I must confess that I’ve always been lost on Twitter. I’m intimidated by the length constraint, wearied by the jargon and #mashedtogetherwords, puzzled by the self-promotion. I find the signal-to-noise ratio incredibly low, and the snark-to-insight ratio way too high. My failure to understand or appreciate Twitter means that I fail to use it effectively.
But my failure does give me a distanced perspective from which to ask, Does this platform raise the level of discourse? From the outside, it sure looks like a middle-school lunchroom, a hive of insecurity, pursuing meaningless alleged symbols of status. Because less than one-quarter of the population is even on the platform, it presents a warped view of the world. A small number of people producing a large number of tweets end up with an outsized voice—and because so many journalists are on Twitter, those voices (typically opinionated extremists on both ends) get amplified.
The more that journalism can move away from Twitter, the better, in my opinion. News might not break as fast, but it could be more accurate, more fair, more reflective of the real world. (Does anyone really enjoy the ever-faster news cycle?) The promise of Substack, then, is that it could be a major move in the right direction. It allows writers unlimited space to speak directly to their audience, and allows for private, moderated discussion groups that offer deeper, more real conversations.
Sounds great, except that the entire structure is based on a foundation of Twitter. Twitter is how a Substack writer builds an audience. Substack’s major piece of audience-building advice is: “Post on Twitter (or Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc) about starting a newsletter and ask your followers to subscribe. Pin a tweet about it to the top of your Twitter feed. Tell them what it’s about and why you think they’d like it. As you publish new posts, keep sharing your excerpts and insights.” (The parenthetical is totally irrelevant. The message is: Twitter.) As noted in the link from yesterday’s newsletter, Substack’s own internal measurements are based on Twitter valuations.
Building off Twitter is great for creating buzz among journalists. It’s great for recruiting journalists to your platform. It’s great at building your company’s valuation.
But it’s not a particularly innovative or helpful way to conduct journalism. It’s not even new. Even if you can exceed 140 characters or charge your subscribers money, it’s still just journalists talking to the tiny subset of the population that’s on Twitter (mostly consisting of other journalists). Rather than improving journalism, Substack will only accentuate its current flaws.
At least that’s my opinion—as we’ll look at in the next newsletter.