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‘So to Speak’ podcast transcript: Substack, a platform for free speech?
Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perrino, and my conversation today is with Lulu Cheng Meservey. She is Vice President of Communication for the popular publishing newsletter service, Substack, and she’s also a board member of the videogame juggernaut Activision Blizzard.
Lulu, welcome onto the show.
Lulu Cheng Meservey: Thank you, Nico. Thanks for having me.
Nico: So, I’ve been eager to have you on the show…I think since January, when you had a tweet go viral about how Substack approaches moderation decisions and why it supports free speech principles. It’s gone more viral than any tweet that I’ve ever put out or I think FIRE has ever put out – something like 30,000 likes, 4,000 retweets, over 1,000 quote tweets. You always like to see that sorts thing happen, right? Especially your bosses?
Lulu: [Inaudible – crosstalk] [00:01:13] Yeah, you’re taking me back to a very bizarre time in my life. And by the way, I was on maternity leave. The reason that it’s taken us so long to get together is that I was on mat leave until late March. So, this happened at a time when I was already sort of delirious and had a shaky grasp of reality. So, it was very surreal.
Nico: And when those sorts of things happen, it’s hard to pull yourself from the phone, right? To just see what people are saying about you, and saying about what you said, and saying about the company that you work for, and hoping you didn’t screw up anything up for your bosses. I also know what it’s like to be on leave because I have an 11-month-old, but… And congratulations about that, by the way.
Lulu: Thank you.
Nico: Before we dive into that though, Lulu, there are probably some of our listeners who aren’t familiar with Substack. So, let’s start there. Can you describe what Substack is for those of us who might not be familiar with it?
Lulu: Yeah, it’s a platform for independent publishing. So, if you wanna publish independently, whether that’s a newsletter, or a podcast, or video, you can do that on Substack. And what it gives you is you have your websites, plus your newsletter, plus your direct connection with the audience, by which I mean nothing gets between you and the people that you’re publishing to. You own your list. You get to decide what you wanna write and say, which is sometimes contentious, and we support you through things like workshop services and advices.
Nico: Now, is this sort of service new? I mean, what was Substack’s thinking when it came into this space, right?
Lulu: Substack started, fittingly, with a blog post. We have three cofounders: Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi, and Chris tells it as…basically, he started a company to procrastinate on this blog post, and the blog post [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:02:58] about why the information ecosystem is broken and specifically about how social media’s breaking peoples’ brains.
I don’t think I’ve even seen a complete version because he truly never finished the blog post. He’d started Substack instead as an answer. Basically, he took this idea to Hamish, which is saying that social media is…breaking how we think, and I think Hamish told him, “Well, what are you gonna do about it? You don’t really have a solution.”
The solution, then, became Substack, which was fixing the ills of a lot of what we see with social media. It incentivizes the wrong kind of behavior, it incentivizes…not quality content, and it makes us, as Chris says, angrier and dumber.
And so, Substack was created to build the right incentives into the system where the better-quality things rise to the top, where you have the freedom to work on what you want, and where people are rewarded as they deserve. So, a lot of journalists you see coming onto Substack and starting, essentially, a media business where they get paid a lot more – because that’s what the market has determined that their…work is worth.
Nico: Yeah. So, it’s different than what existed prior to it in perhaps two ways, right? Because blogs have always existed, right? But the sort of platform where you can pair the blog with a subscription service and a newsletter service is the niche that I think Substack has carved out for itself, correct me if I’m wrong. But also, the ethos that you just discussed behind Substack, and publishing, and writers, and then content creators getting their message out there.
Lulu: Yeah. I would rephrase that a little bit. I think you hit on it with the two things. One of the things is the actual product. Yeah, it combines with the newsletter and the mailing list; with these new features, and tools, and a way to connect your audience; with the Seamless payment system.
That’s useful. But the second thing is it introduced a new…you called it “ethos.” It’s a new pattern of behavior. It’s a new set of incentives where we’ve made it normal to pay for work that’s really good.
In the early days of the internet, there was this belief that everything should just be free. And in the early days of blogging – or, the golden days of blogging, which we yearn for – there was still a belief that these were just things that were free.
Now, we are pushing in the direction of paying these writers what they deserve. And so, part of the innovation of Substack is not just the actual…technology. Actually, primarily not the technology. It’s primarily the norm of paying people for great writing.
