Is Substack the new Blogging?
And what do we lose if that's so?
Twenty years ago, in the glory days of Web1, writers blogged. My own blog of that time is archived here. On the right side of that blog is a “blogroll” with links to about a hundred and fifty alpha bloggers. That blogroll was the Main Street of blogging, and not the only one. Many of those other blogs had similar blogrolls: other views up the same street.
Then Facebook and Twitter came along, paving a wide highway bypassing blogging’s old Main Street. Which then slowly withered. Though not dead, blogging is now marginalized. Very few addresses on that old ‘roll are still active. Dave Winer, Kottke, AKMA, and Susan Kitchens, for example. Hats off to them. But most are now gone. Where? To Facebook and Twitter.
And now Substack. Writers are migrating there. Lots of them. Of the twenty-one Substack-based newsletters to which I subscribe (and just discovered via the Discover feature of my Substack author’s page, which I also just discovered), many, if not most, were serious bloggers back in the decade. Here are a few of the newsletters I subscribe to that come via Substack:
The actual names for those newsletters are, respectively, Letters from an American, Common Sense, Chartbook, Virginia’s Newsletter, The Weekly Dish, Continuing Ed, and For Startups and Investors (it says in the “From” line of the email), or That Was the Week (it says on the newsletter’ Web page).
For me, branding in each case is personal. In fact, I had forgotten all of those newsletters’ official names, other than Andrew’s, before I visited the Web pages where the newsletters are archived. And Andrew’s Dish brand was well established by earlier newsletters and columns he ran. It’s like Dish is his other name.
The relevance of this is personal: I’m going to start a newsletter of my own, as I blogged about here. For the reason I just gave, I’m leaning toward not calling it anything other than Doc Searls’ Newsletter. I’m also leaning toward not making it a Substack one.
Although it is tempting. First, nearly all the other kids are doing it. Second, writing (and, now, rewriting) on Substack is smooth and easy, with a look and feel very much like Medium’s: very smooth, very WYSIWYG.
On the downside, you have to write in Substack’s own editor. No writing in raw HTML, Markup, or some other authoring tool of your own. I don’t like that.
Worse, there is tracking jive.
In emailed Substack newsletters (not the “view in browser” versions you see on the Web), you get links that look like this—
These links offer no clue about where they are going or what they are doing on the way there. I also see those kinds of URL-obscuring links in all Substack newsletters, including this one. I don’t like tracking in general, and I think the virtues of plain URL links outweigh whatever analytics advantages come with all that cruft. And it doesn’t make me feel good that even Ed Snowden does it.
It’s also easy to rationalize. Yesterday I was talking with one of the wariest privacy freaks I know: somebody who uses an old phone with no facial recognition because they don’t want machines to know who they are. Yet this same person told me they like knowing who opens their newsletters, and various links inside each newsletter. When told “that’s surveillance,” the response was, “Newsletters have been doing that forever.”
Yes, but it’s still wrong. Full stop. If anyone knows a way we can turn it off here, please let us know.
Meanwhile, even though, in these late years of our Platform Age, Substack seems to be a hot new way to blog, I won’t be using it for my own newsletter. I’m leaning hard toward doing it the Dave Winer way. (I’ll provide more links soon. Right now, as I rewrite this, I gotta catch a plane.) Stay tuned.