Substack Notes and the content moderation furor
Why top down moderation is not the solution. Also, why it's not a Twitter killer.
Once upon a time, before social media, I made friends with an American Christian evangelical.
Back then, I was new to the American culture war, but I knew enough to be on my guard. These were the same people who snarled at me online when I wrote about my dismay and opposition to the Iraq war.
We met at a cafe and after talking to him for over an hour, I found him to be a kind and considerate fellow. Over the years, we formed a warm friendship and spoke about many things. He wanted to listen about my thoughts from the centre left, and I wanted to hear his opinion about issues from a conservative evangelical perspective. But most of the time we just hung out.
Although we didn’t always agree, he didn’t put me down for my opinions. He listened and then told me what he thought. He taught me that people on “the other side” were human and had valid points. He also taught me how to debate and discuss things in a civil and polite manner.
Over the years, I realised how rare our friendship was. These days, it seems almost anathema to be friends with anyone on the political right/left, depending on your political leanings. At least, for Americans.
These days, my friend’s thoughts on certain issues would probably not be welcomed by some folks on social media, and would probably be labeled “bigoted”.
Is Substack Notes a Nazi bar?
So, recently, Substack launched Substack Notes. I greeted the news with, “Oh great, yet another social media channel to drain my ever-dwindling attention.”
But as I played around with the platform, I found myself liking it.
Sure, I doubt about its longevity due to recent concerns about Substack’s financial health, but it was enjoyable to read notes from folks I follow. I find that newsletters authors are more playful and rsponsive on Substack Notes vs the comment section of their newsletters, so I’ve been enjoying getting to know them more.
Then came that interview.
I wasn’t surprised when Mastodon folks reacted with indignation and loud cries of “I will leave Substack now because it’s now a Nazi bar!”
By now, I was used to this trait: The refusal to listen to the other side or accept that some topics need nuance and debate. Yes, even the topic of content moderation.
As long as it doesn’t align with the approved narrative of their political ideology, out comes the cancellation button and the slur word, whether it be “woke”, “fascist” or “Nazi”.
I wrote about this at length in a recent blog post: You don’t have a moral obligation to leave Twitter.
I sometimes find myself being lectured by American folks on Mastodon (not all, mind you, but some) when my thinking does not align with theirs. Heck, I was once outright suspended from my server for tripping over a culture war talking point.
When Substack’s Hamish MacKenzie wrote a Note recently, I found myself nodding in sympathy:
Some folks expressed deep anger and disappointment at his stance. However, I did see a lot of sighs of relief and calls for, well, moderation. (Not of the content moderation kind.)
Top-down moderation doesn’t work
A lot of people immediately seem to believe that Hamish or Chris Best’s comments mean that there will be zilch moderation, and all manner of hateful speech will be tolerated.
If that’s so, I’m against it too.
I believe that anyone threatening death, dismemberment, rape and all manner of violence whether physical or mental on Substack should never be tolerated, no matter their political ideology.
As Hamish said in his Note: “…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.”
However, I think we all know, or at least suspect, that “top down” content moderation doesn’t work. By this I mean the one currently being employed by Facebook and once-upon-a-time, Twitter, where the company hires a people (usually from lower-income countries) to moderate content.
Not only is this not sustainable or scalable, it impacts the mental health of content moderators terribly.
That’s why I’m surprised that some people, especially those on Mastodon, are demanding for it.
Mastodonians should be the first people to admit that the FB-style of moderation is flawed, and community moderation is superior.
I believe this is the model that Substack should implement. Just how, I’m not sure. They will have to tackle this problem quite soon.
Let Substack be Substack
I really do not want Substack Notes to be another Twitter or Mastodon, where the platform can be labelled by casual observers as “left or right leaning”.
Lots of people around the world use Substack, and it may shock some of you that not all of us believe the same things. We do not, for the love of God, want to be trapped in yet another American-centric, culture-war-obsessed platform.
Substack has been a blessing for many of us because we could finally be ourselves here and not be vigilant for tripping over a word or be ostracized for having the wrong thought.
I urge you to read this fantastic article from The Atlantic, The world is trapped in America’s culture war to understand where I’m coming from.
Well, I can go on about this American culture war thing, but I’m frankly exhausted by it having been forced to “speak the language” on Mastodon this past six months. I’ve come to a point where I had to filter out many, many words just to avoid looking at posts ranting about the latest “Nazi” person or platform.
What I’m trying to say is I want Substack Notes and Substack the platform to be a place where I can freely access thoughts that are left and right leaning without fear of being labelled or cancelled.
I find it concerning that we're refusing to read/listen or engage with content that we don't agree with. Are we afraid of being infected by their ideas? Have we so little faith about our own beliefs or mental fortitude?
I want Substack to be a place where I can have conversations like I had with my American conservative evangelical friend, where conversations like the one in the video below can happen with civility and respect:
Oh, I am sorry. Did I trigger you with a Jordan Peterson video? Are you convinced that I’m now a right-wing tool? I assure you that you’ll be wrong because:
I’m not American so your left and right definitions really don’t apply to me.
I’m “outsider left” (centrist left), according to this Pew Research quiz, if you want a convenient shelf to park me under.
I’m nobody’s tool. I have a functioning head above my shoulders and I use it actively, thank you very much.
Anyway, in this video Jordan asks his left-leaning friend, Gregg Hurwitz, to critique his Twitter interaction. I agree with a lot of what Hurwitz said about Peterson’s tweets.
Their conversation reminds me so much of the conversations I used to have with my American conservative evangelical friend. I miss them.
Why I don’t think it will be a Twitter replacement
Right now, Substack Notes has a cozy, “here’s where my friends hang out” feel. It’s somewhat of an echo chamber for writers — almost everyone interacting in there are newsletter writers.
Some say that, what good is it for if Substack newsletters can’t reach new audiences?
But maybe that’s not its primary function — maybe it’s okay as a place where readers get to know newsletter writers on a more personal level, and writers get to make friends with other writers.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Because of that, I doubt it can really be a Twitter replacement as you need scale for that, and Substack Notes is heavily dependent on users being creators themselves.
I’m not 100% rah rah about Substack, as I think it has some problematic enshitification traits, but for now it’s making some of its users happy, and maybe we can just roll with it for now.
But if you want to cancel it, it’s your right. Lots of platforms out there that may suit you.
This post is also shared on my website. I am bracing myself for an onslaught of unpleasant comments. Please be civil, and don’t call anyone or anything woke, racist, Nazi or Fascist. These are words that tend to shut down debate. Thanks!
Thanks for reading Tai Tales! I know I should start writing fiction again, but I have a lot of thoughts in my head. A lot of them controversial. So, your subscription means a lot to me ;) Subscribe for free by email or RSS to receive new posts and support my work.
So much this: We do not, for the love of God, want to be trapped in yet another American-centric, culture-war-obsessed platform.
That wasn't the reason we left America six years ago, but, man, it is not something I miss having a front row seat to.
Great points and thanks for putting my muddled thoughts into words.
I understand the concerns about trolls and slurs. That reality is so difficult to centrally manage online. But I am always so taken aback by people’s condescension towards other adults. I read through some of the comments to try and understand where people are coming from. I don’t want anyone to be harassed. But I definitely feel more than capable of kicking people off my Substack if they are a problem. Boom. Solved. I get that it bothers people that hate exists at all. But it does. A block or a mute or content mods won’t stop that. But you get to decide your own boundaries. Who is allowed into your house so to speak, and who isn’t. I hope it stays civil. My group of people on Notes and in my comments are wonderful so far.