Substack CEO Chris Best may have not really answered Nilay Patel’s Decoder questions about whether racist speech would be allowed on its new Twitter-like Substack Notes platform. But last Friday — more than a week after Best’s interview on the Decoder podcast — co-founder Hamish McKenzie shared a firmer statement in (where else?) a Substack Note.
“Last week, we caught some heat after Chris didn’t accept the terms of a question from a podcast interviewer about how Substack will handle bigoted speech on Notes,” McKenzie said. “It came across poorly and some people sternly criticized us for our naivety while others wondered how we’d discourage bad behaviors and content on Notes. We wish that interview had gone better and that Chris had more clearly represented our position in that moment, and we regret causing any alarm for people who care about Substack and how the platform is evolving. We messed that up. And just in case anyone is ever in any doubt: we don’t like or condone bigotry in any form.” (Emphasis ours.)
But McKenzie still doesn’t exactly specify how that bigotry will be moderated on Notes or how Notes moderation will compare to Substack newsletter policies. Instead, like Best in his Decoder interview, McKenzie questions the “default assumption that aggressive content moderation is the answer to the problems it is supposed to solve.” He argues that despite having large content moderation teams, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter haven’t reduced bigotry or solved concerns about misinformation.
Substack’s claim is that it can solve these problems by using a different business model focused on paying writers instead of “attention that is harvested by algorithms” for ads. “We give communities on Substack the tools to establish their own norms and set their own terms of engagement rather than have all that handed down to them by a central authority,” McKenzie says. (This sounds a lot like Reddit’s policy of letting people run their own moderated subreddits, although Reddit is still largely ad-supported.)
Right now, these tools are still in their early stages. Notes lets people block and hide users and delete replies, and McKenzie said Substack is experimenting with ways to limit replies to subscribers. And in the future, “we will design Notes so that users can define the specific terms of engagement in their community once, or only occasionally,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie also acknowledges that Substack may have to make changes along the way. “The truth is that we know Notes is a new space, and that it has some crucial differences from the core Substack platform that people have come to know over the last five years,” he writes. “We fully expect to have to adapt our content moderation policies and approach as the platform evolves.”