Nico: I hadn’t even really thought about that. So, I went to journalism school in the mid 2000’s, and at that point, people just expected news to be free – as if there was no sort of…cost to producing it, right? But we also expected to pay for other things that people created, like music – well, we can put the Napster whole fiasco to the side, but to a certain extent, music, movies, books, right?
And so, there were a lot of discussions when I was in journalism school around “What did journalists and publishes do wrong?” in the 90’s in particular with the rise of the internet, and it was to base journalism on the historical advertising model, putting aside the subscription model that was often paired with that to make the internet more accessible and the content more accessible on the internet.
But you had a collective action problem to a certain extent, right? If one company didn’t have a paywall, it would get a competitive advantage because it would get greater traffic, and with it, more readers, more advertising revenue, so on, and so forth. So, that’s what most companies did – is they didn’t have the paywall. And then, you have the problem where advertising revenue is declining.
The reading base has been conditioned to not pay for content, and so now, publishers are in the difficult position of deciding whether to move behind a paywall, lose the readers while their competitors perhaps don’t go behind a paywall. So, I hadn’t thought of Substack as kind of addressing that historical problem, but readers are starting to get accustomed, and perhaps do in part to the efforts of Substack, to paying for quality content – content that they really enjoy.
And you’re seeing other publications move behind a paywall – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wallstreet Journal, and also, since you guys have started – what year were you founded?
Nico: Yeah, now you’re seeing some of these publications also move to the newsletter model, like New York Times, for example, that got John McWhorter and other people [inaudible] [00:07:41] John McWhorter’s on a board, so that’s why I use his name. As newsletter writers, for them, recognizing also – anyone who works in the communication space like we do – that an email address is like…the golden ticket. It’s the gold standard, right? If you have that, it’s still the best way after all these years to get in touch with people.
So, I know that was a long monologue on my part, but I hadn’t even thought of Substack as kind of changing or attempting to change the expectations of readers – for how they can consume content, what they should expect to pay for.
Lulu: So, that’s the disruption. We are a tech company, technically, but for us, it’s not that we’re creating the shiny new widget or the trendy tech of the day. We’re not making AI in the metaverse or whatever. It’s pretty simple, elegant technology. It’s well built, but the real disruption is in these patterns of behavior and in norms. And yes, great writing is absolutely worth paying for. In fact, what’s more worth paying for?
Great writing shapes societies. It shapes how people think. It creates the rise and fall of entire social phenomena. What could be more important? And so, why have we gone so long without assigning real monetary value to this? And the people who are helping us shape that culture and creating these new ideas that they’re putting out into the world – why should they not get richly rewarded for that? That’s an incredibly important thing they’re doing.
Nico: Do you think it’s the fact that you’re so focused on independent writers who have an independent audience base separate from any publication that they might be affiliated with that makes you successful? Right? You can pick up the New York Times and read the entire paper without ever really looking at the byline – or caring about the byline.
It’s the sort of publication you sort of expect a standard of journalism that’s produced from it. But aside from your connection with the publication because you read it every day, there’s no sort of relationship developed between you and any particular straight news reporters. So, is that what makes Substack more compelling and people more inclined to support it?
I recall, for example, when Andrew Sullivan went over to Substack from New York Magazine, and I had been a reader of him for a long time. There’s speculation that Obama was one of his big readers as well.
So, I subscribed to Substack when it came because I had always enjoyed reading his piece in New York Magazine, but I just wonder whether it’s the specific individual that’s driving that rather than just a love, for example, of Substack.
Lulu: Yeah. It is driven by the individual. So, I think there’s three things happening. One is that the writer comes first. The writer’s their own brand. Even small things. Like, if you joined – which I hope you do – it’ll be NicoPerrino.Substack.com or NicoPerrino.com. You get your own custom domain or you lead with your name instead of ours.
That’s symbolic of the entire way we operate. It’s…the writer’s in control, the writer come first. Same with moderation, by the way. The writer gets to make the first set of decisions on what they wanna say, so the writer’s brand is way above ours. I’m the head of comms for Substack, but my primary priority is being a publicist for writers…and for –
Nico: Oh, interest.
Lulu: …for the people writing and creating on Substack. I put elevating them and helping to promote their work above elevating the company and even our founders.
