Substack, The New York Times, and Nuance
Plus: Why Pebble failed as a company
While everyone has been up in arms about Elon Musk and the Twitter takeover, I wanted to talk about something else from this past week.
I have been reading up on a new tiff between Substack and The New York Times that I feel essentially is a tit for tat shouting match. However, this quarrel has made me think about nuance, publications, and whether I am part of the problem or not.
Tiffany Hsu, a writer for The New York Times, wrote an article that many called a “hit piece,” claiming Substack is dealing with “growing pains” in gaining new streams of revenue and an “exodus” of writers leaving amid controversies. By recruiting writers from major publications, expressing a primarily hands-off approach to content moderation, and expanding to the podcasting space, Substack has made waves. Yet, I don’t think this is inherently a Substack problem.
Hsu, who has written for the LA Times, wrote a piece about Substack portrayed as objective reporting while peppering in many subjective things. For one thing, Hsu alluded to Substack allowing for transphobic and COVID misinformation to be a part of the success of Substack.
Critics say the platform recruits (and therefore endorses) culture war provocateurs and is a hotbed for hate speech and misinformation. Last year, many writers abandoned Substack over its inaction on transphobic content. This year, The Center for Countering Digital Hate said anti-vaccine newsletters on Substack generate at least $2.5 million in annual revenue. The technology writer Charlie Warzel, who left a job at The New York Times to write a Substack newsletter, described the platform as a place for “internecine internet beefs.”
While I agree that controversy gets clicks on Substack, I think Hsu misses the mark here. This story is less about Substack and more about nuance in media. Substack isn’t the only publishing platform that allows for hateful and hurtful rhetoric on their platform. Just visit any Facebook group that unironically uses a Gadsden flag as their profile pic.
In fact, Lulu Cheng Meservey, Vice-President of Communications (VP Comms) at Substack, shared a Twitter thread that I felt gave a fair and honest retort to Hsu’s piece. I also feel like the examples given are worth looking at here.
I don’t think that Hsu wrote a fair assessment of Substack, nor did she fairly represent the direct competition The New York Times has with it. I think she erred on the side of The Times rather than offer a fair balance between the two.
Moderating content is complex; that isn’t something anyone can argue. I don’t envy anyone who creates a publishing platform on the internet today. The responsibilities, politics, and more would make me permanently disassociate from reality.
I am not here to say that all content should be allowed online. There are obvious things you should not allow on your platform, but it is a lot less than what some may want to see. Of course, not everyone will agree with me on that belief, and you know what: that’s okay.
It is okay to be offended.
I don’t enjoy seeing pieces written on Substack that bring COVID misinformation, transphobic rhetoric, or hate of any kind (except hatred towards nazis, because duh). I am not that kind of person, and I try to show that publicly and privately. I am not perfect, though. I occasionally need to be explained things when I don’t understand them fully. I have also found myself asking people who are more attune to the LGBT+ community if I am being insensitive. Again, I try my best, but that isn’t always good enough without guidance from friends and family.
As a cis white male, I feel it is my responsibility to educate other cis people and share my experiences in hopes that I can dissuade anyone from choosing malice over acceptance. That being said, I wholeheartedly believe that someone who disagrees with my political, social, and economic beliefs has the same right as me to express their beliefs. My only caveat is that they do so in a civil, respectful way.
Civil discourse is something I believe is healthy and helpful for both sides. There are many things happening in the world that I disagree with, and I know there is an entire side of the aisle that hates how I feel about things. Someone with differing views from mine could say the same. The problem is that it is effortless for us to isolate ourselves from the challenging articles and rhetoric and only consume the things that align with our points of view. It is also hard to have anything civil nowadays as things have become significantly more partisan and divided.
Now, I am not saying that every liberal person needs to watch Fox News every day or that conservatives should be watching MSNBC. However, finding and reading content that doesn’t align with your views isn’t a bad thing, and I believe it’s now being viewed as such.
