Open Thinkering


Tag: Thought Shrapnel

One does not simply move off Substack

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve decided to move away from Substack for my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. This is due to a fundamental disagreement with the platform’s hosting policies, particularly its accommodation of Nazi content.

In my search for a different platform, I’ve noticed that many people are migrating to Ghost. This seems particularly true for those with some technical background. Unlike Substack (an all-in-one platform for writing blog posts, sending newsletters, and posting social network-style updates) other options such as Ghost require a more hands-on approach to configure.

After looking at different options, and being advised by my network, I chose It looked like a simple, indieweb choice that is compatible with ActivityPub and can automatically send out a weekly digest of posts. The $10/month plan seemed ideal, and I began by importing posts from WordPress.

However, I encountered several hurdles:

  • Importing: the sheer volume of posts on Thought Shrapnel meant that the exported file was too large for the importer, so I had to find a tool to split the WordPress file into smaller segments.
  • DNS: after adjusting the DNS settings to redirect to, I experienced issues with email settings.
  • Email: despite moving everything to Cloudflare in an attempt to fix things, a problem arose with receiving verification codes, meaning I could no longer log in to and complete the migration.

These challenges made me question whether individuals with less technical expertise could easily navigate such a migration? It’s not just following instructions, but troubleshooting, and indeed having the mental model of what’s going on.

Faced with these issues, I’m contemplating a return to MailPoet, an email newsletter plugin for WordPress I used before moving to Substack. However, it’s not without its quirks, such as random unsubscriptions and the need to comply with new email sender requirements from Google and Yahoo.

I feel like using platforms like Substack is akin to driving a car without needing to understand its mechanics – you just fill it up and go. Migrating to a different platform requires a deeper understanding, which is like someone interested in the ins-and-outs of car engines and maintenance.

These experiences highlight the complexity involved in migrating from an easy-to-use platform like Substack to alternatives that involve some technical input. You can’t tell people to just move off Substack. There are network effects. For some people, we’re talking about their livelihood. While there are more technical people who can fix this themselves, and better-off people who can get others to sort it out for them, what about the majority in the middle?

Personally, I’m determined not to return to Substack, but I’m still exploring the best way forward. To be honest, I just want something that works. Finding time to post to Thought Shrapnel is challenging enough, without all this additional drama.

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

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives

Fiery sunset

My experience of the pandemic is so bound up with my experience of therapy that I assumed my experience was relatively unique and therefore not particularly worth sharing. However, a tweet that I stumbled across last week made me rethink that assumption:

A younger Doug might have been fired up by this to think about the literal and metaphorical mountains I could conquer. However, if there’s one thing that therapy and the pandemic has taught me, it’s to reflect on what I actually do and who I actually am, rather than conjure castles in the sky.

Yesterday, an article that was going to end up as link fodder for Thought Shrapnel got me thinking about this a bit further. What if this is actually a pivotal moment in time? What if we’ve collectively poked a hole in reality, looked through, and now have to decide whether we want to ‘stick’ or ‘twist’? What would that mean for me individually, for the society I live in, for us as a species?

In a much-shared article for The Atlantic entitled I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society. I’m Just Not Sure I Want To, Tim Kreider explains eloquently what many of us have experienced over the last few months:

“For the last year,” a friend recently wrote to me, “a lot of us have been enjoying unaccustomed courtesy and understanding from the world.” When people asked how you were doing, no one expected you to say “Fine.” Instead, they asked, “How are you holding up?” and you’d answer, “Well, you know.” (That “you know” encompassed a lot that was left unspoken: deteriorating mental health, physical atrophy, creeping alcoholism, unraveling marriages, touch starvation, suicidal ideation, collapse-of-democracy anxiety, Hadean boredom and loneliness, solitary rages and despair.) You could admit that you’d accomplished nothing today, this week, all year. Having gotten through another day was a perfectly respectable achievement. I considered it a pass-fail year, and anything you had to do to get through it—indulging inappropriate crushes, strictly temporary addictions, really bad TV—was an acceptable cost of psychological survival. Being “unable to deal” was a legitimate excuse for failing to answer emails, missing deadlines, or declining invitations. Everyone recognized that the situation was simply too much to be borne without occasionally going to pieces. This has, in fact, always been the case; we were just finally allowed to admit it.

The world has felt like a kinder place over the last year, partly because people have let their guard down knowing that we’re all in the same boat. For me personally, that’s made it easier for me to slowly take off the ‘mask’, which my therapist explained I tend to use as a protective mechanism. The pandemic has silver linings, it would appear.

There’s another paragraph in Kreider’s article that I also want to share because it captures something important that I haven’t seen or heard people discuss. We marinate in the juices of a society that tells us hustling is the way to ‘make it’ in life and that this is something to be encouraged or emulated. But… is it?

When I was younger, I had more incentive to thwart my own sloth and return to the productive world; I had ambitions yet to achieve. But I’ve since achieved a lot of those ambitions, and in the past year, they have all evaporated, as if they’d never happened. I know from experience that I can, with great effort and discipline, claw my way back to a baseline. Let’s say I do—I get off the couch, turn off the TV, start writing again, apply for teaching jobs, get another book contract. What Couch Guy wants to know is: What’s my reward for all of that? What’s the big payoff? Will it be as good as lying on the couch watching TV?

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this out loud, but at forty, I’ve achieved most of what I set out to achieve in life. I have little desire for riches or fame. I’ve got a wonderful wife and two lovely children. We’re financially stable, live in a nice place, and are in reasonably good health. I have a terminal degree that allows me to change my honorific. I’ve travelled to lots of amazing places.

As I keep telling my children, the amount of money, power, and prestige that society bestows upon people is only tenuously related (at best) to the importance of the thing they spend their time doing. I’m pretty sure I’ve told them the story of the fisherman and the businessman several times at this point. None of this is to besmirch ambition, but rather to encourage them to steer a healthy path between hedonism and delayed gratification.

To quote Kreider again:

More and more people have noticed that some of the basic American axioms—that hard work is a virtue, productivity is an end in itself—are horseshit. I’m remembering those science-fiction stories in which someone accidentally sees behind the facade of their blissful false reality to the grim dystopia they actually inhabit.

I’m not sure these are ‘American’ axioms so much as a Protestant work ethic that permeates western culture. Either way, the shiny false consciousness encouraged by our advertising-fuelled culture turns out to be paper-thin when you expose it to any kind of scrutiny.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” wrote Annie Dillard. Like many people, I spend my lives moving between various screens for work, rest, or play. The pandemic has exposed as a lie the story I tell myself that I’d be reading academic philosophy if other things didn’t get in the way. I’ve had plenty of time to do that recently, and instead I play video games and write introspective blog posts.

Is that a bad thing? Perhaps I’m just dormant?

¯\_ (ツ)_/¯

Photo taken by me in Iceland in December 2019, just before the pandemic.