Not merely a Clash song, I am at a juncture. Almost a year ago, I migrated off self-hosted Ghost for The Product Bistro to Substack. The main motivation for this was to free myself from the back-end maintenance, and hassles of running the platform.
Then Substack had to go and step in the Nazi cesspool. Look, I know that repulsive, repugnant people are out there, like cockroaches who come out of the cracks to infest every venue they can. And when Substack was much more like infrastructure, rather than a platform, I could look the other way.
On November 28, independent journalist Jonathan Katz published a bombshell of an article on The Atlantic, titled “Substack has a Nazi Problem” where he had highlighted that some of the worst of the far right, Christian Nationalists (aka white supremacists), and dyed-in-the-wool Nazi’s had made camp, and many of them had used the monetization capabilities of Substack to gain dozens to hundreds of paid subscribers.
It took more than three weeks for Substack’s founders to respond, and it is bad…
Chris, Jairaj, and I wanted to let you know that we’ve heard and have been listening to all the views being expressed about how Substack should think about the presence of fringe voices on the platform (and particularly, in this case, Nazi views). ... I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either—we wish no-one held those views. But some people do hold those and other extreme views. Given that, we don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.1
So, they don’t like Nazi’s, but they are perfectly happy to rake their 10% of the subscription fees into their coffers (because, they are Tech Bros’ and that is what they do).
That still wouldn’t be enough to cause me to bolt for the exits, except for one thing. I hung out at Twitter for a few months after it was purchased by Musk, and the permission structure he superimposed, coupled with the decimation of the content moderation team made it a shithole. The last time I logged in there about the time Twitter stopped letting me crosspost links from Substack, I looked around, and the amount of porn, and the prioritization of those who shelled out the $8 a month for the new “blue” service, it was clear that all the worst people were being promoted and spammed to the entire audience.
As part of this degradation of Twitter as a useful vector to get more people to read my writings, there has been a gradual increase in the addition of Social Media-like functionality. The ability to recommend other newsletters to your readers, the “Notes” feature that was a proto-Tweet feed, and the like means that people will often get some truly horrible things in their feed. This essentially moved Substack from “infrastructure” into “Platform” territory.
Yet it is clear as a bell that there is no appetite to institute any moderation at all, and just use the “marketplace” of ideas and free speech yada yada yada.
And yes, I have had some copy-pasta comments on my other Substack posts from these far-right proto-Nazis. So many that I have now banned more people than I ever did in 13 years on Twitter. Yes, it is a real problem.
Now, here is where I am seeking some feedback. What does my audience of savvy Product people recommend?
- Should I just suck it up and stay? I mean, I don’t charge for this, so ultimately I am a free-rider, consuming resources of Substack, helping to drain their coffers by a little bit. There are pros to this (mainly the social shim (notes, recommendations really do help grow my audience), besides the coexisting with Nazis.
- Should I move? I could return to Ghost, and self-host and avoid the association with the worst of humanity. But that will take a lot of effort and I am already in my pajamas
- Should I just retire the site entirely? Since I grew it from my following in the glory days of Twitter, and that glory is fading.
I am leaning towards moving it. I have spun up a Ghost test site to re-acquaint myself, and I have to say that many of the niggling issues that drove me to move to Substack have been fixed, and it seems better in every way from Substack.
The CTA (Call to Action)
I want (need) to hear from my audience. You can do that via comments below, or you can just move that mouse pointer and click on the “Reply” button and let me know.
You have been on this journey with me over the last 7 years (and blogging about product management for the last 15 years since my first product post on wordpress dot com in 2009).
I anxiously await your feedback and thoughts.
Seriously, the founders are BAD at this. They really need to staff a good Comms team, and have a crisis PR firm on speed-dial, as well as muzzling Hamish Mackenzie. They really stepped in it and made it progressively worse. ↩