As this series of newsletters has argued, people perceive Substack as being more innovative than it really is. Why? Because these feel like innovative times in media consumption.
Substack itself says things like, “We believe that the prevailing media ecosystem is in disrepair and that the internet can be used to build something better.” But not, it quickly cautions, like Facebook did. In explaining why it won’t do much content moderation, Substack points out that it doesn’t have an algorithm to tell you what to read next. “We want people, not engagement-motivated platforms, to ultimately be in control.”
Of course the flipside is that Substack doesn’t make you very discoverable as a writer. If you bring a mailing list, great. If you can goose your material into virality via Twitter or Facebook, even better. Then again, when mainstream publishers tried that road five or six years ago, they found a dead-end.
Substack is not a social network. It’s a printing press. When you’re done, you have the electronic equivalent of a bunch of flyers that you can walk around town putting on telephone poles. They’re great flyers! But the whole mindset—newsletters, flyers, mailing lists—is weirdly nostalgic.
Have you noticed other forms of media lately? They’re training us in new ways to consume them: seasons. The season of a TV show can be six or ten or thirty episodes—however long it takes to tell the story. A new season can be released all at once or in installments. It isn’t released in “fall” or “sweeps period” but whenever the content and audience are ready. (Personally, I’m ready for Season 3 of Succession. Damned pandemic!)
Podcasts have gone the same way. A season of podcasts will cover a particular story, such as the 1917 murder of Butte, Montana labor figure Frank Little. Next season, another story. Or, for less storytelling-oriented podcasts, a new topic, a new year to look back on, a new passion for the person behind the podcast.
Where’s the equivalent for the written word?
If you had a story, or an argument, that you wanted to release in a series of episodes that you wanted to call a “season,” what’s the platform you would put it on?
As a writer, I don’t really want to publish a “newsletter”—especially since I’m just as attuned to story arcs as TV and radio people are. Even if I were to publish a bunch of personal essays and just call them newsletters, I don’t want to lock myself into a weekly or quarterly schedule. After all, the internet should allow me to release a season and then take a break, rejuvenate, find new inspiration.
I guess a person could do that on Substack. But it would feel like TheAntiSubstack.
Thanks for joining me in Season 1.