So, that’s one thing – is the writer does come first. The second thing is: because Substack lets you thrive, and make money, and do your best work doing whatever you most believe in, it doesn’t correlate as much with the current thing – or, the trendy thing that everybody’s talking about. So, a lot of times, if everybody is writing the same thing and you can find that in 500 different places, Substack might be the place where you find that plus different perspectives. And that can be helpful just from the point of view of sheer market dynamics – of supply and demand.
And then, third, Substack actually can coexist with your byline on other publications. So, Casey Newton, who’s one of the top Substackers, still has done podcasting with the New York Times, still has written for the Verge – there’s no issue on our end with being part of your writing and creating stack because you own all of your IP on Substack. That means you can go and put it somewhere else. If you publish a book on Substack, you can go publish it somewhere else. We don’t care. If you turn your writing into a show, or a book, or a movie, all of the proceeds are yours.
So, it actually can coexist with what you’re doing elsewhere?
Nico: Two questions for you – sort of challenges I have with the broader subscription-based model and a more specific functional question. The first question is: has Substack ever explored the idea of bundling subscriptions? You see this, kind of, with Apple News, for example, right now – the challenge being, of course, you have so many different people you like to read.
Like, I like to read Peter Suderman, who is a Substacker, about how to make cocktails. But I also like to read Andrew Sullivan, and I also like to listen to The Fifth Column, which is also a Substack. Kmele Foster, the host, is on our board.
And you have this problem with streaming, to a certain, extent, that they haven’t solved. It’s like, I don’t even know how much I pay for different streaming services right now because it’s so many different ones, but that’s sort of a publication-based model, right? You’re paying for the publication then getting some of that.
And then, the second question I have is just on the podcast front – and I know a lot of your Substackers also produce podcasts such as The Fifth Column – putting those behind a paywall has always been challenging for me from like a functional standpoint because I like to use the Apple podcast app. And so, there’s just more complexity to getting that content – particularly audio content – in my feed that I have on the podcast app.
So, just addressing those two challenges that I have, in particular when I think of subscription-based services – and paywalls.
Lulu: Yeah. Well, the first one is a fantastic problem to have [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:14:03] like, “I’m paying too much for Substack’s help!” It’s a wonderful problem to have. We have seen that someone who is subscribed to a Substack is much more likely to subscribe to multiple Substacks, and that’s actually part of the network effect. It’s like, if you’re a writer and you publish here, you’re more likely to benefit from other people who are reading on Substack.
I don’t have an announcement today about bundling. It is something that we’ve looked at. There’s a couple considerations, the foremost of which might be that if we ever do this, it would only be in a way that maintains that direct connection between readers and writers – where everybody is opting into that relationship, and everybody who has it owns that relationship, and the writer owns their mailing list still.
What we wouldn’t want is a situation where I opt into this bundle and I become a customer of Substack instead of subscriber of yours and our promise that you get to take our mailing list anywhere starts to get more shaky because now, if you take it somewhere, I might say, “Well, hold on. I was subscribing to Substack, not to Nico.”
That’s an oversimplified version, but that’s one of the things that we would be very careful of because we’ve made that promise to writers. That said, there are these Substack super readers that subscribe to like 118 Substacks. Or, 57 Substacks. I mean, there are people –
Nico: Wow. You gotta give them a badge or something.
Lulu: We should, and we should buy them a car, actually. But there are these super readers, and I would be fascinated. I hope I get to meet them real life and have a drink with them. But that’s to your first question – that’s the consideration and that there are these super readers that probably would be very happy for a bundle.
The second one on podcasting: there are different ways to make paying for your Substack worth it. One is to put stuff behind a paywall. But we actually advise people to put their best stuff in front of the paywall – make your best stuff free. It’s just a strategy that we’ve seen work pretty well.
With podcasting, the things that you can offer besides paywalling content are community – which is the same with any other Substack. A lot of publishers will say, “If you pay, then you get to be an extra special member of the community, you get to be on Zoom calls with me, you get to chime in on the comment threads, and I’ll respond to you, and you get to join the conversation, you get to suggest things to me…” And that has value to people, especially who are fans of the writer or the podcaster.
Also, sometimes, you can put a time delay so you are releasing this post – including an audio post or a podcast post – at 5:00 today for your subscribers but at noon tomorrow for everybody else. And it still feels seamless for people who are on the other end, but people who are not subscribed could have a delay if you want them to.
Nico: There’s been some criticism of Substack because you get a lot of –
Lulu: You don’t say.
