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Why Did Social Media Go to War Against Writers?
And can we ever get along?
Below I look at some surprising ways Substack has changed the media (and social media) landscape.
This gives me a good excuse to recommend the new Substack app. It’s now my go-to source for informed writing—providing access to a smarter and more diverse group of authors, thinkers, and creators than I’ve found anywhere else.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
I’ve now been on Substack for 30 months, and the improvements in the platform during that time have far exceeded my expectations. I didn’t know any music writers on Substack back when I launched, but it now boasts a better roster of critics than any newspaper or magazine. By the way, I’m also subscribing to writers in a dozen or so other fields (culinary arts, economics, literature, finance, technology, psychology, etc.).
I’m a heavy user. I must have signed up for almost a hundred Substacks.
Substack has also added a lot of new features during those 30 months. I especially like Notes, which is similar to Twitter but with extra IQ points. And I’ve also benefited from cross-posting, recommendations, and many other new features. I also applaud options I don’t currently use (like chat and podcasts), because they empower writers and readers.
The reality is that Substack is innovating faster than I can keep up with. But I like it that way. It’s creating an interconnected and independent media ecosystem here.
Best of all are the core values behind all this:
Substack supports writers—who receive almost 90% of subscription revenues. This is the exact opposite of the traditional publishing model, where royalty rates of around 10% are typical.
I don’t need to attract advertisers, and this frees me from the conflicts-of-interest advertising brings to other platforms.
There’s no surveillance or selling of users’ private information here.
I share my articles directly with readers, and no algorithm or gatekeeper intervenes to prevent our direct connection.
For these and other reasons, I’ve been an advocate for the platform. And that’s a good introduction to my subject today.
Why Did Social Media Go to War Against Writers?
I joined Twitter on August 27, 2009. I only did it because my agent pestered me.
Our conversation went something like this:
Agent: Ted, you really need to get on Twitter.
Ted: Twitter? Isn’t that just for young people? I’m too old for that.
Agent: No, no, no! Old people are on Twitter too.
Ted: Huh? Like me?
Agent: Even older.
Ted: [Long pause while this sinks in.] Whoa! I’m gonna tell people to get off my lawn. I can hardly wait.
Agent: No, no, no!—you tweet about your books. Twitter is great for writers.
So I joined Twitter. And it was great for writers—at least it was back then.
But so much has changed since 2009. Even the name has changed. It’s no longer Twitter but X—like the spouse who left you and took the kids. (X is an absurd name, so for the rest of this article—and possibly the rest of my life—I’ll continue to call the platform by its original identity.)
The biggest change for me is the hostility between Twitter and the writing community. Almost every week, I hear about another writer leaving the platform.
Many of them joined for the same reason I did—to connect with readers. But there are dozens of reasons why they leave.
Much to my surprise, many are learning that they can grow their audience faster after walking away from Twitter.
That makes no sense—how can writers reach more people by leaving social media? But I saw it firsthand, when I boycotted Twitter for two months in protest of the platform’s throttling of Substack links.
I eventually returned, perhaps not wisely. (I didn’t want to abandon my community there, so I came back—but at what price?)
However, my audience at The Honest Broker actually grew faster while I was off Twitter.
At first, I concluded that this was just a fluke. But then other Substack writers left Twitter—and they also experienced the same boost.
The folks at Doomberg, a smart energy and finance newsletter, walked away from a huge Twitter audience—more than 250,000 followers. But this resulted in accelerated growth in income and Substack subscriptions.
Bill Bishop (who was the first writer on Substack!) also saw gains after leaving Twitter.
I’m happy to see these people flourish outside of Twitter. I’ll let others figure out the reasons. Right now I concerned with the bigger question: Why is social media forcing so many writers to leave?
It’s not just Twitter.
Instagram still blocks live links to articles. The reason is sad and obvious—they don’t want people leaving the platform to read an article. So they favor photos and videos. Mark Zuckerberg has shown this same antagonism to writers and readers on his other platforms. It’s easier to go viral on Facebook with a photo of a hamburger than an article by a Nobel laureate.
