Substack Essay Series #1: The Top 5 Things People Misunderstand About Substack

America's most misunderstood digital platform deserves significantly better than it has gotten from major media so far. This extensive guide to the platform aims to help.

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Introduction

Writing an article about a platform you publish on using that platform as your means of communication reminds me of comedian Lewis Black’s epic rant about a spot in Houston where two Starbucks franchises face one another from across a busy street. Black avers that the scene is a Sign of the Apocalypse, and I’m inclined to agree—despite my fondness for the occasional venti White Chocolate Mocha. Even so, as a working journalist and an assistant professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at University of New Hampshire who teaches digital writing, digital journalism, digital publishing, and creative nonfiction at the university level—among other subjects—I’d be remiss as both a journalist and an academic if I didn’t write about my experience of Substack thus far.

A few caveats before I begin: (1) I have been on Substack for just over two months; (2) Proof, the Substack newsletter and website you’re reading now, is a subscription outlet, so I receive income from my use of the platform; (3) I’ve never been in a conversation with anyone at Substack, not even once, and am not a Substack Pro enrollee; and (4) Proof does appear on the Substack national rankings (it’s #2 in the United States in the Culture category) so I have some familiarity with, and investment in, those rankings.

I mention all these items both for the sake of transparency and because they’ll become directly relevant later on in this essay. I also mention them because the watchword of this essay will be accuracy. I’ve read too many essays in major media and on various websites—a few by former Substack authors—that state things about Substack I know to be untrue, so ensuring I don’t repeat that error here is a top priority for me. This essay is intended as a clear-eyed look at a platform I have no relationship with beyond the fact that I use it. I say “clear-eyed” here because, like any Substack author, I could easily switch to another platform if at any point Substack stopped meeting my needs— so I have no reason to sugar-coat anything I say here. To their credit, and to the credit of the platform they built, Substack founders Hamish McKenzie, Jairaj Sethi, and Chris Best do nothing to dissuade authors using Substack from writing about the service or indeed any other service (a nice change of pace from, say, Instagram, which refuses to verify any user who links to another digital platform in their bio) so there’s no chilling effect on this essay emanating from that end of things, either. Newsletter subscriber lists are readily fungible, so moving from Substack to one of its competitors would be easy as pie for anyone who wanted to do it. One author unhappy at Substack for not offering them a sizable monetary advance to write on the platform—two years before Substack began doing so programmatically—was able to move their newsletter to a Substack competitor, in its entirety, in well under 96 hours, no questions asked.

So, despite me being a Substack author, what you’re getting here is only and exactly what I know, upon information and belief, to be true.

This means that if you’ve lately been reading accounts of Substack that clearly come from a place of personal animus or vendetta—and there are several of those floating around right now, all masquerading as journalism—you’ll find something different here.

One last point I think I should make early on rather than further below: I’ve now been a regular internet user for over 30 years—see what follows for an explanation of how this unusual circumstance came to pass—and I have never seen a digital platform lied about with more persistence, viciousness, and cynicism than Substack has been lied about. Agree or disagree with the many criticisms that have been made in recent years of Facebook and Twitter and TikTok, but by and large they are at least based on how those social media websites actually work, and their documented infelicities. Perhaps because Substack is a digital publishing platform rather than a social media website (see below for much more on this critical distinction), and because it therefore competes directly with powerful media organizations, major-media reporting on Substack has been profoundly disingenuous, even grotesque, and has at many points exploited the irresponsible rhetoric and heightened apprehensions of former Substack authors upset at the platform for reasons that appear to have nothing to do with the platform itself.

On the subject of “irresponsible rhetoric,” I should add too, at this point in the essay, what I know will become clear later on: I do not believe Substack should pay any monies, via its Substack Pro program, to any person whose past writing would violate Substack’s own content guidelines. Besides being unethical—as it would suggest that the company doesn’t really support its own content guidelines—it’d also be a terrible business decision, as Substack would be forced to immediately redact content from an individual it just paid, or in some cases suspend (either temporarily or permanently) a Substack account whose output the company had invested in heavily.

This is a different matter, of course, from whether Substack should allow individuals to use its platform (without monies from the Substack Pro program discussed below) if they have previously written content that would violate Substack’s content guidelines but do not publish any such content on Substack. There is a limit to the extent to which a company, Substack or any other, can become an investigative outfit sniffing out past public content from Substack authors that would have violated Substack’s content guidelines if it had appeared on Substack. We certainly do not expect this form of ex post moderation from any other social media website or digital publishing platform.

The question becomes whether a corporate incentive program that does not disclose who it enrolls is problematic. As indicated above, it certainly could become so in two instances: (1) that of a Substack Pro enrollee who has never before been known to publish material that would violate Substack’s content guidelines but now suddenly publishes such material, in which case there’s presumably no issue as long as the company treats with this author as they would any other (being unable to void their past deal with the author, but certainly able to apply the same content moderation to that author as any other); (2) that of a Substack Pro enrollee who the company knows has published content violative of Substack’s guidelines in the past, which again would be a catastrophically silly decision for the company on simply too many levels to count.