Nico: Yeah, like, I read that New York Times article. But the idea that popular journalists are fleeing to Substack…where they don’t have any editors, right? It’s kind of…they can write as much as they want as long as they want without any checks and balances.
Now, I know this isn’t quite the case and can be overstated. I know there popular Substackers who make good amount of money through their subscriptions like Matt Taibbi who do have editors or hire editors to help them with their content, and that’s someone who I’ve spoken with quite a bit.
But that’s one of the criticism, right? It’s journalism without limits. How do you all respond and think through that challenge?
Lulu: In general…writing without limits doesn’t sound like a bad thing. In general, getting rid of gatekeepers doesn’t sound as alarming to me as it might to other people. However, I will say that…yeah, it’s [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:17:59]
Nico: But editors serve a role in the journalistic process [inaudible – crosstalk]
Lulu: Editors are valuable, yeah. So, I would say it’s not true –
Nico: I love to be edited, for example. Editors often make my thoughts more compelling or…point out things that I’ve missed…
Lulu: Yeah. Yeah, well, I’m hoping that you’ll edit this entire thing to make me [inaudible – crosstalk] Yeah, I also advocate for editors.
So, I will say it’s not true, as you’ve noted, that there aren’t editors working with Substackers, and it’s not true that it’s all journalists either. So, on the first score, a lot of successful Substackers will hire editors. A lot of people have grown their Substack to a legitimate media business and have a staff – and that staff often included editors.
For many writers, we have provided access to editors. They get to choose their editors, they get to be the boss of their editors as opposed to the other way around, but we have subsidized it, we have made introductions, and so, we’re pro-editor for anybody who wants it.
The difference is that you get to choose if and how you wanna be edited. And then, the second thing is: it’s not all journalists, like I mentioned. Some of the top Substackers are previous journalists who decided to bet on themselves and come here, but a lot of them are also like Patti Smith, who releases music and poetry, George Saunders, who does literature writing class, and Chuck Palahniuk does the same thing. Salman Rushdie, who came here because he has so many wild and crazy ideas that don’t fit into a traditional book-publishing format that he doesn’t wanna just stifle – he wants to put them out into the world, and with a Substack, he can.
And so, some of them have editing and some don’t. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wants to use it as a platform to comment on politics and culture. But it’s in all different categories – not just journalism.
Nico: Yeah. Well, let’s turn now to the aforementioned viral tweet. I’m gonna read through a little bit of what you say. This might take me a second, but I think it’s important for our listeners, and I’ll also link to the tweet in the show notes. And then, I wanna ask what inspired it all, right?
So, you write – this is from January 26th – “At Substack, we don’t make moderation decisions based on public pressure or PR considerations. An important principle for us is defending free expression even for stuff we personally dislike or disagree with. We understand principles come at a cost.”
You continue, “We want a thriving ecosystem full of fresh and diverse ideas that can’t happen without the freedom to experiment or even to be wrong. People already mistrust institutions, media, and each other. Knowing that dissenting views are being suppressed makes that distrust worse. We made a promise to writers this is a place where they can pursue what they find meaningful without coddling or controlling.” This goes to what we discussed earlier in our conversation – about not going between the writer and their audience.
You also say, “Who should be the arbiter…,” – or “ask,” I should say – “Who should be the arbiter of what’s true, and good, and right? People should be allowed to decide for themselves, not have a tech executive decide for them. The only area where humans have a perfect track record is that we’ve consistently gotten things wrong. Every generation has beliefs and blind spots that make future generations aghast. It would be the height of arrogance to think we’ve suddenly become infallible now.”
So, as I said, this got a lot of attention. So, what inspired it?
Lulu: Well, I’m the head of comms, and comms people often get measured by not making people angry. And so, I had to overcome that. There’s a bias in my industry towards not inviting controversy and not upsetting anybody, and with this, I felt like these things were just so clearly, uncontroversially true that they should be said and they needed to be said because somehow, looking around, the principle that people should be able to express ideas freely and debate them and that’s actually better for society and better for minority voices has come into question and did become controversial.
So, I felt like I should say something. This wasn’t just me, by the way. Substack’s founders wrote a very thoughtful blog post about –
Nico: Yeah, I’ve got it printed out here.
Lulu: Yeah. So, my thread was really a topper for their post, and what inspired them to write at that time big picture was that there was a lot of angst around “You’re taking away gatekeepers, and you’re letting people say what they want, and why are you not being more active in censoring?” And so, there are lots of reasons – and good reasons – that we’re not more active in censoring, and all of that gets to it.