Some people will tell you that Mr. Z limits access to articles because of his devotion to factchecking or science or the general good. But that’s a laugh—because Facebook is filled with paid links to the worst kind of clickbait articles.
The reality is that Facebook punishes journalists who won’t pay for placement.
Meta also fears legislation that will force it to reimburse newspapers and magazines for articles shared on platform. They hate paying for content (that’s their word, not mine—I prefer to call it journalism). So anything they can do to stop people from reading, and instead (for example) share cat photos or twerking videos is good for business.
My firsthand experience is that Facebook actually got more hostile as my audience grew. I originally connected with readers on my Facebook page, and graciously accepted friend requests from everybody. But Facebook imposed a limit on friends, and forced me to set up a separate business-type account.
As soon as that happened, the company demanded payment to share posts with my own followers (and others). The incentives are bizarre: The bigger my audience, the more Facebook punishes me for trying to reach it.
When the company launched its Twitter knock-off Threads, the same hostility was evident. This was strange because media outlets and journalists were enthusiastic early adopters of Threads, but the platform initially made it impossible to search for any news topic or headline. And it limited writers in many other ways.
For many years, Twitter succeeded because it didn’t play these stupid games. But Elon Musk changed all that. In particular, he punished journalists affiliated with media platforms outside his control.
His decision to throttle Substack writers surprised me. For a while, he even removed tweets mentioning Substack from search results. Even now, he blocks previews of Substack articles, and I suspect he is shadowbanning Substack stories. He also went to war against NPR, the New York Times (an advertiser on Twitter!), and other outlets.
His answer to critics is that journalists should publish on Twitter instead. And he announced grand plans to turn Twitter into a powerful publishing platform.
In theory that sounds like a smart idea. But in practice, the new regime at Twitter is fickle and unreliable. Policies change constantly, and so many silly ideas are tossed out—getting rid of blocking or charging every user or some other scheme du jour.
You can’t build a long-term future as a writer on that. At Twitter, I can’t even anticipate next week or next month.
Will Musk really build a base of paying subscribers for articles? Will he really give most of the money to journalists? Will he really let them take their subscribers with them if they leave the platform? Does he even have the technology in place to deliver on this?
Or will his promises to writers be just another Dogecoin scam?
Let me be blunt. I doubt that Musk (or Zuckerberg and the rest) will ever provide a healthy and nurturing platform for journalists. And it’s not just their pay-to-play schemes. Even under a best case scenario, social media makes more money from scrollers than from readers.
Here’s how I see it:
When I scroll through posts on Twitter, one out of every ten (more or less) is a promoted post or ad.
Let’s say I spend 15 minutes reading an article posted on a social media site—I could scroll through hundreds of photos or short texts in that same time.
Even if Twitter loaded up that article with ads, it still wouldn’t generate the cash it earns from scrollers.
But Twitter currently lacks the functionality (as far as I can tell) to insert any advertisements inside long text posts. So right now readers who prefer these articles are just a dead weight on the site.
And I haven’t even factored in Musk’s promises to pay writers. The more he does this, the worse the economics look.
Here’s the bottom line: Social media platforms really do make more money from cat photos.
This also helps us understand why Facebook failed in its attempt to imitate Substack. It also explains why LinkedIn is such a poor platform for writers who want to get paid for their posts.
But the worst aspect of social media for writers is an intangible. It’s an attitude pervasive in Silicon Valley and among web platforms. They depend upon people contributing texts, photos, news links, opinions, and video for free. They hate paying for any of this.
Competitive pressures are now forcing them to attract ‘content creators’ (as they disparagingly call these people). But it’s really not in their DNA to do this in a nurturing and transparent way. They are not reliable partners, and may never be.
We’re fortunate that Substack and a few other platforms (Bandcamp, Patreon, etc.) offer alternative models that actually work for creative professionals. If the huge social media platforms really want to lure them away, they must change both their mindset and their ways of doing business.
The first step is ending their war against writers.
I’d love to see that happen. But I doubt that the current regimes will pursue strategies of peaceful cooperation. In the meantime, I’m supporting a fair, transparent alternative with my time and money—and urge others to do the same.