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Is Substack Notes a “Twitter clone”? We asked CEO Chris Best

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It is fair to say that Substack has had a dramatic week and a half or so, and I talked to their CEO Chris Best about it. The company announced a new feature called Substack Notes, which looks quite a bit like Twitter — Substack authors can post short bits of text to share links and kick off discussions, and people can reply to them, like the posts, the whole thing. Like I said, Twitter.

Twitter, under the direction of Elon Musk, did not like the prospect of this competition, and for several days last week, Twitter was taking aggressive actions against Substack. At one point you couldn’t even like tweets with Substack links in them. At another point, clicking on a Substack link resulted in a warning message about the platform being unsafe. And finally, Twitter redirected all searches for the word Substack to “newsletter.” Musk claimed Substack was somehow downloading the Twitter database to bootstrap Substack Notes, which, well, I’m still not sure what that means, but I at least asked Chris what he thought that meant and whether he was doing it. 

It’s tempting to think of Substack like a rival platform to Twitter, but until the arrival of Substack Notes, it was much more like enterprise software. With Substack Notes, the company is in direct competition with social networks like Twitter. It’s shipping a consumer product that’s designed to be used by Substack readers. It is no longer just a software vendor; it’s a consumer product company. And that carries with it another set of content moderation concerns, that, after talking to Chris, I’m just not sure Substack is ready for. Like, I really don’t know. You’ll just have to listen to his answers — or really, non-answers — for yourself.

This is a wild one. I’m still processing it. Let me know what you think. Okay, Chris Best, CEO of Substack. Here we go.

This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. The full transcript will be available shortly.

Was it meant to compete with Twitter?

What was it meant to do besides post recommendations? Because it feels like you want writers putting more content in the app so people use the app more, which I totally understand. Again, that’s our motivation for our product and our site [The Verge]: we want our writers to participate more, be more present, build more audience, build more community.

I think that the incentive structure of the social media business model pulls in a certain direction. It pulls in this direction of being maximally cheaply compelling, maximally addictive, and trying to get you to spend more and more of your time there, regardless of how much you value it. And I basically think that the truest instantiation of that today is TikTok. And I think that every company that has this business model is going to get pulled in the direction of getting closer and closer to TikTok and then whatever comes beyond TikTok. TikTok but everything’s AI, or TikTok plugs into your brain, or whatever it is. I don’t know.

There’s some gravitational pull that’s pulling every platform that works that way to be that way whether they want to or not. And I think that opens up an opportunity for something that is in opposition to that that works a totally different way. That says, “Hey, over here, you are the customer. You are going to subscribe directly to things you care about. The job of this app, of this inbox, of this feed is not to keep you here at all costs. It’s to find you things that you value so much that you might want to pay for them.”

And so, my mental model of this is basically that everybody’s going to either have to turn into TikTok or turn into Substack. We are already Substack. In the broad sense, that creates an alternative to the attention economy. Substack, as a whole, is an alternative to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, and over time, we think this alternative model will grow. But it’s just obviously not the case that we’re going to release one feature and everybody from some other thing is going to jump over. It doesn’t work that way.

Just to be clear, the users of Notes are expecting that. Just browsing Notes for the past couple days since I’ve had access to it, there’s a lot of hope that everyone will just move over from Twitter. Obviously, there’s some Twitter-related drama that we should get into very directly. But right now, looking at the users of Notes, who are a bunch of Substackers, they’re saying, “Hey, this feels like early Twitter. I hope we can keep this going and this replaces Twitter.” Do you think that’s a fair or appropriate expectation?

I’ve seen the meme that you’re talking about. That’s not the story that we’re telling, and that’s not the way that we believe it’s going to work. We don’t think that anything is going to be the new Twitter. And we think, even if that were possible, that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to build the same thing.

I can understand how people, especially writers who really want to have a reliable platform for their work, a reliable place to share, could be feeling the heat and looking for alternatives. I think that simplistic understanding just doesn’t hold water.

Let’s talk about that part of it for just a quick second. The last time we talked, you said that you were keeping track of various writers’ Twitter followers as you were considering recruiting them to Substack, and there have been a lot of different deals that recruit writers to Substack. But the idea that people with a lot of Twitter followers were attractive targets to recruit to Substack came through loud and clear.

I have certainly heard from a lot of people in Substack over the past two years that their primary source of conversions to paid is Twitter. Twitter is their best marketing engine. Substack maybe monetized Twitter better than Twitter ever monetized itself. This has been a real relationship that we’ve seen play out. And now, Twitter’s going through whatever it’s going through. I think there is a lot of fear from that community that their single best top-of-funnel network is going away or will be inhospitable to them in some meaningful way.

And Notes might be the replacement, or Mastodon might be the replacement, but it’s certainly not going to be TikTok, and it probably isn’t search. Are you thinking, “Okay, we’ve got to build something that looks like the top of the funnel for Substack writers”?

I think the right way to think about this is we’re trying to build ways in Substack where you can use the power of the Substack network to grow, to reach new audiences, to have a place, in a Substack-y way. An example of this is the recommendation feature we launched, where writers can recommend each other. Therefore, readers can discover new things they might like, not through a machine that’s just predicting what you’ll click on but somebody that they’ve chosen to trust saying, “Hey, this is worth checking out.”

We’re extending that ethos into how Notes works. It’s just a way that you can recommend even more things. And at the same time, we want people publishing on Substack to be able to publish everywhere. We want people to also share on Twitter. We want them to also share in TikTok, also share everywhere. We think writers should have the power to share their work broadly everywhere that it can go. We think that’s good.



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