But it just struck me – it’s 160-something years since John Stuart Mill wrote – I’m gonna paraphrase badly, but – “Hopefully the time has long gone since we had to question why freedom of expression is important for maintaining our society and fighting dictatorships.” Something along those lines. And that was a long time ago, and the time has not gone. The time is either still here or has come back.
So, it felt like it needed to be said. I didn’t know it would go viral. I was not much of a Twitter person. Now, I try to be active occasionally in my role as a spokesperson, but I have this sleepy little Twitter account where every once in a while, I would post, and this thing I think got a lot of attention because it hit a nerve, and I think that’s because the debate is so unresolved and so heated right now on what we should do about bad content on the internet and what’s the right approach.
Nico: I think that’s exactly right, especially because Substack seems to be taking a divergent approach, at least publicly and within its content guidelines, which we’ll discuss here in a second, from a lot of other tech companies. And this speaks to something else that I think you touched on, which is the idea that spokespeople – tech executives – are often trying to please everyone, and as a result, not pleasing anyone.
I remember around the 2016 election and the years afterward, especially surrounding the Russian disinformation allegations and Facebook’s potential role within that, you had Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook trying to take on that while at the same time trying to appeal to free speech people. He gave a big speech at Georgetown University that I was invited to but did not attend about the role of free speech within Facebook, but then, Facebook stopped talking about free speech and a lot of its policies diverged from the sorta things that Zuckerberg was talking about in that speech.
So, I think the nerve you hit here is that this is a big tech company, for all intents and purposes, that people are familiar with taking a divergent view and issuing a full-throated defense of freedom of expression, which is new. And if you look at your guys’ content guidelines, which I did, they’re not like what you would see at –
Lulu: They’re not that crazy.
Nico: No, they’re not that crazy, and actually, they seem to be guided by First Amendment principles, like…gotta respect intellectual property…you cannot incite violence, you cannot issue credible threats of physical harm… You say Substack does not allow harassment or threats.
And a lot of those things – sometimes harassment codes in college and university campuses are often abused to go after what many of us would assume would be protected speech, but because they put the word “harassment” around the code, people are like, “Oh, yeah, okay. These codes are good.”
So, a lot of the proof is in the pudding with harassment, but also things like “don’t dox,” “don’t plagiarize,” “don’t impersonate…” They seem pretty straightforward. I didn’t look at this as a free speech advocate and say, “These are crazy. These are ripe for abuse and ripe for censorship.”
Lulu: Yeah. Well, we also take a position that when we say, “Don’t incite violence,” for example, that words themselves are not violence – that words are different from violence. So, I think you’re right that how you interpret some of those basic definitions is important because the interpretations have come into question.
It shouldn’t be that divergent, frankly. Part of what we hope to see more of on the internet is just building better systems of incentives instead of more and more whack-a-mole censorship – because I think of censorship a little bit like if you’re giving your kid a haircut and you cut a little bit too much on one side, you have to cut more on the other side, then you have to cut more on the one side – and you end up, basically, with no hair.
And you see platforms doing this where they censor this thing, and the other people get mad, so then they censor stuff on the other side too, and the other people get mad. So, their only tool being censorship, they just censor their way into a corner, basically, instead of addressing the fundamental problem of “You’re giving the wrong incentives. You reward people for saying viral, sensational things, and then you actively push that out, and make it viral, and your algorithm pushes that into peoples' eyeballs without them having asked for it.”
And that’s always going to lead to people gaming the system by creating shorter, quicker hits of more emotional content because that’s what they get rewarded for, whereas with longer form things that you have to actually subscribe to in order to receive in your feed or in your inbox – Chris says this. He says people will hate read things, but they’re not gonna hate pay for things. And so, it creates a different system of incentives that rewards better content.
Nico: Well, it’s funny you say that because any journalist knows this and any social scientist knows this – that there’s like an inverse relationship between how outlandish a claim is and how much… Well, direct relationship, I should say – how much attention it gets. The more outlandish and op ed you write – or, the more outlandish claim, the more attention it’s gonna get because people are hate reading it or it’s not what you would expect to read – which creates all the wrong incentives when your incentives are page views.
But yes, I mean, you force people to pay for those things, people are gonna be less likely to hate read them. But I will say one of the things that particularly stuck out was your statement that the only area where humans have a perfect track record is that we’ve consistently gotten things wrong, and your cofounders talked about this as well in the article as Substack – society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.
