Substack is a … complicated platform. It is reinvigorating blogging and enabling writers to get paid for their work without giving up the rights to it. That's why I signed up for a Substack of my own (though I haven't quite figured out how best to use it for myself). At the same time, the company has struggled to avoid public tantrums and has angered many by creating a profitable platform for racists, transphobes, anti-vaxxers, and vitriol-spewers in general. This is where things get complicated: like it or not, I can understand the company's argument that their service is merely a tool, and that they have no right to dictate how people use that tool. While it has provided grants for some controversial writers, the company argues that it has not itself "platformed" them by injecting their content into users' feeds without consent. In this way, Substack has differentiated itself from more "traditional" social media platforms.
Until recently. Substack just launched "Notes," a supplementary service to the standard subscription models which more-than-slightly resembles Twitter (much to the chagrin of some). To promote this new service, Substack CEO Chris Best spoke with Nilay Patel at The Verge for an hour-long chat on their Decoder podcast. During the conversation, Best does offer what I think is at least an interesting argument about the difference between "censorship" and "content moderation":
If we draw a distinction between moderation and censorship, where moderation is, "Hey, I want to be a part of a community, of a place where there's a vibe or there's a set of rules or there's a set of norms or there's an expectation of what I'm going to see or not see that is good for me, and the thing that I'm coming to is going to try to enforce that set of rules," versus censorship, where you come and say, "Although you may want to be a part of this thing and this other person may want to be a part of it, too, and you may want to talk to each other and send emails, a third party's going to step in and say, 'You shall not do that. We shall prevent that.'"
And I think, with the legacy social networks, the business model has pulled those feeds ever closer. There hasn't been a great idea for how we do moderation without censorship, and I think, in a subscription network, that becomes possible.
But it's after that where things get interesting. Patel lobs Best what he himself admits is a softball. He asks if, in the scenario that Notes catch on as a Twitter replacement and begins to serve as a more broad social media platform, then will Substack moderate hateful content that explicitly goes against their terms of service. Here's the start of the exchange:
PATEL: I just want to be clear, if somebody shows up on Substack and says "all brown people are animals and they shouldn't be allowed in America," you're going to censor that. That's just flatly against your terms of service.
BEST: So, we do have a terms of service that have narrowly prescribed things that are not allowed.
That one I'm pretty sure is just flatly against your terms of service. You would not allow that one. That's why I picked it.
So there are extreme cases, and I'm not going to get into the–
Wait. Hold on. In America in 2023, that is not so extreme, right? "We should not allow as many brown people in the country." Not so extreme. Do you allow that on Substack? Would you allow that on Substack Notes?
I think the way that we think about this is we want to put the writers and the readers in charge–
No, I really want you to answer that question. Is that allowed on Substack Notes? "We should not allow brown people in the country."
I'm not going to get into gotcha content moderation.
The exchange ends up being about 2000 words worth of Best equivocating with generic platitudes about free speech without actually answering Patel's question. You would think that even the most based CEO would know enough to smile at the reporter and offer their own bland platitude of "Hate has no place here" or "Well xenophobic displacement and genocide obviously go against our terms of service, so of course we'd handle it." Instead Best just … keeps trying to talk around the subject. As Patel notes:
I thought it was a gimme because, well, obviously, but also because I read Substack's content guidelines a little too loosely.
Now, I think it's debatable whether calling to kick brown people out of the country incites violence — I think it does, but I can see the argument that, in my example, it literally does not. I wish I had used a clearer example. That's on me. But I think it's more notable that Chris didn't correct me either way and actually didn't engage the question at all, which… well, you'll see how that went.
Not gonna lie: I was excited about Substack Notes, even despite the company's occasionally questionable decisions in the past. But this interview … did not leave a good taste in my mouth.
Is Substack Notes a 'Twitter clone'? We asked CEO Chris Best [Nilay Patel / The Verge]