I am not saying that “cancel culture” is wrong; there is a time and a place for the pitchforks and torches to come out. There are many people from the Me Too movement that I felt deserved to have their lives turned upside down. They were monsters who did monstrous things. But that shouldn’t be the status quo.
Am I Part of the Problem?
As someone that does not individually condone hate speech of any kind, it does affect me to see posts on other Substacks with that kind of speech. I don’t stand for it, I don’t condone it, and I certainly don’t want to read it.
When I am on a platform that anyone can join, I have to acknowledge that there will be people that present their side of the argument here.
Let me be clear; Substack profits from sensationalized, fake news, and hateful speech. I am sure you have seen a headline or two on a Substack that made you cringe. It’s almost a given that you will find the latest sensational and over-the-top conservative opinion piece from a Substack. It is one of the few places they have left after the mass banning on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. But, Substack also makes money from good journalism, reporting like no other, voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard, and creators making money from their hard work independently.
Does having a Substack automatically endorse the sleaze bags on Substack? This has been a struggle I have dealt with as I continue researching more and more about this issue. There have been things I’ve read on Substack that made me wince with discouragement and disbelief. I won’t be sharing the articles here, but you can probably find them if you look for yourself; there are plenty to choose from.
So am I endorsing this profiting by being on Substack? My answer is no.
I can still be a creator here without endorsing that kind of content. I will continue to assess Substack and where they stand, but for now, I think that Substack offers me a platform that allows me to focus on the content and less on the technical side of things.
I love the newsletter format, and I want to continue with it. While I could move to something else, I feel that Substack meets my needs. It looks how I want things to look, allows me to write without worrying about the back end, and aligns with my free speech, journalism, and online publishing values. I can't entirely agree with some users on this platform, but that is the same on all social media. Once enough people start sharing their beliefs and values on a platform, it is an inherent problem.
For now, I acknowledge that those who have left have valid reasons for leaving, but it is also not the only option you have to show Substack that you aren’t pleased with their actions/inactions.
Success and Failure at Pebble
Eric Migicovsky, the former CEO of Pebble, wrote a post recently detailing why the smartwatch company failed.
In the days after our Kickstarter campaign, it was easy for me as the CEO to explain what our goal was. Ship the best damn smartwatch that we ourselves wanted to use. Over the years, I tried several times to reposition the product and company onto a variety of new tracks, but none were based on a strong long term vision.
Startup founder lesson learned — never forget to define and talk about your long term vision for the future. When things are going well, it’s easy to get caught up in growth. But you need this to carry your company through hard times.
Looking back with hindsight, I should not have aggressively grown the company without a stronger plan. We should have just stuck to what we knew best and continued to build quirky, fun smartwatches for hackers. Pebble, the product, was and still is awesome.
The whole article is worth the read if you want to dive deep into the details behind Pebble’s start, rise, losses, and eventual acquisition.
If you want some supplemental reading, there is an article from Wired back in 2016 after the announcement of the Fitbit acquisition.
What to Watch: The Loyola Project
I don’t remember where I found this teaser, but as a basketball fan, this documentary went right to the top of my watch list.
The Verge has a beautiful page explaining everything that happened with Elon Musk and Twitter. Instant bookmark for me.
On Thursday, April 14th, Elon Musk announced an offer to buy Twitter for $54.20 a share.
This is a huge story with a lot of fast-moving parts to it. It’s also a story that will likely stretch out over the next few months, maybe even longer. So we thought we’d put together a guide for you, our readers, that can be updated as things continue to unfold. Because, like Elon, we ❤️ you.
So strap in — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
If you want to buy a new Xbox Series X or a PS5, you can do so, but it will cost you a subscription to gain access. Best Buy recently offered their Totaltech subscribers the opportunity to buy the Xbox Series X, but the subscription has a $199 sticker price for entry. Walmart followed suit shortly after that by getting PS5s available with a Walmart+ subscription which costs $98 to buy.
Telegram has now allowed its iOS users to choose any sound for notifications.
CNN+ seems to have failed at the start garnishing less than 10,000 daily viewers.