We’ve all lived through the two years, right? When we were advised not to mask then to mask, where we had tech companies taking down claims that COVID leaked from a lab, and then you have the federal government, a year later, actually investigating those claims as credible – where you have outlets such as NPR refusing to report on Hunter Biden’s laptop – saying this is, essentially, fake news. And then, they all, including the New York Times, had to walk it back and say, “No, this is actually true,” after they had taken down the New York Post’s Twitter account for doing that reporting.
We all lived through the Afghanistan crisis, right? Where you have institutions that we presumably trust be completely and utterly wrong about how long it would take the Taliban to take over Kabul. The list just goes on, and on, and on, and that’s the big point that your cofounders are making – is that we have a trust problem within institutions – including the federal government, right? It’s like, I can’t trust the federal government to give me a passport on time, I can’t trust it to clear the roads – anyone who tried to drive up I-95 a couple of months ago, including Tim Kaine, our state senator here in Virginia – and we can’t even trust them to give free money away during COVID.
So, it’s like, we have a trust problem. And part of that your coauthors – or, your cofounders make is that because there is censorship – because we see these institutions acting as sorts of ministries of truth, right? And censoring or taking down posts from dissenting or divergent people, some of those posts which eventually become the truth, right? Talking about Hunter Biden laptop story.
We just don’t trust anyone.
Nico: And this goes back to the John Stuart Mill point you were making before. He had a quote, and I forget it exactly, was like, “We shouldn’t assume that our certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty.”
Nico: There needs to be some intellectual humility. If you feel like you have access to all the information and everyone can speak freely, the information that rises to the top is more likely to be trusted – because it won out in what John Stuart Mill calls a free and open encounter.
So, that’s my long monologue on trust and truth because, again, we’ve all lived through the past two years, where there’s been a crisis of that.
Lulu: Yeah. There’s probably been a crisis of that for longer. I mean, who doesn’t remember the “Iraq has WMD’s”?
Nico: Yeah, right?
Lulu: And this is pretty universal, by the way. Our cofounders – Chris, Hamish, and Jairaj – they are a combination of American, Canadian, New Zealander, and Jairaj might even be Japanese – or, he grew up in Japan. This is a very global perspective. And people come from all across the political spectrum – this is not for an American from the west coast who has a certain point of view. This is…anyone, anywhere would want different perspectives represented and should want things that they personally disagree with represented.
I mean, who wants tech executives or the government to decide on their behalf what they should believe and what they should enjoy? And there’s no issue that I can think of where companies and governments have always gotten it right. I mean, even saying that out loud sounds like a punchline.
And to your point about trust – or, I guess to our founders’ point too about trust coming from knowing that you were shown all the information, and had a chance to question it, and that other people had a chance to poke holes in it. It’s like if your spouse says, “By the way, don’t look at my phone. There’s nothing in there, but just make sure you don’t look because you don’t need to see that.” Is that gonna make you trust them more or less?
Or, in a North-Korea-esque place, where the government decides, “This is the one narrative that you’re allowed to see,” is that gonna make you trust that more or less? And so, I just don’t think it’s even credible to make the case that having some personalized person or power decide on your behalf that this is the ultimate truth – especially when it comes to things that we don’t understand well yet. It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to make people believe the information more than they would otherwise if they had a chance to question it.
Nico: Yeah. The Substack cofounders – they write, “The more that powerful institutions attempt to control what can and cannot be said in public, the more people there will be who are ready to create alternative narratives about what’s true, spurred by a belief that there’s a conspiracy to suppress important information.” They write that “We are living through an epidemic of mistrust, particularly here in the United States – trust in social media and traditional media is at all-time low, trust in the US federal government to handle problems is at a near record low, and trust in US major institutions is within two percentage points of the all-time low.
They also write, “The declining trust is both a cause and effect of polarization. To remain in favor with your ingroup, you must defend your side, even if that means being selectively honest or hyperbolic, and even if it means favoring conspiratorial narratives over the pursuit of truth.”
So, their point about polarization is also one that’s well taken, and it’s something that we have all seen, kind of, us retreat into our echo chambers, and they argue that that has something to do with declining trust in our institutions, which has something to do, perhaps, with censorship and a limiting of free expression.