Recently, a very small number of ex-Substack authors have averred, without evidence, that Substack has run afoul of this second scenario by not just offering advances to people with diverse and divergent political views to entice them to make the move to Substack (worth noting, a very different proposition than being a publisher who gains partial rights to an author’s work, and a very significant percentage of their earnings) but selecting for this rare honor—actually not much of an honor, see below for why—individuals who Substack should’ve known would become content-guidelines violators.

We can’t really assess this complaint unless and until (a) content guidelines-violative material is found to have been published on Substack—something that apparently hasn’t happened yet—at which point readers will naturally inquire whether Substack stupidly paid someone who thereafter violated their posted guidelines, or (b) someone locates guidelines-violative content from a Substack creator that was published before they came to Substack, in which case some people may wonder whether the individual was given a Substack Pro deal.

Substack has indicated that it will likely deal with this inevitable second scenario by finding a way to, in the future, be transparent about who it has signed Substack Pro deals with, rather than (as print publishers do) leaving the revelation of any such deal to the author themselves. To date, I believe one instance has been shown of a Substack creator publishing content pre-Substack that would have violated Substack’s content guidelines; this individual is not believed to be a member of the Substack Pro program, however, though admittedly the lack of transparency with respect to the 30 creators enrolled in the program makes this impossible to know for certain. Meanwhile, and quite ironically, the confirmed Substack Pro enrollee who has most vociferously called out this other Substack writer—the one who published Substack guidelines-violative material before joining Substack—ironically did violate their own Substack Pro deal, and quite publicly, mere hours after signing it. They did so by informing readers that they could use a subscription payment method other than Stripe (thereby cutting both Stripe and Substack out of the author’s subscription revenue, a violation not only of Substack’s content guidelines but also any Substack Pro deal this individual signed).

Of course, the above few paragraphs constitute exactly the problem I’m writing about.

Already I find myself writing here about Substack Creator A and Substack Creator B when what Substack is is a platform with thousands of creators living and working on it. While I can understand someone being upset with Substack at the thought that it may have given some amount of money to a creator who published content guidelines-violative material pre-Substack—again, a preposterously stupid business decision on Substack’s part, if it ever happened—it is hard to get worked up about this possibility when there’s presently no evidence to suggest that any such thing has ever happened.

And that’s especially so if pursuing this hypothetical to its natural end would require forcing people who signed a contract with a confidentiality clause intended to protect them—not necessarily Substack—to be “outed” in a way we would consider abusive if it happened to an author publishing their work in print rather than digitally. Even so, those willing to spend their time musing about a distant hypothetical with no evidence to support its relevance are free to (because of Substack’s business model) take their subscribers and leave the platform whenever they wish. The notion that anyone would try to burn down the entire platform on their way out the door in such a rare scenario makes me very angry, for reasons that I’ll explain in more detail later on in this essay.

Indeed, this essay was born in part out of my frustration—not just as a Substack user but as an attorney, journalist, professor, creative writer, and professional author—at seeing the best digital platform I have ever personally used, and one that I think can be profoundly important to creativity and journalism in the United States going forward, falsely maligned by people and institutions with agendas they haven’t transparently disclosed. Anyone who knows the truth about what Substack is shouldn’t be standing idly by while persons and organizations with their own eldritch reasons for wanting to see the platform maligned are given ample time and space to exorcise their personal angst at Substack’s expense. Because of course Substack is no longer just a platform, it’s a community of thousands of creators, and over half a million readers, who deserve far better than the discourse about our community that we’ve been getting of late.

With all that said, here are the five key things I’ve learned about Substack that I think everyone should know. Many of you may already know some or all of these, but the implications of these findings are often more startling than the bare facts themselves.

The Top 5 Things People Misunderstand About Substack

(1) Substack isn’t a social media website, it’s a digital publishing platform. On a social media website, interactions between accounts aren’t just encouraged, but are indeed central to the UX (user experience). On a digital publishing platform, you could spend hours writing on the platform daily—in fact, hours a day for many years—and never interact directly, even once, with another author’s account.

{Note: I distinguish this from one’s interactions with readers, which are of a different character, are a wholly separate element of the community and user experience, and, blessedly, are intricately managed by Substack authors themselves. Authors can restrict comment boards to subscribers, permanently ban commenters with a click, and in general operate their comment boards as an integral part of a vast media outlet they exclusively run, so any Substack author who leaves Substack because their boards are out of control is using the platform incorrectly.}

The gulf between these two business plans is spectacularly vast—and the difference in UX comparably huge. Whereas the fact that millions of Donald Trump supporters have Twitter accounts is a reality I can’t escape when I’m on that platform, and indeed one that substantially alters my experience of the website, when I’m using Substack the only relationship that matters, or indeed really exists at all, is the one between me and my readers. I can, of course, choose to read other Substack authors’ newsletters—and I often do—but it’s 100% optional in a way that seeing content from objectionable persons on Twitter typically isn’t, short of a highly active blocking protocol. And in any case, even when I see other Substack authors’ content, it’s more like I’m choosing to briefly visit their digital homes rather than feeling in any sense like their views have been thrust into my face by a corporate-controlled algorithm—one that is, further, subject to the whims of strangers who retweet or quote-tweet unpleasant characters.

