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Writers and Readers Paying the Price for Twitter and Substack "Fight"
My growth on Substack was accelerating. Until the tech giants clashed. Now, it's come to a grinding halt. Tech giants should fight each other, not us.
Today is World Press Freedom Day.
Whether people like it or not, right now, Twitter is central to our current system of speech. As I’ve noted, Twitter boss Elon Musk has said he backs "Freedom of Speech, but not Freedom of Reach" — which is a ridiculous proposition, targeting the Freedom to Hear. After I noted this contradiction last December, I was then seriously targeted by Twitter. See piece and interview. Big Tech can make it so you’re just talking into a paper bag with very few people hearing you. But you have “freedom of speech”. And judging from my — and others’ — plummeting engagements on Twitter, that’s what’s happening to me much of the time.
Part of the problem is that the rest of the establishment has been criticizing Musk for not repressing speech enough, obscuring the real issues.
And now, with minimal objection, things have gotten even worse.
Competition is supposed to be good for the marketplace of ideas. But that’s not how it’s working out in the real world.
I signed up to Substack as soon as I took a good look at it, in early 2021. But I didn’t use it right away for a number of reasons. When I finally started cranking out pieces, I’ve found it really liberating. I don’t need to “pitch” a piece to an editor. I don’t need to get slivers of thoughts out on Twitter or Facebook. I can — on my own initiative — put out a thought out piece whenever the spirit moves me. The only constraints were self-imposed. And that helped me challenge those limits.
And it was inspiring to see people respond to that. My growth rate accelerated more and more. A month ago, at the beginning of April, it was starting to look almost vertical. It seemed like the sky was the limit. Then Substack and Twitter started battling it out. Substack was launching Notes, a competitor to Twitter. Twitter was pushing Blue and was offering longer tweets and rolling out some sort of monetization for creators (which they haven’t approved for me yet). They were effectively getting into each other’s turf. Twitter stopped allowing tweets to be embedded in Substack posts. And, more importantly, it started blackballing Substack writers. I’ve been targeted for political reasons before; and may still be. I don’t like it, but fine, I was standing up for what I believed and being penalized for it. But here, I’m being penalized for being on the wrong corporate platform.
As you can see, my growth recently, in short order, went from lots and accelerating to paltry and flatlining.
Before the Twitter-Substack war:
After the Twitter-Substack war:
Similarly, the growth of paying subscribers, which also had been accelerating, has largely halted:
I don’t know if other writers are having similar experiences, I’m breaking new ground I think by being this transparent here, but if they are, and I suspect many are, we should be speaking out about this. Loudly and clearly. It’s ridiculous and unacceptable that we are paying the price for this fight. And our readers are too since would-be new readers are not seeing our material and existing readers in the long term will not see decent writing if it just doesn’t produce the audience and revenue it should. Of course, it’s possible that I’m an outlier again, a writer who is both politically too critical, generally and, as I was in December, of Twitter in particular — as well as on the wrong writing platform.
After some coverage in early April, the issue of the Twitter-Substack fight has been dropped. On April 11, the Guardian claimed: “Row between Twitter and Substack ends with uneasy truce.” But it hasn’t ended.
Adding insult to injury, Elon Musk of Twitter constantly proclaims his alleged support the First Amendment to the hilt. To be funding writers. And that’s what Substack is supposed to be all about — a platform for writers. Musk was just on with Bill Maher: “I can’t emphasize this enough. We must protect free speech…”
Here’s a clip of the rhetoric-heavy interview:
It’s not a nicely displayed tweet as it used to be. It’s a link. That’s because Twitter isn’t letting that happen, so you’re not seeing this above:
Capitalism is supposed to result in competition, so these two platforms would compete to attract writers. Each offering us a better deal. But since Twitter is undermining Substack writers, it’s a cruel joke. So, I’m not even sure that it’s really a fight between them, or just a dynamic that’s hurting writers. They’re apparently both figuring out how to better game the system for themselves while those of us writing about how to make the system work for everyone are getting muffled and stomped on.
Further, what is happening is effectively further segmenting the media landscape. It’s even more sectarian. Choose a platform and narrowcast. Less and less of a chance of cross pollination of ideas.
And by reporting on this, I’m risking getting targeted more.
The growth of Substack seemed a real departure from people thinking more and more in terms of soundbites. Arguments from independent writers of hundreds — maybe even thousands — of words could possibly have a mass audience. That seems to be fast fading. I’ll be honest; this has really depressed me the last several weeks. But I’m determined to find a way out. I hope others are too. And will speak out clearly about what’s really going on.
Twitter and Substack should both make good on their rhetoric: Be platforms holding writers up. Not structures to repress them.