Is Substack A Platform Or A Publisher?

Also: Clubhouse’s accelerator program, Twitter’s new monetization tools for Spaces, a platform that lets fans control creators’ lives, and more

This week: Special guest Turner Novak joined Li and Nathan to share his thoughts on this week’s news! Turner is a former GP at Gelt VC and an omnipresent memelord on Twitter and TikTok. He is currently just vibing while he works on launching something new. He’s deeply insightful about the creator economy, and we're excited to have him on the show today at 5pm Pacific / 8pm Eastern, on Twitter Spaces

ICYMI: Li auctioned the artwork for her essay on The Creator Middle Class as an NFT! It eventually sold to James Young for 13.37 ETH! ($25,264). Congrats Li!

And now, onto the news…

Top Stories in the Passion Economy, 03/18/21

Is Substack A Platform Or A Publisher? 

What Happened?

  • Substack cofounder Hamish McKenzie published an essay about Substack Pro—their initiative to offer famous writers upfront advances to move to Substack.
  • The essay was written in response to backlash from writers and readers about the previously secretive program and the kinds of writers it helps fund; a list that reportedly includes well-known names like Matthew Yglesias, Casey Newton, Matt Taibbi, Anne Helen Peterson, and others. 

What this means: 


Substack is wading into the territory of publishers, rather than strictly being a platform. By funding certain writers, they are picking and choosing what gets published. At bottom, those are editorial decisions.


I don’t think so. They're not accepting or rejecting posts from individual writers—they are merely choosing which writers to invest in.

These programs could be seen as a growth marketing strategy, and not editorial control. Substack is just paying writers to attract more readers and more writers. They're incentivising high profile creators to kickstart the flywheel of network effects. 

Writers ultimately control what gets written. 


That’s a good point, but funding writers supports their success in a much more direct way than just allowing them to use the platform. It makes sense that Substack be held more responsible for the kind of content that gets published by Substack Pro writers compared to normal writers. It speaks to Substack’s values. And it also has legal implications. 

Section 230 says that internet platforms are not liable for what their users post. But publishers are liable for what their writers write. Does Substack Pro jeopardise their Section 230 status?


It might! With Substack Pro they’re still a platform, but they’re also sort of a publisher on their own platform now. I don’t see why it would affect their section 230 status for normal platform users, but I can imagine it getting tricky for writers who are a part of Substack Pro.

The bigger issue to me isn’t legal status, but cultural mores. We used to have a stable set of mores clearly labeling the difference between things like platforms and publishers. But the Platform/Publisher binary is more like a spectrum now—and we will eventually update our ethical standards to reflect that fact. Between now and then, it will be an active conversation.

Clubhouse Opened Applications for a Creator Accelerator

What Happened?

What this means: 


When it comes to platforms trying to formulate creator-oriented strategies, I’ve seen two broad approaches so far: The first approach is open and application-based, like Clubhouse’s program here, TikTok’s Creator Fund, or Substack Bridge. The second approach is closed and invite-only, like Triller, Substack Pro, or Clubhouse’s previously announced Creator Pilot Program. 

The first approach is...

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