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Substack Chat offers creators a potential Twitter replacement

 

“Shepherding my Twitter followers onto my substack like Noah’s Ark,” The Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein tweeted to his 471,000 followers a few days after Elon Musk took over Twitter.Klippenstein is just one of the many writers saying — in jest or with their whole chests — that they’ll be leaving Musk’s Twitter for the newsletter platform Substack. Writers, many of whom have turned their Twitter communities into real-life job prospects, feel like they need somewhere new to go in light of the app’s new management. Some threatened to take their most deranged content to the create tab on Instagram Stories; others asked their followers to greet them at the doors of Mastodon; and others, perhaps against their better judgment, joyfully informed their loyal Twitter followers that they could join them on Substack.Substack isn’t without its problems. Twitter kicked off hateful content, like that from anti-transgender British writer Graham Linehan. And while Linehan was permanently suspended from Twitter, his harassment, transphobia, and hate speech continue to flourish on his Substack account, which has thousands of paid subscribers. And the two places are so different: Twitter supplies writers with the ability to share their stories; quick, reactionary pieces of analysis; and also the absolute dumbest thoughts they’ve ever had. Substack is a platform for longform newsletters. As one of my followers on Mastodon succinctly put it, “There seems to be a large chasm in effort between ‘shitpost’ and ‘write a newsletter people will subscribe to and read.'” (I have not fully moved to Mastodon, but I am embracing Twitter alternatives.) Tweet may have been deleted (opens in a new tab) Enter: the chat function, a space for Substack writers and creators to host Twitter-like conversations with their subscribers. Substack launched it on Nov. 3 — about a week after Musk brought a sink into the Twitter headquarters — and described it as “having your own private social network where you make the rules,” a note that it pairs well with their whole ethos of owning your own subscriber list.Rayne Fisher-Quann, a feminist culture critic who writes the newsletter Internet Princess, started using the chat function, which feels a lot like AOL Instant Messenger or a group chat, and looks a lot like Reddit. If you subscribe to her Substack and have the app on your iPhone, you got a notification on Nov. 5 that brought you to Substack Chat. “omg guys this is like if twitter had only cool people on it,” she wrote. That first post has 285 heart emoji responses, 15 laughing-crying face emojis, and 6 shocked face emoji reactions. There are 177 replies — many of which she responded to, too — and she has since started about a dozen other chats.”I think it’s trying to pick up some of the fallout from Twitter in some ways that are really effective,” Fisher-Quann told Mashable, adding that it’s cool to have a way to instantly communicate with subscribers. “I’m really active on other parts of the internet: I’m on Twitter and TikTok and Instagram. But I’ve found that my favorite place to be is in the new chat [or] in the comment section or in the discussion posts on my [newsletter]. There’s something that feels really good about a community of people all choosing to be there and choosing to engage in good faith with each other [who] like each other and are interested in each other. It feels very different [from] other places on the internet.” Tweet may have been deleted (opens in a new tab) The chat function is similar to Substack’s discussion threads. You can leave a comment and have a discussion in both spaces, the writers are in control of both spaces, and both can be completely separate from what a writer is producing on their newsletter. But Fisher-Quann admits that chats “feel very different.” Unlike discussion threads, people can share images in chats, and the format of chats feel much more lower-lift because it’s for subscribers only, and you can have a quick convo before moving on — much like a Reddit thread. Fisher-Quann compares it to sending a text versus leaving a comment on an internet site.Through the chats, “people feel a lot more connected to the other subscribers,” Fisher-Quann said. “You see their profile picture and their names, and really quickly I saw people — I feel cheesy, a little bit — but it was cool to see people really identifying with the space and with the community. People were making collaborative playlists, and they were trying to organize each other by their location so they could find each other on Instagram, and it honestly felt really good to see.”Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie told Mashable that he thinks “people are kind of fed up with it all in the public brawl of social media, and the idea of having a space where you can hang out with the people who actually want to be hanging out with you and talking about the things that you have a shared interest in … having that greater control. It’s just more fun.” He said the chat function is “more like the old internet. It’s not about trying to win points in a status game. It’s more like classic, old internet fun.”McKenzie is right, on that front. As Aimée Morrison, an associate professor in the department of English language and literature at the University of Waterloo, told Mashable in a previous article, in the early days we were on these platforms to “have fun and be ridiculous and post stuff for what you probably understood to be a limited audience.””The content was abundant, but the audience was not abundant,” Morrison said. That’s what makes these chats so nice — you’ve got a few thousand people who can read what you comment, and far fewer who actually would. Compare that to the hundreds of millions of people who can find your public tweets. The stakes are low on Substack chat, and that’s part of what makes it work.But the stakes aren’t nonexistent. We’re still dealing with human beings on the internet, which is a grouping famously unworthy of our faith. That’s why content moderation is so important. On Substack’s chat, the Substack creators are in charge of that moderation. Creators are in complete control of the kinds of conversations and interactions happening on their chat threads — good and bad.”This is gonna be a huge shock, but I’m pretty neurotic,” Fisher-Quann, who has spoken and written at length about her mental health, joked. “Especially having grown up as a young woman on the internet and knowing that there are a lot of very young women on the internet, I have been very nervous about negative potential to happen in any kind of chat room.”Because of that, Fisher-Quann has decided not to make a thread to help people share their locations — despite some of her subscribers requesting to know where each other live and even though she thinks plenty of people would benefit from it.”I felt too anxious to purposely create a space like that,” she said. “It is a lot of responsibility being like, ‘I am like the sole arbiter of this space.’ It’s not like Twitter, where there’s that security blanket of having a content moderator who can take the heavy moral decisions off of your shoulders.”Substack has no intention of becoming the next Twitter. Substack is, by its nature, made up of small communities of little freaks like me who like to read very specific blogs on the internet. Substack has been embroiled in content moderation controversies — like their decision to platform Lineham — but the platform has consistently decried the differences between it and other social media platforms, predominately that unlike Twitter, readers are in full control of what they see on Substack. “The major issue, we think, is that business models based on engagement have created a class of wildly successful media products that distort online discourse,” the company wrote in 2020, in defense of refusing to censor content some people defined as hateful. “It is increasingly difficult to participate in reasonable discussions on these platforms.”Some other writers really appreciate that, too. You don’t have to love the chat function to gleefully use Substack as Twitter dissolves into madness. Tweet may have been deleted (opens in a new tab) Rebecca Jennings, a senior correspondent at Vox, recently started publishing her newsletter Beccacore on Substack. She didn’t do it as a direct response to Twitter’s downfall, but she has her biggest following on Twitter, and she told Mashable there was a “cynical aspect of knowing that if Twitter goes under, that’s the only platform where I have an audience.” She said it’s valuable to have “an email list of people who actually care about what I’m writing and might possibly care about things I do in the future.” Beccacore is also something she’s been thinking about throughout her career in journalism. She missed writing blogs and writing about fashion. Now she gets to do both of those things in a lighthearted way in her own newsletter. “I’ve only done two editions of it, but I’ve found a niche where it’s a very, very short intro about something, and then the rest of the newsletter is me shopping for other people,” Jennings said. “And that to me is just pure fun. I wouldn’t call it shit-posting or anything because it’s not super funny, but it is really fun to do.”Substack isn’t going to be a replacement for Twitter. But it does have potential to replace some of the things we love about Twitter — including writing light-lift posts and finding community.

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