Zach's PEN #12: Substack Did A Good Thing

2020 Week 43, I’m temporarily switching to Substack because they made their first pro-internet move.

Quick check-in: Wendell is having a “15-month sleep regression,” but I think that’s just one of those official-sounding names we give things so they feel less like chaos daggers thrown by an uncaring universe. Basically, he’s been waking up and screaming a couple times a night this week. Not a big deal but even a mild sleep deficit can lead me to questioning whether life is ultimately worth it.

It’s a good thing he’s cute.

Let’s briefly talk about the internet. Ever since my mom bought us our first 14.4 modem, I’ve been watching really terrible companies attempt to own the internet which, let’s remember, is designed as a decentralized, democratized thing.

First it was America Online: the dumbest, most poorly-managed business I’ve ever seen. Then it was Google, a very smart company even if they continuously surprise us with their ineptitude around basic product design. And then there’s Facebook, who is just AOL 2.0. Actually, if you look a little closer, Facebook is nothing more than AOL Instant Messenger 2.0. By the way, AOL Instant Messenger is why AOL is the most hilarious failure in internet history, maybe business history writ large, and possibly in the history of all human endeavor. The executives of that company should have their faces carved into the cliffs of Yucca Mountain in Nevada (designated nuclear waste depository) as a warning to all future civilizations of the extent to which failure is possible.

Sadly for us all, Facebook has largely succeeded, not through any merit or intelligence, but by accidentally creating AOL Instant Messenger 2.0, an obvious demand from the citizenry of the internet. Facebook still doesn’t realize this is all they’ve done and have thus made few attempts to improve upon the original value provided by AIM.

Anyway, this was a BIG week for those who are against internet monopolies. A massive antitrust case was brought against Google this week and it could end up being an actual good thing to come from the Trump justice department, who naturally is pursuing it for the wrong reasons but who cares. Between this case and Facebook/Twitter’s decision to arbitrarily suppress a news story last week, the cat is out of the bag on the ludicrously stupid amount of power we have granted to a couple of assholes in Silicon Valley. This is only the very beginning of the antitrust wave and there will be some very strange bedfellows in this fight. There really are few things as important as this.

Dreams of monopoly have been tantalizing to investors for good reason, and these dreams have largely driven founders and their companies’ crazy valuations, but the gilded bubble is finally popping, and not just because the government is stepping in. I have very little faith in our courts or institutions or elected officials, if you couldn’t tell. There’s another big reason the roof is going to cave in: Most of these monopolies are built on foundations of sand.

Facebook doesn’t do anything impressive. At all. And they never have. They don’t even do their one stupid product well. All they have is a massive network built around a shitty website that limits anything good about the internet and privileges and amplifies everything bad about it. Google has an incredibly advanced search engine that makes sure everyone arrives at the same answer to everything. They have excellent maps. They made the world’s first great email client (and only good webmail client) and some decent office tools… Beyond that, what they really have is a surveillance and advertising business based on a whole bunch of scummy tracking companies they’ve acquired over the years, an okay web browser, and a sad mobile operating system.

The most valuable asset of both of these companies is actually just the user profile they have of you. And you grant them that profile (not knowing just how much you’re granting) because one of them has a good search engine and the only good webmail client and the other one has your aunt on it who likes seeing photos of your babies. This may feel like an unbreakable grip. It isn’t.

Very few have dared to creep on Google or Facebook’s turf in recent years because of the assumption that winner-take-all is the only way and if someone’s going to take all it’s clearly going to be Google and Facebook. This starting assumption is wrong, and the market is wide open to better products and companies that don’t care for world domination and are fine being worth a billion dollars rather than a trillion.

So let’s take Substack, the service I’m using to compose and send this PEN to you right now (and which I previously used to compose these PENs so I could then copy the simple/tasteful HTML out of them into my own system because somehow, nowhere has someone just created a basic email composer that is responsive and tasteful and respects dark mode… but I digress). Substack is a great little company, and they’re helping save journalism, but the idea that all email newsletters will one day run through one company based on network effects (a lot of people are using it so everyone else will) is dumb. But the way Substack has behaved would lead one to believe they actually think that’s a reasonable goal, and that’s why I have refused to use them so far, even though they make this so easy.

Monopolist tendencies run deep in this country, and even deeper in Silicon Valley. There’s a lot to be concerned about with Substack, first and foremost that their service is “free,” without an option to pay. This is an unacceptable business practice that I hope is gone in ten years. They justify this by advertising to people in every newsletter. To be clear: There are zero good reasons that an email from me should have anything about some other company on it. Zero. It’s my email, and it’s my relationship with the recipient. For Substack to advertise its company on my email is hostile, garbage behavior, and I should be able to pay to remove the ad. This is something they don’t allow at this point, but this week, Substack did announce custom domains, so that a newsletter can live at a property its writer owns (not at substack.com). For those less in the weeds of how the internet works, what this means is that if I found a better solution to power my email newsletter or wanted to roll my own again, I can do that without breaking any links. In other words, I’m not locked in to Substack.

This is a move in the right direction, and one that now makes the risk worth it to me to get the pretty good features of Substack without me needing to do a bunch of janky steps in the middle. Now if they can just charge for their product and take off the crappy advertising shenanigans like a non-scumbag company, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

The next generation of software entrepreneurs know that the monopoly game is a losing one 99.99999% of the time and has the disadvantage of also being morally bankrupt and technically illegal. The good news is that many of the worst offenders can be defeated by simply offering a better product.

For Amazon, it’s going to take politicians and pitchforks, I’m afraid.

If you’re interested in following this Google suit and all things monopoly, check out BIG by Matt Stoller, the best newsletter about monopoly out there (yes, on Substack).

Big week PENpals,

Zach

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P. S. The reason I didn’t mention Amazon until the end here is because Amazon is a more traditional monopoly no different from the robber barons we still go to concert halls named after. Jeff Bezos is essentially an anti-competitive (and therefore anti-capitalist) expert in regulatory capture and the deliberate undermining of democracic institutions and the corruption of governments. While the internet is where most of us interact with his business, Amazon isn’t an “internet company” the way Facebook and Google are. Amazon’s foothold is in massive physical infrastructure that won’t be defeated through writing a better app.

P. P. S. Also, because I know people will accuse me of fanboy bias, Apple is definitely not an internet business except for its iMessage service, which is the one area where I believe Apple should be challenged in an antitrust case (mayyybe the App Store which is another thing they’ve egregiously messed up but that’s such small potatoes). iMessage lock-in is classic garbage Microsoft behavior (don’t think I forgot about Bill Gates, who was the worst until Bezos), even if the impetus came from the right place of addressing the limitations of SMS. Otherwise, Apple actually does what good, regular businesses do: They make the best products they can and sell them for a profit. If only the other transactions in our lives were this clear and honest.

P. P. P. S. A little Louisa reward for making it to the end of this.