4 min read

On leaving Substack

Competitive systems promote suboptimization.
On leaving Substack

There are two aspects of my former Substack that I miss–

  1. The opportunity to share the best parts of my conversations with Larry, which were as much a way for me to remember them as anything else
  2. The option to photograph my meals, which had less to do with the image than the pre-photograph decision to prepare the plate and place setting in a way that made the experience of eating and/or sharing the meal both more attractive and more enjoyable

You will note that both of these factors have to do with care, and neither of them really have to do with care of you. I know you don't care what I ate for breakfast, and you definitely don't care about my morning routine, and although you may care about what Larry and I discuss in the evenings, my decision to jot down our best phrases has nothing to do with you. It's an act of love, but not for the reader. Not even for the relationship.

The care, in this case, is for the system Larry and I have created –

Which is a system that necessarily excludes all of you who are reading on the other side of the screen.

Which means that I can continue to take these notes without feeling obliged to perform them.

There are ways, of course, in which Larry and I hope to share the best of our systems. He's writing a program. I'm writing a quarterly philosophy zine. We're hosting gatherings at the house. Someday we may host gatherings elsewhere.

But the thing we're not doing – especially since I made up my mind, twice, to stop doing it – is entering our cooperative systems into someone else's competitive system.

Because that process only and ever leads to suboptimization.

I don't know if you've heard what's been going on in and around Substack lately. Something something Elon Musk, something something broken links, something something Twitter feud, something something don't care.

We already know what Substack's goal is, because they stated it last week:

We think that Notes can become a powerful driver of subscriptions. Historically, having worthy posts get shared widely is one of the major ways that writers find growth on Substack. Notes will help posts find a valuable audience of writers and readers who are already invested in the Substack ecosystem and are just one click away from a subscription.

Something something subscriptions, something something subscriptions, something something subscriptions.

But Substack was always a money-collecting device. That's been their goal from the beginning. The fact that they dressed it up in longform-writing pants doesn't change anything – and the fact that they've added shorts (just in time for summer!) doesn't make it worse.

The real reason I switched from Substack to Ghost was because Substack was starting to change the way I thought – and not for the better.

My first mistake was thinking that Substack would be different.

That I would be able to write, every day, without checking my stats every five minutes.

That I would be able to avoid comments. That I would be able to avoid checking my comments for upvotes. That I would be able to avoid waking up early enough to be one of the first people to comment, which would ensure that my response got in before people got tired of reading and upvoting.

That I would be able to avoid the subtle shove towards extremism, which exists in every competitive system with a limited number of high-value rewards.

Write the outrageous thing, the system gently urges. The people who've always wanted someone else to say the outrageous thing will love you.

And so I began by writing about my bowels.

I also began reading the most popular Substack writers, nearly all of whom practiced a more thoughtful extremism than the shortform hot takes you might see on other platforms (although Substack Notes has now given writers the opportunity to stack without thinking, so expect the heat to rise).

I told myself that I could remain balanced by reading writers who represented a plurality of edgepoints.

This worked, for a while. Many of the edges were beautifully crafted, after all. Compelling. Sharable. A sharp perspective on our multifaced world.

And then I started reading the archives. The articles that hadn't quite made it, for one reason or another.

I discovered that the posts below the fold were, very often, beyond the pale.


On the other hand, these writers – the same ones who had written the posts I thought I admired – had also spent time and energy and effort crafting the posts I did not admire, and that made me rethink the veracity of the entire enterprise.

Ah, I thought, I no longer know what they value.

And then – if I continue in this system, I may no longer know what I value.

I will become suboptimal, which is to say I will become subordinate to what other people have optimized.

My mind has expanded, considerably, since I stopped Substacking.

This isn't because I've gone back to my habit of reading one book every two days.

It isn't because I've restored the ability to write 1,000 words an hour.

My mind has expanded – which is to say that I have expanded – because I have relaxed.

I'm out of the system.

I'm in an open-source environment with very few stats to check, most of which I don't even bother checking.

I have one metric that matters: book sales.

I have two metrics that can get me there: reading more and writing more.

I have a system, created in cooperation (or co-operation) with the Great Love of My Life, that has helped us both become better people – and it starts and ends in the same place.





The rest is, and always is, and always will be, distraction.

Which means that Substack can go stack itself –

Which is exactly what it is trying to do.