, somewhere, take the lead and try to do something different.
- The correct answer is encouraging digital home ownership and improving networking and discoverability for digital home-produced writing and media – something the Indieweb project is more directionally correct on than the current slate of social media alternatives – but I will set allof this aside for future essays.
- I do not oppose the existence of clones. As I noted, Pixelfed does seem to incentivize good photo-posting in comparison to Instagram. Technical users can host their own microblogging homes and hook them up to the broader Fediverse. YouTube alternatives, such as PeerTube for video hosting ownership, are needed, albeit I understand that is a major technical challenge. But we should acknowledge their limitations and consider ways to improve on tired formulae.
- While it is not my intention to solve social media here, you may note that I left out all references to TikTok, notwithstanding that Mr. Chris Best stated that he believes TikTok is the future model for social media and that Substack’s model and structure is really an alternative to the TikTok model. I left out TikTok because it is terrible and it should be banned. The alternative to TikTok is rubble (not even a privacy front-end), the rubble from its being banned in an ideal world. Remember – no other great super power in history would allow a foreign adversary to run social experiments on a nation’s children on its own soil. But I digress – just noting for the record that we absolutely do not need an alternative to TikTok.