What this means for current discussions of Substack is pretty simple: if you haven’t quit Twitter yet because Mitch McConnell has a Twitter account, you should be literal light years away from choosing to leave Substack (if you’re an author) or avoiding reading Substack (if you’re a reader), as only 1% of Substack users—an estimate, but also a percentage you’d kill for on Twitter—are publishing content that you would find objectionable, and you do not (unlike on Twitter) have to be exposed to even that small stock of objectionable content if you don’t wish to be.

I’ll return to this first point—Substack isn’t a social media website and can’t be treated like one—repeatedly during this essay, as the downstream implications of this foundational point are many, and worth far more discussion than they’ve gotten so far.

(2) Substack is vast. To hear certain major media outlets and certain former Substack authors tell it, there’s a single category of content on Substack—political content—and within that category of content there are only a handful of authors, all of them conservative and male, whose voices are dominant. Not only is this laughably untrue, but in order to even generate this UX for yourself you’d have to bend over backwards in comical ways. Indeed, to use an inapt analogy to a social media website (just for the sake of making the point), having this experience of Substack would require, in Twitter terms, something like clicking over to Ben Shapiro’s feed on that website, following the three people Twitter recommends you follow on the basis of your interest in Shapiro and absolutely no one else, and then complaining that “Twitter is lousy with far-right nut-jobs.” Anyone who did this—instead of blocking Shapiro and his acolytes and choosing only to follow Twitter users who don’t retweet or quote-tweet the rantings of that particular set—would be roundly criticized for their masochism, and rightly so.

Of course, recreating such an experience on Substack is exponentially more difficult. It could more properly be said that certain of the criticisms of Substack that involve four or five of the platform’s thousands of users are more akin to objecting to a website’s existence because you found out that an ex-boyfriend—a really nasty piece of work—once logged onto it at the same time you were on it. You didn’t encounter him on the site at the time, and that couldn’t even theoretically have happened, but nevertheless you have decided that the entire platform, as well as the thousands of vibrant communities that have built themselves atop it, must now be utterly destroyed.

The truth? Substack has nineteen—and counting—discrete and catalogued categories of content, only one of which is Politics. The others, in alphabetical order, are Art & Illustration, Business, Climate, Culture, Education, Faith, Finance, Food & Drink, Health, History, Literature, Music, News, Philosophy, Science, Sports, Technology, and Travel. To give a sense of how quickly new categories and “Top 25” category rankings are being created, when I came on the platform on January 14, 2021, there were just thirteen categories. The approximately 50% increase in categories in just the last nine weeks doesn’t seem likely to slow down any time soon, either, as I expect (e.g.) Games & Hobbies and Advice & Self-Help categories to appear on-site any day now.

The current nineteen categories don’t just exist, either—they’re vibrant. Many of them feature work by well-known authors, and have been regularly written up as among the most interesting independent journalism available today. One Sports substacker, SB Nation sports journalist Ricky O’Donnell, just got written up in the Washington Post for providing entertainment to college basketball fans during the pandemic—not with commentary about a professional or amateur sports team you can watch on television, but one whose improbable adventures exist only in a video game. Over in the Culture section, one of the most talented and celebrated writers in America, Roxane Gay, is running a wildly popular book club. Chicago Reader credits music journalists on Substack with helping to keep the pandemic music scene in the Windy City buzzing.

The desire to erase and silence 99.9% of substackers to focus America’s attention on the exploits of a dismal few is positively inexplicable to me—especially because many of the voices being erased and silenced are those of women, people of color, and other vulnerable groups. Head on over to the Faith section of Substack and you’ll find a veritable herd of progressive rabbis who have found, in Substack, a new way to reach their congregations in the midst of a global catastrophe. Over at Food & Drink, Alison Roman, one of the most well-known food journalists in America, is dishing out “recipes, stories, and unsolicited advice” that her readers simply can’t get enough of.

Even so, former Substack authors looking to wound the platform—and therefore, all those who write on it innocently and in good faith—and major media outlets who see the very concept of Substack as an existential threat (in much the same way the same Chicken Littles used to think of blogging as an existential threat) get great mileage in their esoteric vendettas against Substack by treating four or five authors who no one on Substack but the subscribers to their newsletters reads as though they are ambassadors for the entire platform. It is, to put it mildly, infuriating. And, as I said, it “erases” and “silences”—not just metaphorically, but literally—thousands of hardworking creators of every background and perspective imaginable. Efforts to destroy existing Substack communities by bringing down Substack hurt real people in real time, not just creators but readers, and do so as part of a perverse project to elevate certain fringe voices to becoming synonymous with a platform they merely inhabit along with thousands of others.

Even the Politics section is preposterously miscast in major media. The most popular Politics Substack is authored by a progressive Boston College history professor named Heather Cox Richardson, who now makes over $1 million annually offering beautifully contextualized summaries of the events of the Trump era. The third-most popular Politics Substack is headed by one of the nation’s most well-known “Never Trumpers,” Bill Kristol. One of the two fastest-rising Politics Substacks in the Politics Top 25 is run by Dan Rather, famously the left-leaning anchor of CBS News from 1981 to 2005. Other Top 25 Politics substackers are controversial figures in U.S. politics, not for their conservatism but the opposite: for being progressives wildly unpopular among both the American Right and certain components of the Left. Another fast-rising Politics substacker, Shaun King, falls into this category via a collaborative publication, The North Star.

