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Now let me sell you something

I’ve been on something of an RSS subscription spree. In addition to all the great blogs (and many, many, many more…) there are a quite a few “old” blogs that I (re)discovered — my blogroll will need a serious update!

Notably absent from the new subscriptions are substack newsletters. It is unnerving to scroll down a website for the first time only to be interrupted by a request to subscribe, and a big draw of RSS, at least for me, is its unobtrusivness. It is there if you want it, but not in your face. The thought of following a blog regularly is of your own making, which is as it should be.

So to the bland design and the lack of control over your own content I would add this, much greater limitation of substack: choosing it to publish your writing — even if all your articles are free and unlocked, and you are honest-to-god only doing it because of ease of use — even with all that, choosing substack sends a strong signal that in the back of your mind there lies an idea that at some future point — maybe when you “have an audience”, maybe when you have “created your own platform” — at some unscpecified you’ll-know-it-when-you-get-there point you will click that big Monetize! button and you will ask people for money in exchange for your writing.

Not that there is anything wrong with that! In general. For other people. But not for me.

There is a chicken and egg problem here: I am after all a happy subscriber of Stratechery, I pay to read the Financial Times and The Atlantic, and I even subscribe to a substack newsletter or two. What is so bad about a previously free substack accepting payments? How is that any different?

The difference in how I feel about the two, I suspect, lies in substack making it too easy to monetize. There is a large group of people who are “natural bloggers”, and a much smaller subset of these who also have the mental fortitude to deal with the completely different dynamics of independent writing as a profession: consistently producing content and catering to your readers' demands — your are, after all, working for them — without falling prey to audience capture.

So, someone who could have been hapily microblogging for decades to come undergoes premature monetization, and all of a sudden performance anxiety sets in, their ideas dry up, their writing becomes sparse, and months pass before the next gargantuan article is published which fewer and fewer people will read. I won’t name names or link links, but it has happened before and will happen even more now that many are transitioning from Twitter. And on my end — knowing that this is a possibility with every completely-free-as-in-beer substack newsletter I am following — well, I don’t get too attached. I read less attentively. I always have doubts about why that particular topic came out (preparing the future paying audience, perhaps).

Friends don’t let friends write on substack.

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