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Mar 15, 2022

Substack is even more like Medium now

Newsletter platform Substack, covered here previously, has launched an app. It looks and behaves just as you’d expect, meaning that it’s a decent reading experience designed to further lock readers and creators alike into the Substack platform. This, from a company that repeats the ease of moving from Substack regularly, feels a bit insidious.

Not that it’s easy to move from Substack, mind you. Not counting dead links (all newsletter URLs, unless you pay a premium to use your own domain, are directed to Substack), then yes, you can download your subscriber list. Moving the actual newsletters to a new service will likely involve a lot of copy and pasting for most, but still, manageable. The problem is if you have paying subscribers, which I do for Switch to iPad (it’s both site and Substack newsletter). While I do own the Stripe (payment provider of choice for Substack, unfortunately) account, that doesn’t mean I can just transfer subscriptions elsewhere. There are even services that help you do that because it’s a mess. It’s also the sole reason I’m still using Substack.

Look, I’m a big fan of free speech, and Substack keeps re-iterating that this is what it’s all about. But there’s no way to turn a blind eye to the crap’s been going on, particularly surrounding how trans rights are being handled on the platform and covid-19 disinformation. Free speech doesn’t mean that you can lie and break either terms of services or laws.

And now, enter the app. The bet is that people will download the app, use it, and thus create a Substack only reading experience akin to the RSS feed readers. It might be a good deal for people relying on Substack because when they open the app, they’ll see your newsletter too. Your opening numbers might go up.

Except, what if you, like me, are writing 800-2,000 words newsletters? You open it in the app, it’s marked as read, and you realize that you don’t have the time at the moment. You close the app, and when you return to it, there are unread newsletters sitting up there, waiting for you. Mine’s still unread, just not in the Substack app’s perspective. Compare that to seeing an email still sitting in your inbox because you have decided that you’ll get to it later, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that shorter newsletters will get more complete reads in the Substack app. That matters to me because I want my words to be read.

Then there’s the whole closed-platform feel that Substack already has. There are many ways where Substack feels like early days Medium, something some might see as a good thing, but I’d argue that it didn’t end well. These days, if it’s a Medium link, I’m less inclined to click it. Substack, with all its problems, isn’t there yet, but it sure feels pretty bland and boring, doesn’t it? Everything looks the same, charge the same, and work the same.

I guess I just miss when the web was more about experimentation, open and playful. Platforms and set formats shape the way the message gets delivered, which might not be an issue for all, but it is a limitation I’d rather be without.

So, yeah, I’m not so fond about Substack anymore. I don’t like Medium either, I just had to say that. I guess it’s time to get that move rolling. I just don’t know how, just yet.