February 3, 2023

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Could Substack Chat be the new Twitter?

“Bringing my Twitter followers to my substack like Noah’s Ark,” reports The Intercept Ken Klippenstein tweeted to his 471,000 followers days after Elon Musk took over Twitter.

Klippenstein is just one of many authors jokingly or openly saying they will be leaving Musk’s Twitter for newsletter platform Substack. Writers, many of whom have turned their Twitter communities into real-world job prospects, feel like they need to break new ground given the app’s new administration. Some threatened to take their craziest content to the Create tab on Instagram Stories; others asked their followers to greet them at the gates of Mastodon; and others, perhaps against their better judgment, happily informed their loyal Twitter followers that they could join them on Substack.

Substack is not without problems. Twitter published hateful content such as that of British anti-transgender writer Graham Linehan. And while Linehan has been permanently banned from Twitter, his harassment, transphobia, and hate speech continue to thrive on his Substack account, which has thousands of paying subscribers. And the two places are so different: Twitter is a place for writers to share their stories; quick, reactionary analyses; and also the absolute dumbest thoughts they’ve ever had. Substack is a long-form newsletter platform. As one of my followers on Mastodon put it succinctly, “There seems to be a huge effort gap between ‘shit mail’ and ‘write a newsletter that people will subscribe to and read’.” (I’m not fully on Mastodon yet switched, but I’m assuming Twitter alternatives.)

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Enter: the chat feature, a space for Substack authors and creators to have Twitter-like conversations with their subscribers. Substack launched it on November 3 – about a week later Musk brought a sink to Twitter headquarters — and described it as “having your own private social network where you make the rules,” a note that goes well with her overall ethos of owning your own subscriber list.

Rayne Fisher-Quann, a feminist cultural critic who writes the Internet Princess newsletter, started using the chat feature, which feels a lot like AOL Instant Messenger or a group chat and looks a lot like Reddit. If you subscribed to their Substack and have the app on your iPhone, you received a notification on November 5th that took you to the Substack chat. “Oh my god this is like twitter only has cool people on it,” she wrote. This first post contains 285 heart emoji replies, 15 laugh cry face emojis and 6 shocked emoji face reactions. There are 177 replies — she replied to many of them — and she’s started about a dozen more chats since then.

“I think it’s trying to cushion some of the impact of Twitter in a really effective way,” Fisher-Quann told Mashable, adding that it’s cool to have a way to communicate with subscribers instantly. “I’m very active in other parts of the internet: I’m on Twitter and TikTok and Instagram. But I’ve found that my favorite place is in the new chat [or] in the comments section or in the discussion posts on my [newsletter]. It feels really good when a community of people choose to be there and engage with each other in good faith [who] like each other and are interested in each other. It feels very different [from] other places on the internet.”

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The chat feature is similar to Substack’s discussion threads. You can comment and have a discussion in both spaces, authors have control over both spaces, and both can be completely separate from what an author produces in their newsletter. But Fisher-Quann admits chatting “feels very different.” Unlike discussion threads, people can share pictures in chats, and the format of chats feels a lot less because it’s subscribers only and you can have a quick conversation before moving on – similar to a Reddit thread . Fisher-Quann compares it to sending a text message versus leaving a comment on a website.

The chats “make people feel a lot more connected to the other subscribers,” Fisher-Quann said. “You see their profile picture and their names, and very quickly I saw people – I’m feeling a little cheesy – but it was cool to see how people really connected to the space and the community. People made playlists together and they tried to organize by location so they could find each other on Instagram and it felt really good to see that.”

Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie told Mashable that he thinks “people are kind of sick of all the public brawls on social media and the idea of ​​having a place to hang out with people who actually want to hang out with you and talk about the things you have a common interest in… having that greater control. It’s just more fun.” He said the chat feature is “more like the old internet. It’s not about winning points in a status game. It’s more like classic old internet fun.”

McKenzie is right about that. As Aimée Morrison, Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, told Mashable in a previous article, in the early days we were on these platforms to “have fun and be ridiculous and do things for that to post what you want probably understood as a limited audience.”

“The content was plentiful, but the audience wasn’t plentiful,” Morrison said. That’s what makes these chats so beautiful – you have a few thousand people who can read what you’re commenting and far fewer who would actually do it. Compare that to the hundreds of millions of people who can find your public tweets. The stakes on substack chat are low, and that’s part of what makes it work.

But the stakes are not absent. We still deal with people on the Internet, a group notoriously unworthy of our faith. This is why content moderation is so important. In the substack chat, the substack creators are responsible for this moderation. Creators have complete control over the types of conversations and interactions that take place in their chat threads – good and bad.

“It’s going to be a huge shock, but I’m pretty neurotic,” joked Fisher-Quann, who has spoken and written extensively about her mental health. “Especially having grown up on the internet as a young woman and knowing that there are a lot of very young women on the internet, I was very nervous about negative potential in any type of chat room.”

Because of this, Fisher-Quann chose not to create a thread to help people share their locations — although some of her subscribers wanted to know where the others live, and though she thinks many people would benefit from it.

“I was too worried to intentionally create a space like that,” she said. “It’s a big responsibility to say, ‘I’m like the sole arbiter of this room.’ It’s not like Twitter, where there’s that security blanket of having a content moderator who can take the heavy moral decisions off your shoulders.”

Substack has no intention of becoming the next Twitter. By its very nature, Substack is made up of small communities of little geeks like me who enjoy reading specific blogs on the internet. Substack has been embroiled in content moderation controversies — like her decision to platform Lineham — but the platform has consistently denounced the differences between it and other social media platforms, most notably that unlike Twitter, readers the have full control over what they see on Substack.

“The main problem, we believe, is that engagement-based business models have created a class of highly successful media products that are distorting online discourse,” the company wrote in 2020 in defense of its refusal to censor content used by some labeled as hateful. “It’s getting harder and harder to engage in meaningful discussions on these platforms.”

Some other authors also appreciate this very much. You don’t have to love the chat feature to be happily using Substack while Twitter spirals into madness.

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SEE ALSO: Substack Plunges in as Twitter Mayhem Continues

Rebecca Jennings, senior correspondent at Vox, recently started publishing her newsletter, Beccacore, on Substack. She didn’t do this in direct response to Twitter’s demise, but she does have her biggest following on Twitter, and she told Mashable it’s a “cynical thing to know that if Twitter goes down, that’s the only platform where I have an audience.” She said there was value in having “an email list of people who are genuinely interested in what I write and who might be interested in things I might write in the future do”.

Beccacore is also something she has thought about throughout her career as a journalist. She missed blogging and writing about fashion. Now she can easily do both in her own newsletter.

“I’ve only done two issues of this, but I’ve found a niche where it’s a very, very brief introduction about something, and then I shop the rest of the newsletter for other people,” Jennings said. “And that’s just fun for me. I wouldn’t call it a shit post or anything because it’s not super funny, but it’s really fun.”

Substack will not be a replacement for Twitter. But it has the potential to replace some of the things we love about Twitter — including writing light-lift posts and finding communities.