Lulu: Yeah. Well, also, big, powerful institutions have always favored the majority, and the mainstream, and the established. And so, the implication is that if you are a minority – if you’re someone who has had less power historically or has had less of a voice – this is better for you. You don’t have to wait for the government that has probably not treated you so well in the past or not acknowledged you so well in the past to…come around and to help you out.
You now have your own voice, and you can build your own, in this case, media property.
Nico: Well, there is the question – this is a critique or kind of a pushback that’s [inaudible] [00:35:23] – these are private companies, right? So, you guys can set up whatever parameters you want based on whatever values you have, and some of these communities draw bounds around that so that they do create a sense of community, right?
And so, for example, on a lot of these platforms, you can’t have pornography because that’s not seen to be supporting of whatever your community standards are, or there are other boundaries. I remember the early days of the internet when I was on Myspace, for example. You could do things like tweak the HTML on your page, which created this sort of wild-west feel that, to a certain sense, would drive people away…
Lulu: If [inaudible – crosstalk] that level, I would’ve loved to see your page.
Nico: Well, I used to be in a death metal band back in my younger days. And so, we had a Myspace account, which is where music people posted music – especially for bands at that time – and pure volume that I don’t think is around anymore, but we had a… Anyway, long story short, there are certain things around the edges to police a community that just make the community a little bit more functional, and I think it becomes ever more necessary the smaller the community gets, right?
There are community Facebook groups, for example, that have rules that the broader Facebook doesn’t have. So, how should we think about creating a sense of community? Or, is –
Nico: And you can draw parallels with colleges and universities, right? Colleges and university – a lot of them have statements say, “We are the host of critics, but we’re not the critics ourselves.” So, “We set up these broad guardrails, but…” individual student groups, for example, like the Christian evangelical group on campus, or the Democratic…and Republican groups on campus. They can set up different guardrails to protect their free association, right?
So, it’s like creating this community of different associations bounded by the infrastructure created by the larger institution.
Lulu: Yeah. And we think of it almost like a city with different neighborhoods – I’ve heard Chris describe it that way. But…I said earlier in this podcast that everything is writer-led and reader-led – that writers and readers are in control. They get to decide what they write, what they subscribe to, and one of those things is primarily how they moderate.
There are these basic guardrails on Substack as a whole like you noted, but where this really comes into play is writers get to decide and podcasters get to decide what they want their community to be. And that can really be anything. They can moderate people for any reason, they can block people, they can ban people – for anything, regardless of what our platform rules are.
Freddie deBoer has done this where he’s said in the past, “I’m fed up with you guys for a while. I’m banning all of you.” He’s done that. I [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:38:21]
Nico: That’s very much Freddie. Freddie’s been on the podcast before a long time ago.
Lulu: “I told you not to do this thing. I told you to be respectful. I’m seeing a lot of stuff that isn’t that, so all of you are in timeout.” He can do that. Can you imagine how insane that would be if Substack as a platform did that? “We’re fed up with all of you. Nobody gets to comment for the next month.” No, but for individual writers, they’re sovereign. They get to do whatever they want.
Nico: I’ve only got, I think, 10 minutes left with you. We wanna be respectful of your time. One challenge to this model, of course, is the sort of censorship, or de-platforming, or demonetizing of different writers and content creators.
So, for example, you’re probably familiar with this – Colin Write – because he has a Substack called “Reality’s Last Stand.”
Nico: Because he has a certain perspective on biological sex, he was taken off PayPal.
Lulu: And Etsy.
Nico: And Etsy, right? And he’s an editor for Quillette. He’s evolutionary biologist. He actually addresses this in his Quillette post. He says Substack has great content guidelines, and Stripe, which supports your subscription service, has content guidelines that more or less mirror your guys’. I took a look at them before this.
They’ve got a lot, especially relating to specific restrictions in specific countries that have specific laws, but there’s a broader concern within the free speech community… So, a platform like Substack might have great policies, but the infrastructure of the internet – or, the infrastructure of commerce in the United States might not have great policies, and as a result, content creators can’t make money, they can’t distribute their products, such as on Etsy, they can’t distribute their content… We saw this happen with Patreon a couple years ago, which led to a lot of people fleeing that platform, including Sam Harris.
And you have certain writers like Charles Cook over at National Review who talk about…maybe there needs to be a standard for internet, or standard for commerce, or maybe even government involvement – I don’t know that he would go that far – in sort of determining “What are general service providers?” and “What are providers that might have an editorial or publisher message that should be free to determine for themselves?”
