In this issue, the focus is on Substack itself.
Making users shareholders
Before I recommend Substack, I need to disclose my interests: I have invested in Substack. Substack has received prominent funding from a16z in both Series A and Series B rounds, with a valuation of up to $650 million in 2021. However, please don’t mistake me for a wealthy person; I am simply an author on the platform who was invited to invest, holding shares in my everyday tool. The crowdfunding campaign took place on Wefunder, with a valuation of $585 million and a minimum investment threshold of $100. I personally invested a modest amount that may seem insignificant for a business but is a loss I can afford, totaling $5,000.
But what I want to discuss is not investing, at least not investment experiences. In fact, my investment logic is quite simple: if I continuously use and find a product useful, I become interested in investing in it. Making money is certainly good, but even if I end up losing, I consider it as crowdfunding to achieve something, which doesn’t feel too bad. Although it may sound foolish, this is the same simple logic I used when buying stocks like Apple and Google in the past.
Typical investors don’t think this way. Some people write lengthy analyses and criticize the crowdfunding campaign of Substack, calling it a bad investment, suggesting that they are involving the authors just because they failed to raise from institutional investors.
We are serious about building Substack with writers, and this community round is a good way to concretize that ideal. We’re doing this because the dynamics of a platform like Substack change if the people who are building their businesses on it are owners of it, too.
Substack, on the other hand, explains it this way:
I’m not sure how sincere or hypocritical Substack’s statement is, but I’ve always strongly advocated for this cooperative logic, similar to a cooperative society. Therefore, I took the plunge. Whether I am caught up in my own enthusiasm or not, time will tell. For now, let me introduce the aspects of Substack that attract me, from both the reading and socializing perspectives.
Open reader and information sources
Substack, much like the old days of WordPress.com blogs, provides authors with domain names like alice.substack.com upon registration, allowing them to start writing immediately. Authors who want to establish their personal brand can also pay a one-time fee of $50 to use a custom domain name like alice.com.
Building upon the foundation of traditional blogging, Substack has introduced a few small innovations, gradually evolving into a “subscription network for independent writers and creators.” As the name suggests, Substack first introduced the subscription feature, similar to the well-known platform Patreon or the lesser-known Ghost.
Substack’s paid subscription feature is similar to Patreon, but the reading experience is far superior. I have subscribed to multiple authors on Patreon mainly for support, as I have no interest in reading within its unconventional interface. Like most internet services, Substack utilizes Stripe as its underlying payment system, which supports almost every country. Unfortunately, due to financial regulations, Taiwan is not supported by Stripe. Therefore, Taiwanese authors who want to charge for their Substack content would need to set up a bank account overseas or find someone abroad to handle the payments.
Another small yet crucial innovation of Substack is merging blogging with newsletters. By default, every post is sent via email to subscribers. In other words, every article is delivered to each reader, which is in stark contrast to social media platforms like Facebook that use algorithms to filter and prioritize content. While many people today let their inboxes accumulate thousands of unread emails, the email delivery brings a 10x higher engagement rate compared to Facebook’s meager reach of a few percent.
From a reader’s perspective, whether you belong to the new generation that ignores emails or, like me, are an old-school internet user who never overlooks any email, you regain the power to decide what to read. You no longer have to rely on a (spoon-)feed that may cause you to miss out on subscribed information without even knowing it.
One benefit of automatically distributing each post via email is that it combines the traditional “post first, then distribute” process, eliminating duplication. Authors can directly write articles in Substack’s simple editor, and once published, the post appears on the website and is automatically sent as an email, which can be read seamlessly on the majority of email clients and devices. While it may seem like an obvious feature, marketers who have used tools like Mailchimp can understand the hassle of editing EDMs (Electronic Direct Mail) and the challenges of catering to various browsers and email software.
Distributing each article is indeed important, but the choice of using email itself is a major focus, not just because of personal preferences but because email is based on an open standard. By using email distribution, readers are not locked into specific websites or applications; they can choose their preferred reading tools, filtering mechanisms, prioritization, and even utilize advanced features such as tagging and automated processing.
