Substack Notes and Long vs. Short Form

April 11, 2023 • #

Substack has entered the arena of the social network wars, taking it to Twitter head-on with a new product called Notes. It’s a short form feed style of posts that runs in a parallel track to your long form newsletter subscriptions (the Inbox), and looks remarkably similar to Twitter. But Substack’s big innovation here for a social network is capitalizing on their subscription-centric model — every other general-use social network on the internet to-date has been based on advertising. From the announcement, how Substack will differentiate:

By contrast, the lifeblood of a subscription network is the money paid to people who are doing worthy work within it. Here, people get rewarded for respecting the trust and attention of their audiences. The ultimate goal on this platform is to convert casual readers into paying subscribers. In this system, the vast majority of the financial rewards go to the creators of the content.

With this launch, Twitter responded by variously blocking Substack links completely, preventing them from being liked/retweeted, or being embedded on Substack domains. Some of these have since been pulled back after some backlash (on Twitter), but still — clearly Twitter sees this as the direct challenge that it looks like. Ben Thompson has a great write-up on the state of the competition between the two platforms.

I’ve been playing around with Notes this morning. At first glance it looks great; I love the feed from users I subscribe to, and it looks like it algorithmically includes users outside of my following network. Following plus adjacent similar users is good with me for discovery. As a writer of a Substack myself, the network effects on the platform have improved over time (with @mentions, recommendations, likes) and Notes stands to widen the funnel even more, hopefully.

Twitter has struggled to make inroads on something Substack has been gloriously successful with so far: long form writing. Notably, Twitter bought Substack rival Revue (which was a great product!) in 2021, and has already shuttered it. For some reason — probably classic disruption theory crippling incentives, among other product execution failings — Twitter can’t innovate away from its core 240-character timeline product.

I’m excited to see what Substack can do with the idea. Even though Notes is still in their domain of text media, the usage incentives for producers & consumers will change dramatically if this new product takes on a life of its own, standing alone from the deliberate, deep newsletter product they’ve been focused on the past 6 years. If they want to enter the social media game, now’s the time to strike, with Twitter seemingly still in a confused state about the future of the platform and where it wants to devote innovation resources going forward. They still don’t seem to know how to break out of the advertising-driven, engagement-bait trap, even with a Big Bet Maker in Elon in the driver’s seat.

Arnold Kling is skeptical on the potential for Notes to fit cleanly into the Substack’s existing incentive structure. But he makes a point here that I think points to the potential of combining long form and short form into a new recipe:

Daniel Kahneman has taught us that our brain has two systems. System One reacts rapidly and emotionally. System Two reasons slowly and rationally. Short-form writing is adjacent to System One. Long-form writing is adjacent to System Two.

We need both systems to have a functioning consciousness. Maybe the same could be true for text-based media.

Topics:   Substack   writing   publishing   products