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Substack wants to make itself a better place for readers, not just writers

Substack wants to make itself a better place for readers, not just writers


Substack will be adding features to improve the reading experience, though it’s somewhat vague about the specifics.

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An illustration of Substack’s logo.
Illustration by The Verge

Substack wants to make the platform a better place for readers and will be adding features to its reading apps so that they “feel increasingly useful and fun,” co-founders Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi said in a post on Thursday. Substack is perhaps best known as a place for writers to build newsletter audiences and make a living from their work, but the co-founders spelled out a vision for how Substack itself can be a better place to actually read things as well.

“The internet revolutionized reading, but instead of a utopia, it has delivered a mess,” the co-founders said. “The main places where we read online today are cacophonic, stressful, and milking our minds for ad dollars.” They acknowledge that there are nice but niche reading products but argue that large tech companies don’t seem interested in making them anymore. “Instead, we are left to contend with a fusillade of pop-ups and a Big Social-dominated media economy that is making us angry and stupid.”

The co-founders, however, think that “it is still possible to harness the internet’s powers to create a better world for readers.” Here are some details about how that might look in practice — though I will warn you that this is somewhat vague:

We can see a future where reading online is a pleasure, with fast-to-load posts, clean and uncluttered pages, and simple navigation. We believe in a business model that gives readers the power to help shape culture by directly supporting the writers and work they most value, leading to an incentive system that rewards quality and applies upward pressure for excellence in even the smallest of niches. We think that reading can be social without being distracting. And we bet that trusted peer recommendations can drive a discovery system that helps the world’s best readers find the world’s best work—no matter where it comes from. 

Here are some more details — also vague:

Over the coming months and years, we’ll be adding features and evolving our reading apps so that they feel increasingly useful and fun. You’ll not only have a quiet place to read but also somewhere to hang out with the smartest people you know. It’ll be a space where you can establish a home for your cultural interests and build an audience even if you don’t have a publication. And it will all be tied together in a network of meaningful connections—represented by subscriptions—that prioritize trust over time spent or eyeballs captured. 

Substack didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment about further details or a more specific timeline. But this attention to Substack readers isn’t a total surprise. The company has already introduced a bunch of features intended to encourage users to hang out on Substack itself instead of just reading individual newsletters that come to their email inbox, including its mobile apps, the ability to add RSS feeds to your Substack feed, and its tweet-like Notes.

And this post is Substack sticking its flag in the ground as reading on the internet is in some turmoil. Now that many people are spending less time on Twitter and aren’t so happy with Reddit, there’s an opportunity to establish the next collective internet hangout for text, whether that’s Threads, something involving ActivityPub, or someplace else entirely. (I’d personally recommend reading The Verge!)

While “it has been clear for a while now who a Substack writer is,” the co-founders say, in making these changes, Substack wants to build something that makes people describe themselves as a “Substack reader” (emphasis theirs). I guess we’ll see if that happens.