A former senior adviser to President Obama, Dan Pfeiffer, now has one of the most popular Politics Substacks. Even the few conservatives on the Top 25 list in Politics are an oddly non-dogmatic bunch: British-American journalist Andrew Sullivan is the former editor of the left-wing New Republic and a member of the LGBTQ community; Glenn Greenwald has at various points been a hero among both the American Left and the American Right, though more frequently the latter, recently; and Matt Taibbi is arguably a lefty whose sole basis for now being controversial on the political left is that he disbelieves almost everything ever reported about the Trump-Russia scandal.

{Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have tangled with both Taibbi and Greenwald, the former both publicly and privately. I cannot say I have any fondness for either. That said, their continued presence on Substack affects me and my readers in no way at all, nor does it affect anyone else’s Substack—or anyone else’s readers—in any way whatsoever.}

In short, Substack is not a coffee clatch to which only four or five right-wing writers are invited any more than Twitter is Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump stuffed into the back seat of your 2003 Honda Civic. Substack is a sprawling digital platform that offers server space to literally thousands of authors of every perspective, background, and political persuasion. Just so, while the exceedingly small number of critics of the platform who have ever been on the platform may delight in focusing their attention on just one of the nineteen officially recognized subject areas on Substack, in fact the range of subjects discussed daily on Substack newsletters is almost as broad as the range of subjects discussed on Facebook and Twitter and TikTok and Instagram and (lately) Clubhouse. To misrepresent Substack as a digital environment in which Glenn Greenwald or Graham Linehan are representative—the latter a name wholly unknown to me until the past week, and it’s still unclear whether either of the two Substacks authored by the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd (as I now know him to be) is even widely read—is considerably more inane than saying that Twitter is uninhabitable because Mitch McConnell has a feed there, or that Facebook and TikTok are lethal toxic waste sites simply because sometimes you come across Glenn Greenwald on-site.

In short, speaking of digital publishing platforms in this way is only something that happens when you don’t understand what a publishing platform is in the first instance.

Some say, “Yes, but is it a digital publishing platform, if it offers advances to authors?”

To which I reply—more on this below—that this is literally what publishing platforms do.

The Big Five publishers in New York City—Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—offer advances of wildly differing sizes, in secret, to wildly diverse authors, and make these decisions as business decisions. How do we know this? Because the presses give money to both progressive and conservative authors, men and women, whites and non-whites, writers in every imaginable genre of creative writing, folks with every conceivable background and perspective, and—because these authors work with different editors at their press and each have their own agents—it becomes nigh impossible to say what the overall political bent is of any of these large corporate entities. The same is true for Substack, which (based on what we know so far) in fact appears to be leaning quite heavily toward progressive authors in its Substack Pro program (see below) but may well also be giving occasional advances to more conservative writers. This is not proof that Substack has an editorial perspective, but rather proof that it is a digital publishing platform run precisely as print-oriented publishing platforms have been run for many decades now.

{Note: Case-in-point: My book Proof of Corruption, which came out in 2020 from Macmillan and established top-to-bottom corruption in the Trump White House, including its press office, was published the same day Macmillan published Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ autobiography.}

So just as you couldn’t select one Penguin/Random House author, or even five or ten or fifty such authors, and declare them “representative” of the the thousands of authors Penguin/Random House has published since Penguin was founded 86 years ago, you couldn’t do so with Substack, either, even though it has only been around since 2017. The scope of what’s happening on the platform is already far too vast to allow for this sort of banal reduction, and those demagogues who fancifully imagine that Substack is like Parler or Gab are not just cynical but truly devious. They know they’re lying about Substack—and in doing so hurting many innocent people—and they simply don’t care.

(3) The much-maligned “Substack Pro” program involves a vanishingly small number of Substack authors who are, in fact, getting a raw deal. Moreover, almost none of the authors who’ve lately been accused of being in the program are actually in it, nor does the program run in anything like the fashion its detractors have insisted it does.

To be very clear about this up front, not only am I not in the Substack Pro program, I have never even spoken to anyone to works at Substack. Ever. On any subject. I’ve been very clear about that at Proof, ever since I created a “History” section for the website.

My knowledge about the Substack Pro program comes from doing what journalists, attorneys, and journalism professors like me do: research. And even the barest amount of research reveals that the things now being said about Substack Pro are simply untrue. For starters, an insidious attempt was made to tar people as being in the program (and therefore secretly receiving “advances” on earnings from Substack in the manner that print authors do daily in America) who had publicly been quite clear on the fact that they are not in it: most notably, the aforementioned Glenn Greenwald and yet another person I have argued with and have no regard for whatsoever, Jesse Singal.

