WHY WOULD YOU EVER PUBLISH ON SUBSTACK?
5 MIN READ
Space Aliens and Content Ownership
I am making a conscious effort to use the C-word less in my essays (not “ c••• ”, the dirtier five-letter one).1 Unfortunately the C-word phenomenon illustrates the importance of content control perfectly. Instead, I will use a hypothetical. Let’s talk about something more fun, aliens.
Assume for this example, that it is the official position of the government and all of the major media networks that aliens do in fact exist. You’ve seen photos of the aliens but you’ve never met one directly. Many of your friends claim to have seen them, they are shy and prefer 1-on-1 meetings. They can also be viewed in space but it requires a really expensive telescope that only research institutions have.
You begin to doubt that these aliens exist so you make a post with your account on the biggest social media website, Shitpostr. The moderators at Shitpostr don’t like what you’re saying because it might give people dangerous ideas, and FWIW they may very well be right. They slap a warning graphic under your post that says The speculation about the existence of aliens in this post has not been verified. For official information on aliens, please visit alien-response.gov
This is kind of a bummer. Undeterred but a little bit creeped out, you continue to write posts that question the existence of aliens. After a few weeks of this you find that you can no longer log into Shitpostr. You perform a password reset and go to your email inbox when you see that there’s an email from Shitpostr notifying you that your account has been deleted because they have determined that you are an alien denialist. This is strange because you never denied the existence of aliens, you were just asking open ended questions about them, engaging in curiosity. Now, all of the photos and written content you had created for Shitpostr is gone, it’s unrecoverable. Shitpostr broke up with you and kept all of your stuff. You had always been asking open ended questions but Shitpostr changed their Terms of Service about a week ago to add the rule, “No more question-asking about aliens. Aliens are real.”
Back to Real Life
If we take this total hypothetical story that’s not related to anything in the real world, and wonder about what would happen if something like it occurred in real life on Twitter for example, we begin to see the importance of owning our content.
Ownership of content in the digital era is a continuum with tradeoffs. If I write in my journal with a pen, I own that. I can hold it, you can’t see it unless you come to my house and find it. You can only read it if you can make sense of my handwriting (a big if!). The downside is that my content is only viewed by one person, me. On the other side of things, if I upload a photo to Facebook, that photo file lives on Facebook servers, they can moderate it as they see fit, they can put warning labels on it if what I took a picture of isn’t currently fashionable, etc. What’s earned by this approach is a large network of people can see what I took a picture of. I definitely own it less than something written in my journal, but I get to share my creation with a wider audience.
On its marketing page, Substack declares You always own your intellectual property, mailing list, and subscriber payments. but this is a lie! Intellectual property is determined by who can afford the better lawyers (spoiler alert: not me). And Substack doesn’t really even own your subscriber payments — it’s, at minimum, three levels abstracted, Substack then Stripe then Mastercard/AMEX/etc. for credit card processing. In this arrangement — speaking only of the payment component of the system, either Substack, Stripe, or Mastercard could decide what you’re saying is dangerous. You’re now sucking three dicks to get your content into the world. Having one pimp is hard enough, but three?
The Other Side
Every creator needs to find their happy medium between:
being beholden to abusive pimps but having a rapid audience-growth potential
having a more hands-off pimp but having a slower audience-growth rate.
I want to be fairly anti-pimp so I’m opting for the latter right now. I don’t ever expect to make any appreciable income from this blog, it’s a passion project so I don’t need to monetize it. It would be great to make some money from it, but I’m not planning around that happening. I removed all of my ads on the site because of this arrangement, the inconvenience to users vs money I need from the site calculus wasn’t worth it.
I’m not entirely free and safe, but I’m far more free and safe than my counterparts on Substack, Medium, et al. I have all of my blog files stored locally. The software to run it is on my computer, i.e. not subscribed-to. Currently I host on Google Cloud/Amazon Web Services and it’s feasible that I could say something so egregious that they would ban me, there is precedent for this with a particularly controversial social media network named after a type of room for example, however I don’t think I’m a target because of my very small readership. Even if that did happen, I could simply host the website from a computer on my home network. There are security and performance issues that come with this but I could do it if push came to shove.
Creators should not compromise. When the aliens arrive, if you cannot speak freely about them, how will your thinking change as a result? Will you continue to have original ideas or will you simply begin to walk the well worn paths of thought being etched into permanence on the major social media networks of the day?
I am suspicious that it hurts my SEO and am starting to see some page view trends that back up this theory. ↩