Offering a new centralised feed for writers and readers to post, like, reply, and retweet (well, “restack”) short missives in a rather familiar format, could Substack’s Notes feature be the Twitter alternative we are all wishing for?
“Our goal is to foster conversations that inspire, enlighten, and entertain,” Substack stated in the launch announcement. In juxtaposition to a billionaire wasting all of our time, this announcement sounds so simple and promising. Could this Notes feature be a glimmer of hope that the internet might still be the dignified place for interacting with real people and finding interesting things that we’re always trying to pretend it was meant for. In a way, it’s a genius move—especially considering Elon Musk’s subsequent fit trying to ban Substack links in apparent retaliation—and considering how Substack has been trying to live up to its $585 million valuation in the years since the rampant newsletter gold rush of 2019 to 2021.
Not since the golden days of late 2000s Facebook has one tech platform managed to create some version of a walled garden where users would stay in one place to find and consume content. Substack, which reports more than 35 million active subscriptions, of which 2 million are in the paid tier, excelled at giving users intuitive tools for making content (newsletters) and monetizing it. While many were accessing Substack via their inbox, it launched its own app last year as a way for more people to spend time on the platform itself. In order to make the $5ish/month subscription compelling, the price of grazing around—say you just want to read a few editions of someone’s paywalled newsletter, instead of committing your poor inbox (or credit card) to yet another subscription—has remained high.
And so the riddle of discovery—to help people find cool new stuff they weren’t already looking for, on the platform’s own turf—has been a particular challenge for Substack. Now, if Notes can grow into even a fraction of Twitter’s scale and become the new reliable, well-populated spot for digital window-shopping, Substack could very well turn a little corner of the internet into a company town. “The ultimate goal on this platform is to convert casual readers into paying subscribers,” Substack’s Notes announcement said. It’s the common prayer of the digital publisher at this point.
The app itself is pretty calm. There is no ranking algorithm and no ads. No one is going viral. You can only see posts from who you’re subscribed to, plus who they’re subscribed to on the home feed.
However, building a Twitter clone apparently isn’t the stated intention here. Notably, Substack refers to itself as a subscription network, not a social media network. “While attention is the lifeblood of ad-based social media, a subscription network’s lifeblood is the money that gets paid to people who are doing worthy work within it,” said a company spokesperson to Vanity Fair. The bet here with Notes is that instead of trying to game an algorithm to win nonsensical clout points (i.e., going viral on Twitter), writers will spend more time establishing themselves as someone worth forking a few dollars over for each month. This falls in line with the general monetization-ification of the internet as a whole lately, which itself carries the potentially disheartening effect of sectioning off quality digital consumption as a paid experience—but at least the ’stack isn’t being coy about it.
The true test of whether Notes has the potential to become the new predominant will be content moderation. So long as Notes remains algorithm-less and small-scale enough, what will the inevitable digital pile-on look like when someone posts something even a little controversial? Will the “discourse” stay contained and confined to the bounds of individual subscriber circles, or will everything still snowball into a hellscape timeline of a slightly different flavour?