{Note: For context, Singal once wrote a Boston Globe article about me in which he falsely claimed that I had invented a news story he well knew was a BBC report. Again, however, there is no effect to me or my readers whatsoever to Singal being on Substack, and to the extent I might wish that he weren’t, I could say the same thing about thousands of times more people who I’ve encountered on Twitter and Facebook. If you didn’t abandon those social media websites many years ago, you’ve no leg to stand on in saying that a considerably more friendly and progressive ecosystem on a digital publishing platform should be abandoned by anyone.}

I may not respect Glenn Greenwald or Jesse Singal as people or, frankly, as journalists, but I do respect my journalistic practice enough not to blithely say these two men are in the Substack Pro program when they have repeatedly said they are not and—as to Greenwald—Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie has made clear he is not in a widely heard podcast episode. Indeed, the only individuals we know for sure are in the Substack Pro program are progressives Matty Yglesias and Anne Helen Petersen; the sometimes progressive Taibbi; San Francisco psychiatrist Scott Alexander Siskind, who apparently writes about medicine, philosophy, and futurism (and has revealed that, like Matty Yglesias, he lost money on his Substack Pro deal); conservative agitator Freddie deBoer (who candidly I’d never heard of before doing research for this essay, and whose Substack is sadly #17 in the Culture category in part because his detractors did their damnedest to write about it incessantly and make it famous); and Nicholas Jackson, the former editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard, a publication that focuses on environmental justice. These six people comprise, collectively (see below) 20% of the entire Substack Pro program, and, taken as a “group average,” we’d have to say that they unabashedly lean politically left. I won’t speculate as to who else might be in the program—and candidly can’t believe that so many major-media outlets have engaged in such irresponsible speculation—but will simply note that every other Substack author I hear rumors about having received an advance is considered a progressive.

{Note: For perspective, the five Substacks ranked just ahead of and behind deBoer in the Top 25 in the Culture category include Feminist Giant, which offers “global feminist resistance to patriarchal fuckery”; Femstreet, where “women in tech lead, shape, and fund the future”; Power Plays, billed as “a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism in sports”; and a Substack on “occasional sad garbage” by the stunningly talented LGBTQ comedian Samantha Irby.}

Incredibly, it’s not just the roster of Substack Pro authors that has been deliberately misconstrued, mispopulated, and miscast, it’s also (1) the size of the program, (2) the provenance of the money that funds the program, and (3) the topical scope of the newsletters upon which the program is focused. In short, like anyone with Google, it took me very little time indeed to find out everything I now know about Substack Pro, and I remain mystified that a number of major-media outlets that have misreported this information haven’t already issued corrections—and that a number of freelance journalists who spoke to these major-media outlets (as part of a campaign to damage not just the founders of Substack but the hundreds or even thousands of innocent authors now building communities on Substack) have also done nothing to ameliorate the harm that their disinformation has produced. So, with that said, here are the facts:

  1. Only 30 people are enrolled in the Substack Pro program, out of literally thousands of newsletter authors on Substack.

  2. The program has been around a few months—not since 2018, as detractors claim.

  3. More than half of those enrolled in the program are women.

  4. A third of those enrolled in the program are authors of color.

  5. The program extends across nearly every category of newsletter published by Substack, including the Climate, Culture, History, Literature, Art & Illustration, Music, Sports, Science, Health, and Philosophy categories.

  6. The program is funded by Series A funding from Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, not from Substack’s 10% cut of Substack subscriptions.

The strangest untruth about Substack Pro that is going around is that it is helpful to its authors—a proposition for which there is simply no evidence whatsoever, and indeed much evidence to the contrary. Quite simply, the program just isn’t a very good bet for anyone who is well enough known prior to coming to Substack to ever be enrolled in it, meaning that it turns out that the luckiest folks on Substack are those who, like me, never came within a country mile of being enrolled in Substack Pro when it launched in late 2020.

To unpack my claim about the evident weaknesses of the Substack Pro program, I should start by noting that there are many ways in which Substack staff can and do choose to aid certain newsletters rather than others. These methods are transparently obvious the moment one joins the platform. For instance, Substack staff select certain newsletters to appear in the website’s “Featured” section each week—a special honor, given that, again, there are thousands of Substack newsletters, only six newsletters are featured each week, and the featured sites appear prominently on the platform’s main page. Substack also selects how each newsletter will be categorized under the platform’s indexing infrastructure, a judgment about the “content” of a newsletter that has real repercussions. A newsletter that would rank among the top newsletters in one area might not rank at all in another. In consequence, if Substack adjudicates a newsletter as covering, say, “politics,” you’re unlikely to ever be ranked nationally. If, however, you’re assigned a spot in one of the newer, less-populated Substack Top 25 rankings, you may be able to boast a prominent position in that ranking for months, even years.

Substack staff also choose which newsletters to write about on other social media platforms, and which newsletters to highlight in interviews. To date there is no evidence that Substack staff specifically focus their public attention on Substack Pro authors, though it can be tough to judge this as these are—as noted throughout this article—more or less the only class of author that major media ever seeks to ask Substack’s founders about. So some of these newsletters, like deBoer’s, appear to be popular in large part because of their detractors, not because of anything Substack did.

One of the few things that Substack does that cannot be regarded as putting a finger on the scale of a newsletter’s success is enroll its author in the Substack Pro program.

