Interview with the Editor — SubStack

Toby Beresford looks at the design behind SubStack and says one way to to think about them is the home brew kit equivalent of the craft media industry

Hamish Mackenzie, a co-founder of SubStack, explains its genesis — “one of the reasons we started Substack is that we were concerned about the effects of the attention economy on the human mind.” He says that “our addiction to social media”, or as I would prefer to describe it, AI media, “is having negative effects on both individual and collective thought.” The outputs of AI mediated news curation — “doomscrolling, online rage-monsters and conspiracy theory addled mobs” are systematic flaws that require a radically alternative approach. The only way for traditional news media to compete is with a flood of “click bait, listicles and .. fake news.”

One SubStack customer, Andrew Sullivan, is similarly critical of AI media which he sees as exploiting human weakness — “You don’t go down a rabbit-hole; your mind increasingly is the rabbit hole — rewired that way by algorithmic practice. And you cannot get out, unless you fight the algorithms to a draw, or manage to exert superhuman discipline and end social media use altogether.”

Against this AI media Substack suggest a more human approach

One that creates a direct relationship between writers and their audience, an email newsletter paid for through reader subscriptions instead of advertising.

Substack is designed to be a calm space that encourages reflection.” Mackenzie continues, “You read Substack posts in your inbox or on a web page that is free of advertising or any other distraction. There are no addiction-maximizing feeds, autoplaying videos, or retweetable quote-retweets to suck you into a psychological space you never asked to be in. You make decisions about which information to put into your brain based on how well certain writers reward your trust, not based on a dopamine hit gained by refreshing a feed packed with performative posturing.”

Subscription models aren’t new, the age old publishing model of the periodical is still alive and well among niche audiences. And this is SubStack’s point — niche audiences can be valid business models if you charge them the right fee (a newsletter like Andrew Sullivan’s charging $50 a year only needs 2,000 subscribers to make a healthy $100,000 a year). SubStack’s stats seem to back this up — it now has half a million paying subscribers to its various newsletters.

To me SubStack is really a “craft media” movement that mirrors the popular craft beer movement

There’s a whole market of consumers who have recoiled from industrialised, robotic beer production and prefer to drink something earthier, local and, well, more human. There is much that is similar in the two movements. Plenty of craft beer is bought directly from the micro-brewer, just as readers subscribe directly to writers. Small batch beers are inevitably designed to cater to niche tastes, their very difference being the selling point. In the same way SubStack’s niche newsletters find underserved communities in the media landscape.

One way to think about SubStack then is as a business on a mission is to be the home brew kit equivalent of the craft media industry.

And so, just as the big brewers have bought niche beer, like Camden Town’s sale to AB InBev, so too do we see the big AI media conglomerates like Meta and Twitter getting in on the craft media act whether through building their own (like Meta’s Bulletin) or buying the competition (as Twitter did with Revue.)

So, while it has clear traction, SubStack’s human approach to news curation is still a long way off competing with the AI feeds in terms of sheer volume of users consuming their news feeds — not everyone can afford to pay for news after all, and so the ad-funded media model powers on.

Toby Beresford, Director of Digital Strategy at Bible Society

Toby Beresford is Director of Digital Strategy at Bible Society and is exploring how the Bible can positively influence our shared online culture.

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