So, I’m wondering how you guys think about it and how you ensure that your writers can have this freedom when some of your business model – particularly your partnership with Stripe – is based on them also supporting your guys’ approach.
Lulu: Yeah. You’re certainly right about this rise of centralized control all over the internet, and a lot of the big creators and writers that have come over from Patreon cited that as one of the reasons.
They’ll say they love our product and there’s all these other things they can do with it [inaudible] [00:41:10] quality’s smoother, yay, but they also cite that here, they’re not worried about being randomly…taken off and having all of their IP erased.
So, a couple of different things: one is…we’re not in a position to go and ensure that people have access to their banking system and –
Nico: You’re not gonna become a banking company is what you’re saying?
Lulu: No immediate plans to pivot to be a personal banking company. So, you’re right. There’s a lot that is outside of our control. There’s a lot that’s sort of broader problems and on the internet – not just this, but writ large. However, one of the things that we are doing is pushing for norms, as I mentioned earlier, and pushing for different ways of looking at things – different incentive systems – and one of the norms that we are pushing for is to allow many different points of view and to allow people to decide for themselves. And we hope that that will spread outwards not just through blogging but more broadly.
Two, the thing that we can do is give our writers a lot of support and different options. When people feel that they have any kind of problem with payments, or support, or the technology – anything at all, they hit us up directly. We fix it for them. Some people text our founders. Some people text our product guys. Some people just write into support. Our support team is really amazing and probably overserviced compared to other support teams. Their rate of clearing tickets within 24 hours is really incredible.
So, there’s that, and then there’s giving people other options. We have Bitcoin payments available for writers that want it if they want a different way to get paid, and all of that put together gives people a lot more options – not infinite options, but a lot more than they otherwise would have. So, you have writers like Nikita Petrov, who is incredible. He writes Psychopolitica, an incredible Substack where he, I believe not that long ago, fled Russia…and has been able to have a very successful go on Substack.
And we have people who are writing in places that are pretty hostile to independent journalism, but through Substack, they’re able to make it work, especially because it’s easy to block a website but hard to block email.
Nico: Yep. Well, last question here before we sign off: are there any Substackers that you would recommend or that you enjoy? Particularly ones who might be of interest to our listeners who care about issues of free expression.
Nico: Nobody there? Nobody’s writing over anything over at Substack on these issues?
Lulu: Where do we start? Our founders – they usually do these interviews and they’re better at it, but they’ll try not to answer since it’s like choosing a favorite child. However, since you gave the…
Nico: I bounded it.
Lulu: You bounded it to Substackers that write a lot about free speech issues. You have mentioned Fifth Column. They’re a great podcast. Blocked and Reported is a good one – I listen to them. [Inaudible – crosstalk] [00:44:20]
Nico: Yeah, Jesse’s a close friend. He’s also extraordinarily tall, which doesn’t come through…in his writing, obviously.
Lulu: I wouldn’t have known that.
Nico: No, he could be in the NBA with how tall he is. He’s a good guy.
Lulu: I wouldn’t have known that. But they have a great podcast. Jeff Legum is doing very interesting work where he is actually actively – he comes at issues from the left, but he actively solicits and looks at the other side, which I really admire. Freddie deBoer is a great one. Bari Weiss, who’s now hosting voices from all over on a lot of different topics, and free expression is one of them.
Nico: And speaking of editors, she has an editor I know because we’ve worked with him.
Lulu: She has a great editor. She has a great team. And Ilya Shapiro just started a Substack.
Nico: Oh, did he really? Yeah, we helped him out with his situation over at Georgetown, but… Well, great. Lulu, I really appreciate you taking the time. I know it took us a couple months here, and congratulations again…on the birth of your child and all the success Substack has. I hope to have you on again sometime in the future.
Lulu: Thank you Nico. Appreciate the chance to talk with you.
Nico: Yeah, that was Lulu Cheng Meservey. She is Vice President of Communications for Substack and a board member of the videogame juggernaut Activision Blizzard. This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague Aaron Reiss. You can learn more about So to Speak by subscribing to our YouTube channel, which is linked in the show notes, or going over and finding us on Instagram or Twitter, where the handle is Free Speech Talk. We’re on Facebook too at So to Speak Podcast, and you can email us feedback at SoToSpeak@TheFIRE.org.
We also take reviews, which we encourage because they help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, I thank you all again for listening.