Being selected for this program—and agreeing to participate in it—doesn’t net the Substack Pro author even a single new subscriber, as it’s merely an “advance” system (much like book publishers have been using for decades) intended to make it easier for an individual to transition from other full-time work to writing on Substack. There’s literally no forward-facing component to being involved with Substack Pro, as (1) your involvement is non-public information (unless you choose to disclose it, which you likely wouldn’t, as it might generate envy among fellow authors, the same reason print authors don’t crow about getting giant advances); (2) your advance has nothing to do with subscriber accrual, a process for which you’re solely responsible once you receive your advance; and (3) your participation in the Substack Pro program doesn’t appear to give you access to any backroom community of authors, as not only is the program non-public—so you can’t learn who else is in it—but virtually no one gets selected for the program, with only 30 recipients in it across the platform’s thousands of authors.

Worse still, Substack Pro can cost participating authors more money than you could possibly believe. According to Vox, participating in the Substack Pro program will cost former Vox editor and columnist Yglesias, a well-known progressive, approximately $300,000 in his first year on Substack. Why? Well, it turns out Substack understandably selects Substack Pro authors on the basis of their likelihood to rack up enormous subscriber bases quickly—and the better a Substack Pro author is at doing what they were selected to do, the better the first-year advance deal one receives from Substack is likely to be. For Substack.

In the same way that the worst thing that can happen to a print novelist or nonfiction writer is to get an advance so large they can’t possibly “earn out”—a circumstance that can scuttle future book deals, given the highly public nature of a book’s sales record—it appears to be the case that Substack Pro is as much a hindrance to its recipients as a boon. You can, but wouldn’t want to, tell anyone you’re in the program, which from the jump saddles you with a secret that could be problematic for your marketing and your relationships if it ever gets out; either you’ll be wildly successful on Substack and your Substack Pro advance will cost you money, or you’ll fail to earn out your advance and worry thereafter that your inability to author as compelling a Substack as you were expected to be will be publicly revealed; and you’ll receive no evident benefits in terms of finding new subscribers—being in the program in no way “juices” one’s numbers, as one ex-Substacker outrageously claimed, sans evidence—and may find, instead, that Substack staff have to be careful how they talk about you (or how much they talk about you) because they’re sworn to keep your dubiously helpful advance a permanent secret.

About the only people Substack Pro would be a good fit for are those who cannot find the time to start a Substack while working in their current jobs, which candidly is a position I find it hard to believe many people are in. And I don’t say that because I’ve been working multiple jobs since I was a teenager, or because I misunderstand the schedule of someone struggling to make ends meet—I lived that life in my twenties—but rather because Substack is fundamentally a place to post in “long-form” the same sorts of inquiries you might otherwise have pursued on social media in “short-form” across a large number of tweets or posts or grams or videos or (et cetera).

What this means is that if you have time to work a job and be on social media, you also have time to work a job and (instead of social media) be on Substack. While journalists in major media love to hype the extraordinary and basically unreplicable stories of a vanishingly small number of Substack authors who had to quit their full-time jobs in major media to do what we called “blogging” not a decade ago, the far more common story—indeed, the 99.9%-of-the-time story—is someone who writes for a living opting to dip their toe in the water of writing a digital newsletter as a hobby or (at most) side gig while working full-time elsewhere, thereafter deciding to go full-time on Substack only if and when the financial metrics support it. The benighted notion that Substack Pro is an essential, almost mystically beneficial tool available only to a small caste of supernatural beings whose receipt of said gift is orgasmically important to their futures—as without a $250,000 advance making it possible, who in the United States could even conceive of finding time in their schedule to post one blog-post a week?—would be laughable if it hadn’t lately become the subject of disingenuous essays about Substack.

(4) Substack has incredibly robust content moderation policies—it just hasn’t had to use them very often. At present, there simply isn’t much objectionable content on the platform relative to the amount on other websites. In other words, there is surely some objectionable content on Substack, but (a) it’s a far smaller proportion of the whole as compared to say Facebook or Twitter, and (b) critics of Substack have thus far put almost no effort into finding it, perhaps because, as already noted, Substack is a digital publishing platform where you never encounter other authors unless you make it your mission to do so.

Substack’s content moderation guidelines explicitly prohibit all the following content:

  • Spam

  • Phishing

  • Pornography

  • Nudity*

  • Sexually Exploitative Content

  • Doxxing

  • Harassment

  • Threats

  • Intellectual Property Violations

  • Criminal Conduct

  • Torts

  • Impersonation

  • Contravention of State or Federal Regulations

  • Plagiarism

  • Promotion of Self-Harm

  • Promotion of Harm Against Other People

  • Promotion of Harm Against Animals

  • Hate Speech**

* With exceptions for art.

** Includes “content that calls for violence, exclusion, or segregation based on anyone’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition.”

If you didn’t know that Substack prohibits all of these things, it’s probably because the people you’ve been reading who’ve been writing about Substack—some of them in major media, which feels threatened by Substack, and some here on Substack, but only as they’re on their way out the door—want you to believe, for reasons that remain unclear to me, that Substack was and is something it isn’t. While Substack may well have an ethos that says creators should be given as much room to create as possible, so does the creative writing program where I received my MFA degree, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Substack’s philosophy is no different than the philosophy of nearly every community of creators that has ever been generative and influential; and indeed, those offenses against art, communities, and creativity that are prohibited by Substack are more or less the very ones you’d hope the platform would take special action against.

