Hi everyone, I’m writing this under my byline alone, but you can consider it an official company statement about how we are striving to make Substack Notes a good place for civil discourse. I’m writing this in the first person because I want you to understand that these are my genuine beliefs and that they come from a human and not some empty corporate machine. This subject—how do we maintain good speech norms on internet media platforms in the 21st century—is a tricky one, and I don’t think anyone can claim to have total wisdom on it, even if some people are adept at making it sound like they do. 

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. 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. 

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. We fully expect to have to adapt our content moderation policies and approach as the platform evolves. 

However, at the same time, we question the default assumption that aggressive content moderation is the answer to the problems it is supposed to solve. We’ve seen from the social media era that this method doesn’t work. In fact, it looks to us as if it is making the problems worse. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others have tens of thousands of engineers, lawyers, and trust & safety employees working on content moderation, and they have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their efforts. The content moderation policies at some of those companies run to something like 150 pages. But how is it all working out? Is there less concern about misinformation? Has polarization decreased? Has fake news gone away? Is there less bigotry? It doesn’t seem so to us, despite the best efforts and good intentions of the most powerful media technology companies the world has ever known.

Now, this doesn’t mean there should be no moderation at all, and we do of course have content guidelines with narrowly defined restrictions that we will continue to enforce. But, generally speaking, we suspect that the issue is that you can’t solve a problem (social media business models) with a problem (a content moderation apparatus that doesn’t work and burns trust). So we are taking a different path. 

Instead of trying in vain to strike on the elusive content moderation policy that improves rather than inflames our broken discourse, we are addressing the problem at the root: by changing the business model upon which the media ecosystem is built. That means that we are building a system where money made by writers, not attention that is harvested by algorithms, drives the whole economy. It means 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. And it means we give people the power to decide for themselves what they see and who’s in their community with them. This has always been the way with Substack, and it is working. We are taking this approach to Notes, too, even as we know it will probably need a few tweaks.

We have already built tools that give writers and readers the control to curate their own experiences on Notes, including the ability to block and hide users, and to delete unwanted replies. We’re also experimenting with ways for writers to limit replies to only their subscribers. We will design Notes so that users can define the specific terms of engagement in their community once, or only occasionally, and enjoy the benefits of these curated experiences without having to take action on a post-by-post basis. There’s much more to come. 

But building a new kind of space for good faith discourse is not just a matter of preventing the stuff these communities don’t want. It’s even more important to create a space where the content and behaviors that these communities do want can thrive—whether that’s thoughtful and substantive discussion, commiseration and support, or in-jokes and lighthearted banter. That’s why it’s so important that this network is based on peer-to-peer recommendations and subscriptions—trust relationships—rather than an opaque machine that makes your most important media diet decisions for you.

Substack is a place where writers can write what they want to write, readers can read what they want to read, and everyone can choose who they hang out with. It’s a different game from social media as we know it.

We think this way of supporting civil discourse is going to be much better than legacy social media. We’re encouraged by what we’ve seen on Notes even in these very early days, and we’re excited for what’s possible with a fresh approach to both the challenges and opportunities inherent in a powerful media system like this. We don’t expect to be flawless every step of the way—there’s a long road ahead and a lot of work and learning to do—but we are confident that this is a strong foundation on which to build in our attempt to foster a more civil discourse. 

We want to build a product that helps everyone have great conversations, productive arguments, robust discussion, and—who knows?—maybe even a little fun. We’re eager to demonstrate that this approach can stand the tests of scale and time. Now we just have to do the hard work to prove it. 

Thank you for being here, and for listening.

5:33 PM
Apr 21, 2023

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