A year ago this week, Elon Musk launched his takeover of Twitter. Since then, predictions of the platform's demise haven't panned out because, among other things, no clear alternative has emerged. His antics over the past few days indicate what he's afraid of, though, and that starts to firm up the most likely successors.
In the early days of Musk-run Twitter, decentralized platform Mastodon, upstart Post, and Indian lookalike Koo all appeared to have a shot at taking down the bird app. Despite enjoying significant growth, none has emerged a clear winner.
Substack could be that challenger. At least, that's what Musk seems to think given that he decided to ban links to the rival after Substack announced a new product that looks remarkably similar to Twitter. Nominally an email newsletter platform, the San Francisco-based startup has expanded its offering with podcasts, video, comments and threads, and an app that ties it all together.
A newsletter provider is not an obvious alternative to the real-time nature of Twitter, yet there's always been the possibility that it may itself seize the moment and build in more interactivity. Enter Substack Notes. "Writers will be able to post short-form content and share ideas with each other and their readers," it announced on April 5. "Notes is designed to drive discovery across Substack."
The new service allows user to comment and share - call it restacking - similar to Twitter. With these features, Substack will help audiences find content and new creators, thus attracting and keeping user attention, which is the Holy Grail of online media.
Launched in 2017, it has grown to 35 million readers - around one-eighth the size of Twitter - with 2 million having paid for a subscription. Notably, 17,000 writers make money there. That doesn't sound like much, yet few Twitter users earn income from that service, either. With a minimum $5 per month, Substack is bringing in at least $120 million per year. Since many writers charge a lot more, the actual figure could be much higher. Before it was bought, Twitter had $5 billion in annual revenue though often lost money.
Millions of journalists, academics, and influencers stay on Twitter, despite protestations of its demise, because it remains the primary platform for attracting readers and driving them to content elsewhere - including to their Substack subscription newsletters.
As long as Twitter continues to be the hub around which people discover and debate new ideas - the so-called Town Square - then it really doesn't matter if they move elsewhere. The key point for advertising-driven social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, is to lure traffic upon which ads can be sold. But if these services can offer discovery and engagement on their own, then Twitter starts to become irrelevant.
Search exemplifies this relationship. Alphabet doesn't care if you use Google to find information on books or clothes and then click through to the next site, because it can serve up an ad while you do so. But a significant threat comes if shoppers head straight to Amazon.com, and don't pass Google on the way.
In launching Notes, Substack might "Amazon" Twitter. With thousands of influential writers and thought-leaders already on Substack, and Twitter becoming plagued by more toxicity and spam, the rather niche email newsletter platform has the potential to be a nicer, cleaner and more well-behaved place to converse. That it's not run by a narcissistic billionaire who's known to impose new rules at whim becomes an added bonus.
One such impulse was to retaliate against Notes by blocking Substack. Specifically, writers could no longer embed tweets in their Substack stories. Then he started banning or shadow-banning - by reducing visibility - many tweets that linked to Substack.
Internally, it's hard to imagine executives at the startup celebrating this aggressive move by Musk: Having its writers stymied is not good for the brand. But pretty soon it started to have a Streisand Effect, giving more attention to the rival platform. Within days, thousands of writers and users were talking about the ban, and they were doing so on Twitter. It's likely that more people learnt about Notes on Twitter than via Substack itself. And if the purpose was to force writers to choose platforms, it stupidly did so.
Among those dumping Twitter for Substack is Matt Taibbi, a writer who was offered inside access to the Twitter Files - a collection of documents from the company that pre-date Musk - and which supposedly offered proof of the platform's progressive bias and anti-free speech stance. Much of Taibbi's reporting on that topic has since been discredited, including in a brutal exchange with MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan in which he admitted to multiple errors.
That even Taibbi would choose Substack over Twitter, and in so doing jeopardize his seemingly close relationship with Musk, is a pretty powerful sign that the billionaire's social media platform is becoming a less valuable tool for content creators. That may indeed be Musk's goal. After all, he chose to cancel legacy verification marks - the blue tick - in favor of selling them to anyone willing to pony up $8 per month in the name of democratizing the service.
Yet users and creators don't want a free-for-all anarchic platform that allows hate speech to mix with reasoned argument. Just because there's millions of people with something to say - and Musk wants to offer them that chance - doesn't mean there's millions of people who want to listen. In retaliating against a calmer platform that allows content creators to be compensated for their work, Twitter's new owner looks to have offered a map for where to head next.