Open Thinkering


I am so tired of moving platforms

An abstract image depicting the theme of conflict in community moderation, featuring fragmented shapes and warm colors to symbolise the intensity and challenges of decision-making.

It’s only been a few months since I switched my Thought Shrapnel newsletter to Substack. The WordPress plugin I was using, MailPoet, was great, but despite my best efforts it kept marking subscribers as ‘inactive’. This happened to Laura as well, meaning that I had to keep re-subscribing to her newsletter.

Substack not only doesn’t suffer from this problem, but it’s got some really nice features. One of them, launched this year, is Substack Notes, which is a social network made up of writers and readers of publications. I’ve discovered some absolutely wonderful writing as a result.

No good thing can last, however, and of course, like every platform Substack has a Nazi problem. The thing is, they’ve decided to essentially do nothing about it. Doing nothing is a choice. Doing nothing keeps the money flowing. For now.

Many people who have decided to leave Substack have cited the Nazi bar problem. This is based on an anecdote highlighting the importance of nipping things in the bud quickly before somewhere becomes overrun with bad actors.

Venkatesh Rao thinks that the Nazi bar analogy is “an example of a bad metaphor contagion effect” and points to a 2010 post of his about warren vs plaza architectures. He believes that Twitter, for example, is a plaza, whereas Substack is a warren:

A warren is a social environment where no participant can see beyond their little corner of a larger maze. Warrens emerge through people personalizing and customizing their individual environments with some degree of emergent collaboration. A plaza is an environment where you can easily get to a global/big picture view of the whole thing. Plazas are created by central planners who believe they know what’s best for everyone.

No matter how Substack is organised, once good, influential people decide to move (e.g. Audrey Watters, Molly White, Ryan Broderick) then it’s game over. Just as with Twitter/X, a platform can still exist, but it’s become a toxic brand, synonymous with a certain type of person or politics. This article describes an original post by Xianhang Zhang who coined the term ‘evaporative cooling effect’ to describe this exodus:

The Evaporative Cooling Effect describes the phenomenon that high value contributors leave a community because they cannot gain something from it, which leads to the decrease of the quality of the community. Since the people most likely to join a community are those whose quality is below the average quality of the community, these newcomers are very likely to harm the quality of the community. With the expansion of community, it is very hard to maintain the quality of the community.

Moderation is hard. Everyone disagrees about who and what shouldn’t be ‘allowed’. As my experience on the Fediverse among very well-intentioned people has shown, it’s not just free speech absolutists vs everyone else. There are people, for example, who believe that pre-emptively blocking an entire platform is reasonable. You can end up in endless debates about theoretical situations.

By its very nature, moderation is a form of censorship. You, as a community, space, or platform are deciding who and what is unacceptable. In Substack’s case, for example, they don’t allow pornography but they do allow Nazis. That’s not “free speech” but rather a business decision. If you’re making moderation based on financials, fine, but say so. Then platform users can make choices appropriately.

A lot of people seem to be migrating to Ghost, which is a solid option: open source software from a non-profit foundation. I guess my use case is slightly different, in that I’ve only been sending out the newsletter roundup of my Thought Shrapnel posts on Substack. The posts themselves exist, as they have done for years, on a self-hosted installation of WordPress.

I’ll probably just end up defaulting back to MailPoet, or perhaps just not send out a newsletter while I figure out what to do. It’s such a shame, because I was really enjoying the Substack experience. I’m not sure if it would be enough for me and for others if the founders were to change their mind, but it has reminded me about how important it is to own and control your own content.

Image: DALL-E 3

2 thoughts on “I am so tired of moving platforms

  1. I know and damnit. I’m also very tired of moving platforms. I hestitated FOR OVER A YEAR to move to substack because of some of the crap I’d read. And then, just months ago…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *