Substack has launched a social network called Notes. First things first, I like the unassuming name. Who doesn’t like notes? Second, in what should be used in dictionaries as the definition of the Streisand Effect, Elon Musk has throttled the sharing of Substack links on Twitter in response to this supposed competitor. But in doing so, he has inadvertently told his 100M+ followers about Substack Notes.
Substack Notes has a “Home” tab where you will see notes from people you have and have not subscribed to. The notes here have to be algorithmically driven and are not human-curated. On the “Subscribed” tab, you’ll see notes from newsletters you’ve subscribed to in a chronological order (latest first). The engagement options are likes, replies, and restacks. No wonder people think this is trying to compete with Twitter.
But these similarities are misleading, and I believe that comparisons with Twitter by Musk and others are misplaced. Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, repeatedly called it “the public town square.” If Twitter is the public town square, then Substack Notes is the artistic neighborhood a few blocks away. If Twitter is the park where you can reliably run into a group of rowdy teenagers, Substack Notes is the quiet co-working space where you can hang out and catch up with like-minded people over coffee. Both are unique in what they offer — and that, as we will find out, is both good and bad for Substack.
Let’s get into it, starting with the positives:
On a positive note
End-running the cold start problem
The biggest thing that Substack Notes has going for it is the lack of a cold start problem that plagues any new network. From Andrew Chen’s book of the same name:
If there aren’t enough users on a social network and no one to interact with, everyone will leave. If a workplace chat product doesn’t have all your colleagues on it, it won’t be adopted at the office. A marketplace without enough buyers and sellers will have products listed for months without being sold. This is the Cold Start Problem, and if it’s not overcome quickly, a new product will die.
Given that Substack already has 17,000 writers earning money and 35 million active subscriptions (including 2 million paid subscriptions), they don’t have to worry about finding users for the platform. In my anecdotal evidence, every time I have opened up the Substack Notes app, there have been at least 3-5 new notes. Engagement is strong and there is very much a “fresh cut grass” feel to the platform where everyone is trying to figure out how to best use it.
Another related point: this has finally gotten me to download the Substack Notes app because it’s way easier to interact with Notes in an app compared to on the web. There has to be something here in the way that adds to the Substack flywheel.
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Newsletter readers like reading newsletters
Speaking of the flywheel, it is generally accepted that same channel promotions tend to work pretty well. If you’re a YouTuber, you should collaborate with other YouTubers because your audiences are already on the same platform — you don’t have to convince them to try something new.
Newsletters are no different.'s Morning Brew famously put its first marketing dollars towards sponsoring other newsletters. That’s why in the collaboration hey-day of this newsletter, I collaborated exclusively with other newsletters like on Sonos and Spotify, on Spotify and Succession, 's Divinations on Complexity Convection, 's S-1 Club on Coupang and Robinhood, by Jake Singer on lululemon, and others.
Following this principle, Notes can develop into the best newsletter discovery channel on the internet. If you like someone’s note on the platform, you can easily subscribe to their newsletter with a click or two. This is much easier than Twitter where you might go to their profile page or click into an article and then find a subscription link.
In fact, the app design of the app encourages this behavior:
Between notes, you get a block of suggested newsletters you might like and a subscribe button is prominently displayed below every Notes’ author. As the app grows, the Substack product team will certainly continue to hone in on encouraging the behavior of subscribing as much as possible.
One prominent criticism of the Substack business model has been that the largest newsletters might not want to pay them 10% of their earnings. I’ve always believed that this is misplaced because writers, first and foremost, want to write. They don’t want to run a technology platform. Over the last couple of years, Substack has developed features like Recommendations that have increased the value of the platform. If it can develop a true newsletter discovery in Notes, that is another source of encouraging more writers to join the platform and retain them while remaining writer-friendly.
Alternative paths to monetization while remaining ideologically pure
If remaining writer-friendly is one of Substack’s core principles, another is its founder’s dislike of ad-driven media. In many ways, they have developed the company’s brand as a counter position to the existing model of the internet. From A new economic engine for culture (brackets and emphasis mine):
When we started this company five years ago, we thought that the world might look a little different if readers and writers, rather than the companies that want to sell them stuff [read: advertisers], were the customers.
That’s a fine opinion to have. It might even be ideologically consistent. But it’s unclear how it’s consistent with a $625M valuation. Ad-based models are widely profitable. A flat 10% take rate leaves very little margin for, well, margin expansion. A lot has been written elsewhere about their challenging financials and incentives (Ben Thompson; paywalled).
But Notes allows Substack to do something interesting. It allows them to pursue a display ad model in the Substack app. Not one that’s algorithmically determined (thus remaining ideologically pure), but a simple pay-to-be-promoted to an audience of newsletter readers. This is an acceptable balance of trade offs — anyone who has a paying subscription to any newsletter (or a certain number of newsletters)/a separate in-app purchase would still get an ad-free experience, but if you’re only a free reader of Substacks, there will be some level of advertising-driven monetization ala Spotify or the New York Times.
In doing so, they could take inspiration from another orange-colored app, the podcast player Overcast. It is a simple podcast player made by Marco Arment that’s quite delightful to use. It has display ads on the Now Playing screen player and in category lists (Shoutout to's podcast which I am a big fan of and was listening to when I took this screenshot.)
You can easily imagine a promoted flag in the suggestions box or in category searches on the Substack app.
While this is not a move that will single-handedly justify their valuation even if implemented well, the development of an ad network can be useful in expanding and diversifying its margins. All products have to evolve beyond their original use cases; this evolution allows Substack to remain writer-first.
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Reduced dependency on other platforms
If there is one lesson to be taken away from the fiasco of getting Substack links blocked/marked unsafe by Twitter, it is that you have to control your own destiny when it comes to the internet.
It’s true that Substack was dependent on Twitter for much of its initial growth. But critically, it has another key dependency: Gmail. You’re not really an independent platform if most of your content is consumed through another company’s client and it can push newsletters to the spam folder and tabs other than your primary inbox. I would guess that this was an important driver of why Substack developed an app — to reduce dependency on a platform where most of its readers consume newsletters.
Since Notes is part of the Substack app, it continues the strategy of gaining independence from other platforms bringing in the experience fully in-house.
Importantly, all this is pro-writer and good for Substack. They are creating a sanctuary for thoughtful writing on the internet. Around that sanctuary, they have built dams to block the relentless onslaught of the dangerous waves of the ad-driven internet. They provide protection from the virality-loving impression-based economy, the susceptibility to financial harm when sharing unorthodox opinions, and the overall unpleasantness that is the social media culture wars.
Not to rain on the parade, but
And despite all this, there is a key problem: it does not have the social media culture wars. So far, Notes has been a relatively positive community where the best intentions are assumed and the vibes are positive.
That’s quite…. boring.
Part of what makes Twitter work (and why reactionary platforms like Truth Social have not taken off in mainstream circles), is that the people that you disagree with (and maybe even hate) are on the platform with you. It’s not that fun to quote tweet in agreement; it’s much more viscerally satisfying to dunk on someone.
If you’re on Substack Notes today, there is a lot of encouragement and positive discourse. I like that! It’s just unclear how that translates into a good social network with a large user base. If the plan with Notes was to replace Twitter amidst its current comical mismanagement, one struggles to see how that’s possible.
The real opportunity for Notes
This dynamic (or lack thereof) is why comparisons with Twitter are misplaced. They are largely a function of the Twitterati elite's obsession with the platform. You need mass adoption of a platform to get Twitter-like dynamics going and the masses are not paying $50/year for a single author. Substack (and Notes by extension) is for a specific type of person.
With that target user in mind, the real opportunity for Substack Notes is to develop a vertical social network for reading. It could take on the likes of Goodreads, Readwise, and Pocket to become the home of all text-based content on the internet.
If I could see the best genre recommendations, r/AskHistorians-quality discussions on topics, some elements of personal knowledge management tools, and a robust discovery network, the Substack app will earn a spot on every infovore’s homepage.
And all those features combined, amongst others by more creative minds that this vision of a reading-based social network would have, would be valuation-justifying.
And all this would be consistent with the principles of Substack, as laid out by the team:
Great work is valuable and deserves to be rewarded with money
The people have the power
A free press and free speech are fundamental to a trustworthy media system
We help readers take back their minds
Community and creation features in notes will facilitate more subscriptions for writers, paid and free. Since the business model will still be subscription-driven in this vision of the platform, the people continue to have the power to pay attention with their wallet. That in turn ensures free press and free speech. All that contributes to a platform where readers take back their attention and can focus on what they are reading.
Long road to a well-running economic engine for culture
The sanctuary for thoughtful writing on the internet can be successful. And the protections it provides are valuable. To borrow Substack's own term, the “economic engine for culture” should be built.
And it is exciting to see Substack build that engine. As a writer on the platform, I am happy to provide (a very, very small) part of the fuel to power that engine. This is why Substack Notes should not be compared to Twitter. To do that is to misunderstand and underestimate the endeavor.
It’ll be a long road to build this engine and keep it running in a way that is true to the team’s principles. They will almost certainly have missteps. But the goal is important — and ambitious — enough that we should hope that they succeed.
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Here is the link to the blog post announcing Notes from the Substack team.
The current Merriam Webster definition being: “The Streisand effect is a phenomenon whereby the attempt to suppress something only brings more attention or notoriety to it.”
Of course, it’s very early days for Substack Notes so I’m treating this essay as a ship in a bottle. When this all shakes out and the dust settles, it will be fun to come back and see which elements of it were wrong and which ones were right. If I had to guess, there will be fewer errors of omission than misplaced importance on particular points. But you never know.
From their latest fundraising page.
Morning Brew started as a single newsletter back in 2016 at the University of Michigan, but has since evolved into a media empire with making products including other newsletters and podcasts. It was sold to Insider Inc. for around $75M in 2020.
Back when I was a college Senior stuck in my room in the middle of the beginning stages of a global pandemic with a now-enviable amount of free time.
Their last venture capital-driven fundraise was in 2021 which, to be very generous, was a frothy market in terms of valuations.
I mean this in the most positive way possible. It’s good to be consistent, especially when — as discussed — much of the brand perception of Substack is a counter position to other forms of media driven by impressions.
One of the news stories that covered the fiasco by The Verge.
This is similar to how Facebook is dependent on Apple because most of its usage happens on iOS. We have seen the kind of value destruction that can lead to in the last couple of years.
I guess embedded in this take is a somewhat cynical view of the world and of people. But the data backs me up on this.
Goodreads would be particularly satisfying to take on, handcuffed and forgotten by Amazon as it is.
I’ve been one of the earliest users of Readwise (I believe I started using them in the spring or summer of 2018) and they have played an extremely good “the best defense is offense” game here to protect themselves from exactly this type of encroachment. The suite of features is excellent (I’ve been a big fan of the new Readwise Reader in particular) and they have focused on their core users for a long time.
"[I]t does not have the social media culture wars. So far, Notes has been a relatively positive community where the best intentions are assumed and the vibes are positive."
So well said, Sid. Anger and outrage leaps, hops, and bounds while positivity and happiness just plod along. Were I a gambler, I'd bet on the former versus the latter...