The dream of a Twitter replacement lives on: This week, Substack made its Notes feature public, offering a new centralized feed for writers and readers to post, like, reply, and retweet (well, “restack”) short missives in a rather familiar format. Unlike Mastodon, Post, and the other mediocre Twitter alternatives we tried and abandoned last fall after like, five minutes, Substack already enjoys the pre-existing residencies of a sizable crop of writers and Blue Check–type personalities to populate the Notes feed from the get-go. A cursory spin on Notes early Tuesday felt like arriving at a pre-game where you already recognize a few faces. 

“Our goal is to foster conversations that inspire, enlighten, and entertain,” Substack stated in the launch announcement. It was so just, normal-sounding, honestly, in the context of a billionaire wasting all of our time with Doge and Titter jokes, that Notes felt briefly like a  glimmer of hope that the internet might still be the dignified place for interacting with real people and finding interesting things that we’re always trying to pretend it was meant for. Honestly, it’s a genius move—especially considering Elon Musk’s subsequent fit trying to ban Substack links in apparent retaliation—and considering how Substack has been trying to live up to its $585 million valuation in the years since the rampant newsletter gold rush of 2019 to 2021. (Just a few weeks ago, things seemed dire enough that Substack hit up its own writers to fundraise.) 

What I’m saying is, Notes could be a masterstroke here for the newsletter company. Ever since primordial Facebook times, tech platforms have sought to create some version of a walled garden where users would stay in one place to find and consume content. Substack, which reports more than 35 million active subscriptions, of which 2 million are in the paid tier, excelled at giving users intuitive tools for making content (newsletters) and monetizing it. But unlike say, the fact that you mostly look at Instagram posts on Instagram, the primary real estate occupied by Substack’s content (emails) isn’t monopolized by the company itself; it’s most likely your inbox—hence, Substack’s app launch last year to generally get you to spend more time on its own property. And, while Substack has built up all kinds of features, from podcasting capability to chat threads, in order to make the $5ish/month subscription compelling, the price of grazing around—say you just want to read a few editions of someone’s paywalled newsletter, instead of committing your poor inbox (or credit card) to yet another subscription—has remained high. 

And so the riddle of discovery—to help people find cool new stuff they weren’t already looking for, on the platform’s own turf—has been a particular challenge for Substack. Despite the site’s explore tab or all those dang cross-promo recommendations emails, new readers are still most likely to stumble across a Substack newsletter out in the wild only when it’s promoted on other platforms (i.e., Twitter or Instagram), not because they were necessarily browsing Substack.com. 

Now, if Notes can grow into even a fraction of Twitter’s scale and become the new reliable, well-populated spot for digital window-shopping, Substack could very well turn a little corner  of the internet into a company town. “The ultimate goal on this platform is to convert casual readers into paying subscribers,” Substack’s Notes announcement said. It’s the common prayer of the digital publisher at this point.  

This is assuming Substack wants Notes to be like Twitter. The experience, so far, is not dissimilar from the golden age of the feed; I’ve poked around on Notes for a Couple of days, and it’s freaking genteel on there. (Disclosure: I actively wrote, and largely owe my career to, a newsletter on Substack from 2018–2021.) There’s no ranking algorithm and no ads. No one is going viral. You can only see posts from who you’re subscribed to, plus who they’re subscribed to on the home feed. This morning, when I checked in, I caught up on some news and read a poem while saving a few links, both newsletter-directed and non, to peruse later. Pretty civilized stuff!

Mostly, there’s enough general conversation that I don’t particularly mind that the feed is supposed to be, above all, a newsletter buffet with the intention of getting you to commit to not a few full mukbang experiences later (which is already working out for some writers quite nicely). I’d say that if Substack really wanted to create the next internet über-feed, the challenge would be convincing non-writerly (in the traditional sense) public figures and internet personalities (think Dril and Jaboukie types, for example) to migrate over, and to get comfortable ceding more space to matters of internet small talk versus simply subscription shilling.

But building a Twitter clone apparently isn’t the stated intention here. Notably, Substack refers to itself as a subscription network, not a social media network, and a company spokesperson elucidated this difference in business model to me: “While attention is the lifeblood of ad-based social media, a subscription network’s lifeblood is the money that gets paid to people who are doing worthy work within it.” The bet here with Notes is that instead of trying to game an algorithm to win nonsensical clout points (i.e., going viral on Twitter), writers will spend more time establishing themselves as someone worth forking a few dollars over for each month. This falls in line with the general monetization-ification of the internet as a whole lately, which itself carries the potentially disheartening effect of sectioning off quality digital consumption as a paid experience—but at least the ’stack isn’t being coy about it. 


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