Those folks in major media who bemoan the lack of content moderation on Substack without, apparently, even reading the site’s content moderation guidelines—as nothing in the discourse of such critics suggests any familiarity with those guidelines—never really complain about content on the platform, as their real complaint appears to be one of two issues: (1) some people have set up newsletters on the platform who have said objectionable things off-platform, in places Substack cannot execute its moderating function; (2) one or two people who have said such objectionable things off-platform may be participating in the Substack Pro program, though, Mr. deBoer excepted, as I mentioned before speculating on this subject is journalistically irresponsible (though it hasn’t stopped several people claiming to be journalists from doing so and with glee).

The second point above is not worth indulging, for the reason I’ve said. As to the first, I can only say that Substack’s critics all appear to remain active on Twitter and/or Facebook, two social media websites with a significantly greater ethical responsibility to aggressively moderate their community—because they are social media websites, not digital publishing platforms—that nevertheless allowed Donald Trump to commit actual crimes via their products, with impunity, for five years. So if you’re upset that a digital publishing platform isn’t banning authors who said objectionable things off-site, you should have quit Twitter in 2017 at the latest. And if you haven’t, then there’s something else in play that you’re not acknowledging: for instance, personal upset that you weren’t offered an advance by Substack, in which case welcome to an author’s life.

Indeed, when I was an Iowa Writers’ Workshop student, I saw some of the best work I’ve ever read get stiffed on its advance, and other work I found derivative and lame get more money than even seemed logistically plausible. Publishing, whether digital or print, is, sadly, a business; if you’re going to quit the business because some authors unjustly get hefty advances, it’s going to be a very short stay for you in the business.

(5) Substack is fun as hell—and easy to use.

I’ve been on Substack for about sixty days, and already it gives me the feels. I love reading others’ newsletters; I love the Substack interface; I love the distinctly slowed-down sense of time and space I have—as compared to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram—when I’m writing on Substack or reading it. When I hear former tech reporter and Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talk about the platform he built with Jairaj Sethi and Chris Best, it matches my experience: Substack is an expansive, open-ended writing environment that offers nearly limitless possibilities for creators to participate in important national conversations. It can act as a critical adjunct to—not replacement for—conventional journalism, and can build communities and sub-communities in a healthy and organic way, entirely unlike the rolling catastrophes we find on Facebook Groups and in nearly every corner of Twitter (the latter a social media platform that I regularly use, and admittedly do consider an essential space for news framing, dissemination, and consumption in the United States today).

It’s not just that Substack allows authors complete control of a vibrant digital space—replete with options for podcasts and videos and visually attractive formatting—but that this sort of sandbox application allows writers to switch seamlessly between long- and short-form writing, develop an intimate relationship with their audience, easily network their writing with that of others, and do all of this with minimal oversight and, just as importantly, minimal intrusion by trolls, stalkers, bullies, haters, or cranks. Even if you don’t intend on accruing many paid Substack subscribers, you can set up a subscription system simply to help moderate your comment-fields; and in any case Substack makes it decidedly easy to delete comments and ban unruly commenters.

I also find the sheer scope of the work being done on Substack positively breathtaking.

The most popular categories, besides Politics, are Business, Culture, Faith, Finance, Food & Drink, Literature, Music, News, Sports, Technology. Well-known writers on the platform who aren’t in the Politics category include Roxane Gay, Anne Helen Petersen, Samantha Irby, Casey Newton, Alison Roman, Virginia Heffernan, Yashar Ali, Sasha Frere-Jones, and Cheryl Strayed, though of course it’s silly of me to think I can in any way encompass the diversity of persons and viewpoints on Substack when it is, after all, a digital platform rapidly achieving the same of diversity of persons and viewpoints that we would expect to find on any digital publishing platform in 2021.

My only complaint about Substack is that I should’ve gotten on it far earlier than I did.

While Hamish McKenzie graciously emailed me back in October 2017 to invite me to start a newsletter on Substack, I was so overwhelmed by my life at the time that I never wrote him back or even, if I’m honest, considered doing so. I just wasn’t in a position at the time to play around on a new platform—Twitter was more than enough of a drag on both my time and my emotions—and candidly I’d been approached enough times by that point in my career about trying out new writing products and platforms that in fall 2017 Hamish’s kind note (sent via my website) didn’t even really register with me.

So when I launched Proof on January 14, 2021, I did it the same way that anyone would. I clicked the necessary buttons until I had a website, and then I tried to teach myself how to use the platform through trial and error. I’m still learning how it all works. I’ve considered writing Hamish to apologize for blowing off his email all those years ago, but that’s the closest I’ve come to being in touch with the folks who run Substack. Indeed, despite now authoring one of the higher-traffic websites on the platform, I didn’t even know Substack Pro existed until—via a stunning swell of disinformation—it hit the news recently.

Once I found out the truth about Substack Pro, and gathered my thoughts about the platform writ large, I decided that writing this essay—risk of platform-navel-gazing included—made sense. I felt, too, like I had a unique story to tell about discovering this platform and finding a measure of success on it.

