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Substack announced a new feature this week called “Notes,” which will allow users to publish brief posts containing a few sentences, quotes, simple reactions, images, and links. These Notes are going to get their own dedicated tab, separate from longer-form Substack content, and the basic format feels purposefully borrowed from Twitter. Individual notes can be liked, replied to, and reshared – just like tweets – and there will even be separated tabs for authors to which you’re specifically subscribed vs. content from your “extended Substack network,” similar to Twitter’s “Following” vs. “For You” structure.
In their blog post outlining the new feature, Substack co-founders Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi were quick to differentiate Notes from Twitter, drawing attention specifically to their revenue model. While Twitter is free (unless you’ve just GOT TO have that blue check) and writers receive no direct financial compensation for their contributions, Substack remains subscription-based. Rather than aiming for virality for its own sake, Team Substack argues that subscriptions provide a genuine incentive for posting quality content, as Notes will help Substack authors convert “casual readers into paying subscribers.”
High-minded rhetoric aside, Substack could clearly use a hot new feature. According to newly-disclosed SEC statements, the company burned through around $25 million in cash during a major 2021 expansion, up from just $1 million in expenses the year before. For the entire year 2021, the company earned gross revenue of just $11.9 million, mostly from its share of blog subscriptions. (2022 data is currently unavailable.)
Despite the obvious aesthetic similarities between Notes and Twitter, and Substack’s very overt attempts to lure away Twitter users, they seem likely to remain different kinds of platforms. In large part because so much of the power of Twitter is in its wide-open accessibility to all. Though a small percentage of overall users drive most of Twitter’s activity and engagement, they’re not always the same people who could attract massive paid followings on a platform like Substack. It remains to be seen whether a subscription-based platform can drive conversations and generate the kinds of breakout viral moments that have made Twitter feel essential.
Nonetheless, Twitter seems to view Notes as a threat. Within 24 hours of the feature’s announcement, the social network and microblogging service began scaling back interactivity with Substack. At first, Substack writers were just unable to embed tweets in their posts, but now, Twitter has blocked all likes, retweets and comments on any links pointing back to a Substack newsletter. As well, Twitter users can’t link to a Substack blog via their profile, making it essentially impossible to use your Twitter account to promote a paid Substack blog. (At least for now, you can apparently still get around these changes with a URL shortener. But you didn’t hear that from us…)
Asked about the controversy by The Verge, Substack’s trio of founders used Twitter’s moves as further ammunition, pointing out that it’s dangerous for writers to rely on a platform on which “they don’t own their relationship with their audience” and “where the rules can change on a whim.”
Beyond just bolstering a key argument in favor of its competitor, Twitter’s decision to go to war with Substack pretty clearly makes its own platform worse. By removing the incentive of promoting work for which they actually get paid, it seems likely that this move will discourage some active users – who, again, drive the bulk of Twitter’s traffic and engagement – from tweeting as much. Tellingly, the Substack purge even removed some links to Matt Taibbi’s “Twitter Files” reporting, produced in coordination with Twitter and its owner, Elon Musk.
As well, Twitter’s prominence is largely based around being at the center of so much online conversation and discourse. By removing the ability of Substack writers to refer back to tweets, Twitter is purposefully taking itself out of a lot of these discussions. If you make it significantly harder for writers to talk about tweets… they might actually stop talking about tweets. Which would be far worse for Twitter, overall, than just the presence of a new competitor, which may not actually be a direct competitor anyway.
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