Speaking of open standards, RSS cannot be ignored. Substack automatically adds an RSS feed for each newsletter, allowing RSS readers to track new posts. For example, the RSS feed for this week’s report is https://weekly.dhk.org/feed. Conversely, any third-party media that supports RSS (such as all WordPress websites) can be imported into the Substack reader, breaking down the barriers of closed gardens.
Here are several examples of independent media outlets. I highly recommend readers create a Substack account and use the “Add RSS feed” feature in the web interface to import them one by one into the reader, reclaiming control over information discovery from algorithms. In the future, I will introduce more independent media outlets in another article, promoting a different concept of “decentralized publishing.”
- The Reporter (報導者): https://www.twreporter.org/
- Openbook (閱讀誌): https://www.openbook.org.tw/rss.xml
- InMediaHK (獨立媒體): https://www.inmediahk.net/rss.xml
- The Witness (法庭線): https://thewitnesshk.com/
- The Collective (集誌社): https://thecollectivehk.com/
- HK Court News (庭刊): https://hkcourtnews.com/
- Wave Wave Pop Culture Magazine (Wave 流行文化誌): https://wavezinehk.com/
Friendship through writing
Through the use of email and RSS, Substack provides an open and seamless experience that allows users to immerse themselves in reading articles from various sources. After establishing its foundation, Substack introduced the Reader app last year and gradually incorporated elements of light social interaction.
While Substack does offer social features such as Comment, Like, and Share (CLS), when I refer to “light social interaction,” I mean a more subtle and “friendship through writing” style of communication. Firstly, Substack’s interface encourages independent authors to recommend each other, relying on real people rather than algorithms to curate content, thus helping readers discover new authors and authors find readers.
Although I don’t have access to specific data, I can clearly sense that Substack has experienced steady growth in the past year or two. Independent authors who joined Substack early on have benefited from the “user dividend,” especially in the Chinese market. According to official Substack data, 40% of subscriptions on the platform are generated through recommendations. Many readers of this newsletter, for example, came from the introduction by the Blocktrend, who also started using Substack in January 2020. I have also paid it forward by introducing numerous readers to Blocktrend and other independent authors.
Another social feature of Substack is Chat. To be honest, it’s not suitable for someone like me who tends to be less talkative. Substack Chat is built upon the subscription relationship of the newsletter. Authors can set their own level of openness, ranging from being accessible to everyone to a more exclusive setting where only the author can publish content. Authors who prioritize chat quality can narrow down their participation circle, filtering out “haters” and focusing on engaging with paying subscribers. Personally, I am not skilled in casual conversation, and it was only a few days ago that I opened up the Chat feature, setting it to be readable by everyone but limiting new topic creation to paid subscribers, making it a subscriber benefit called “ChatCKX.”
The final social feature is the recently introduced “Notes,” which may significantly change the face of Substack. Notes allow authors to share brief content such as a few words, photos, and article links. These short snippets are displayed in the website and app feeds, rather than being distributed through email like a newsletter. In simple terms, it’s like Substack’s version of Twitter, which may have attracted some backlash from the latter platform.
Although I’m not fond of small talk, I really appreciate the design of Substack Notes. I often want to share various news or incomplete thoughts, and these fragmented messages wouldn’t fit the depth of a newsletter. Moreover, sending too many emails would burden readers. Notes perfectly fill this gap. Twitter used to be the king of short message sharing, but it quickly deteriorated after Elon Musk’s acquisition and became something entirely different. Although Notes is a new product, it inherits the subscription relationship from newsletters. Authors don’t have to start from scratch but can deepen communication and relationships with the same group of users. It’s a win-win situation, and it represents another small yet groundbreaking innovation.
Through Substack Notes, I have the opportunity to communicate with over 19,000 subscribers on a daily basis. While it’s unknown whether readers will actually read the Notes or even open Substack, at least it’s their autonomous decision rather than an algorithmic outcome.
Overall, Substack embraces open standards and balances reading and social interaction, allowing readers to engage with authors and other readers while immersing themselves in focused reading. They can also occasionally discover new content. As for authors, in addition to gaining a user-friendly and straightforward writing space for free, they can continuously accumulate a readership and establish direct connections in a light social environment.
I strongly recommend independent authors and journalists to join Substack, enabling themselves and their readers to gradually reduce reliance on algorithms.