I’ve been a regular internet user for three decades, which I know sounds implausible. As it happens, though, I matriculated at Dartmouth College in the nineties, just as it was becoming one of the nation’s first fully wired campuses. During the several years prior to that, I was on America Online pretty regularly—in part because my father worked for a onetime major player in the computer industry, Digital Equipment Corporation, and in part because my mother was at the time running a freelance graphic design business from home that required major computing power. As early as mid-1994, I was using email to communicate more than I used the telephone; at the time, Dartmouth had a campus-wide email application, BlitzMail, that was the first digital product I ever (much like thousands of my classmates) became addicted to. If, for instance, you wanted to invite someone to dinner on the “gown” side of Hanover, New Hampshire in the nineties, you blitzed them, rather than calling. It was at once exhilarating and profoundly unhealthy.

All of which is to say that I’ve been on scores on digital platforms over the last few decades, and I earnestly think Substack may be the best of the lot. Sadly, as we’ve seen here, it’s widely misunderstood—in part because many in major media wrongly see it as a threat, and therefore feel entitled to misreport its components and evolution, and in part because some of those with an ax to grind about it lack scruples about how they pursue their vendettas, which means that in addition to spreading disinformation about Substack they’re not above exploiting major media’s anxieties about it, too.

Again, if you’re on any social media platform right now, you have no basis to complain about the authors or content on a digital publishing platform like Substack. If you have ever received or sought a book advance from any print publisher, you have got no basis for opining on how Substack has gone about erecting an identical process, or insisting that authors who’ve received advances—which advances Substack has, in keeping with industry practice, not disclosed—must reveal them to you. And if you’re telling a false story about Substack’s history or practices that describes commonplace publishing practices as a “scam” or “juicing” newsletters to (for some reason) misrepresent what Substack is, who has had success using it and why, or any other key component of the platform and its functioning, the question isn’t whether Substack abused you but why you’re now abusing readers and journalism by not just lying but doing so unashamedly.

The think-pieces about Substack I’ve seen in the last thirty days haven’t so much been poorly or incompletely fact-checked as not fact-checked at all—and indeed take such a hostile approach to the platform that it’s small wonder the platform I found when I got here was nothing at all like what I’d been led to expect. If at any point in this essay I’ve seemed angry, it’s because, in a way, I am. I dislike being lied to, and I shudder to think that I was almost kept from the best digital platform I’ve ever used by an exceedingly small cadre of independent and major-media journalists who shed their first principles as journalists not for the reasons they’ve been saying—to combat injustice—but to indulge the sort of petty jealousies and self-aggrandizing schemes for advancement journalism is supposed to inspire us to rise above.

All of the foregoing notwithstanding, I hope it goes without saying that just as there are many millions of people on Twitter and Facebook whose views I find repugnant, there are a handful of folks on Substack whose opinions I consider detestable. I have had more aggressive public and private disputes with many of the figures now part of the Substack Pro debate than even their most vociferous critics have had. And I feel as strongly—and personally—about the importance of anti-hate ethoi as any of these critics, only in small part because I’m in my sixth year of receiving regular anti-Semitic threats and abuse. My digital writing has at times even put me on the wrong side of government figures in the United States and abroad, and even (once) a convicted cyberterrorist, so I know as well as anyone what it’s like to feel imminently unsafe in a digital space. But I don’t leave digital platforms because someone somewhere writing something on them is manifestly odious to me—and neither do you. Nor should we.

When you look at the truth of what Substack is and what it does and how it does it and who it does it for and why it does it, I say again that it may just be one of the best—possibly the best—publishing website on the whole of the internet. It is creating a New Renaissance for creators the likes of which those of us with degrees in the Humanities never thought possible. It is helping America realize a world in which, incredibly and wonderfully, the more idiosyncratic you are, the more doggedly you pursue passions, the more you stay resolutely an ever-evolving yourself in the face of every imaginable pressure to be conform, the more likely it is you will find an audience, and vice versa.

{Note: Ben Thompson, author of Stratechery, one of the digital newsletters that inspired the creation of Substack, compellingly argues that the reason major media is so terrified of Substack is not so much that it fears hard-news reportage will move to Substack, but that Substack will enable journalists who work in journalism’s several dozen other genres to finally learn their market value—discovering, in the process, that their major-media employers are paying them a fraction of their worth. I might expand upon this observation to note that Substack may well provoke the same sort of revelation for many different types of creators, including those whose creativity in no way intersects with journalism.}

So maybe, just maybe, Substack can make doing what you love full-time a possibility for an ever-growing group of creators. At present, only a few people find themselves in this position, but if Substack is permitted to thrive—rather than getting strangled in its infancy—the benefits it now offers a few (almost none of whom are enrolled in the Substack Pro program) will become available to many. It’s in light of this view that I say that those who stand in opposition to this marked advance in the history of digital creativity, whether due to a personal vendetta over money cloaked in a noble cause or for some other reason, deserve to be fact-checked mercilessly about the claims they’ve made. And when they are, anyone who cares about facts—or journalism, or the law, or public discourse, or social justice, or the welfare of creators—will come to the same conclusion I have about Substack: that it’s a digital publishing platform that’s being responsibly run, and in consequence deserves to succeed even more than it already has.