Why use Substack if it's unethical?
The Letter The Letter
from Leticia Mooney

“Eskimo: "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"
Priest: "No, not if you did not know."
Eskimo: "Then why did you tell me?”
- Annie Dillard



Discovering the truth about Substack caused ripples that spread out across the pond. Once they were lapping at the shore, I was staring at them wondering why I was still using the platform. This will make sense if you read my last email to you.


Throughout my life, I have made a point of bailing out from unethical platforms. In 2011, I ditched Facebook. The company had run emotional contagion experiments on behalf of the US Defence Force, without the consent of its users. The following year, I ditched all of Flakebook's partners and subsidiaries. (I am back on there now, but only by force: Vast numbers of communities and organisations like to pretend that Facebook is inert, like chalk.) Later, I bailed out from Twitter, after discovering how much of my life it had eaten unproductively. (You can see the terrifying statistics here.) 


So then why was I on Substack? I pondered this question long and hard. And I realised that there was no good reason, actually.


Substack became an end-point after Patreon. 

About four years ago, perhaps more, I discovered Patreon. It offered something that regular newsletters and blogs didn't have: Excellent discoverability and the option of a paywall. I could put a paywall-type function into Wordpress then, but the learning curve was steep and I couldn't be bothered. The discoverability function of Patreon, paired with its promise of supporting creators, rang all of my bells.

It didn't last long, however.

Sooner than I expected, the founders of Patreon learned that they'd get more bang for their buck if Patreon became a subscriber management system. Its function as a discovery platform evaporated.

Back to the beginning. I hunted around, and learned that Gumroad, which I had fiddled with for a while, had levelled up. I gleefully went back to Gumroad, and equally gleefully became an investor! 

Sooner than I expected, the founder of Gumroad has announced (just recently) that his vision is for Gumroad to become an incubator for software. Its profile as a creator platform may not evaporate so quickly as did Patreon's, but if we're honest then it's going to. I'm back to thinking of hosting and selling my own products on my own platform. Again.

In between, I had found Aweber. I am actually a massive fan of Aweber for business purposes. But with the demise of the Pixie, I asked whether I needed to pay big bucks for this tool. I would only be using a tiny proportion of its functionality, after all. The answer was no.

What was I wanting, then?

I was wanting a solution that would:

  • send nice emails
  • allow me to retain ownership without being cancelled because somebody got woke
  • allow me to retain the SEO benefits of my own content
  • provide the option of a paywall-style lockout, which we all know does actually increase subscribership
  • not be a pain in the rear-end to establish or maintain
  • allow me to focus my attention on a singular platform.

The answer? My own website.

In the years since I had hunted for an external solution, used a bunch of platforms, and circled back to the beginning, Wordpress had developed in useful ways. So had its plugin developers.

I discovered a (so far) lovely plugin that is easy to establish and that picks up your own styles with ease. It also allows you to control minutiae. Minutiae are the vital organs of excellent user experience.

Excellent user experience is heart and soul of platforms like Substack.

Not only are these platforms easy to use, but they don't feel like emails. This is a critical distinction when discussing subscribership. On the one hand, you can 'opt in to more emails'. Or you can 'follow a publication'. What's the difference? Nothing.

The key difference is the UX.

If you are able to create a lovely-looking and easy-to-use anything, then it's easier to obtain new users. It's also easier to retain them.

The only major difference is that I don't have a built-in payment system. I can add it. To be honest, readers are more important to me than readers' cash, and the 'paywall' function on my own website allows this. Those who want to support creators will always shout them a coffee anyway!

The challenge for those who don't understand good UX is writing the little bits and pieces in engaging ways. But if anyone can do that, I can. (And I loved doing it.)

You don't have to stick with unethical companies just because they apparently make life 'easy'.

When you consider what is 'easy', ask what 'ease' actually means. Does it mean not having to build templates? Not having to manage subscribers yourself? Not having to think about ways to monetize? Is it something that effortlessly publishers to email and internet all at once (ahem, all newsletter options do this)? Is it simply not having to be hands-on, on your own website?

Critically, ask whether ease is more important than ownership, protection from other companies' shifting Ts and Cs, your own bank account, or your own values.

Living a mindful life, with values that matter, is at the heart of coherent living. If you are to interrogate the software platforms that you use, you'll often find that:

  1. You're spending way too much money to do what you're doing.
  2. Many of them are unethical, or have shifting sands of obscured editorial process (or don't even recognise that they are publishers rather than platforms).
  3. There are beautiful alternatives that give you full ownership, rescue you from the wilds of The Current Thing, and improve your own search engine rankings.

People say blogs are done, but I disagree.

Just as I disagree that books are finished, I also disagree that blogging is finished. It's a refrain sung by people who support different both SaaS and other formats. The truth is that blogging is still a fundamental method of improving your website's visibility. If you're going to self-publish, for goodness' sake at least publish on your own domain. Use it to level up your visibility. Publishing on others' platforms will give you backlinks, sure. But they're not useful backlinks, like publishing in traditional media can be (or appearing on other people's podcasts). Know your enemy, and apply your attention and effort appropriately.

Luckily, Substack isn't proprietary, in the sense that it allows you to export everything, from posts to subscribers. Which, {name}, is how you came to be here. :)

Circling back to the quote that opened today's letter, then:

My apologies if I've opened a can of worms for you. Some things you are better off not knowing; but this is not one of them.


xx Leticia Mooney

PS. Go here if you'd prefer snail mail.

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Leticia Mooney
PO Box 1190, Pasadena SA 5042. Australia.
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