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Time to read
Or how to reclaim your attention
In addition to our weekly Substack Reads digest, today we have a message from Substack co-founder and Chief Writing Officer, Hamish McKenzie.
Do you remember what it was like to be a reader?
Hopefully, for most of you it’s no big challenge. But I have to say, for me, it sometimes feels like “reader” is just something I used to be.
I used to sit down every morning, with the newspaper spread out on the table before me, a cup of tea at the ready, to pore over the day’s news. I had a subscription to Harper’s Magazine in the Lewis Lapham era, and I would devour it upon delivery, first feasting on the Readings section before moving onto the features, which—whether they be about China’s industrial revolution or river vagrants—always surprised me. I would read books, stack ’em up on my bedside table, and while away hours late into the night, lost in stories.
I frequently hear myself telling people that I just don’t have enough time to read deeply anymore—“the kids!”, “the startup!”—but if I picked up a book instead of reflexively opening Twitter every couple of hours, I’m sure I would have read my way through a library in the last 10 years. If I read the New Yorker at night instead of jumping aimlessly around Reddit, I’d learn more and sleep better. But I don’t, and I know I’m far from alone.
The modern internet is conspiring against our better instincts. It wants to feed us continuous dopamine hits, and we keep accepting its offer. On Twitter, we find world-weary witticisms and thrilling take-downs. On TikTok, we get sucked into short videos of sexy dances and people using gym socks to cook chicken sous vide. On YouTube, there’s always one more SHOCKING and ELECTRIFYING moment that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE. On Facebook, your worst uncle is ranting about the apocalypse. On Instagram, there’s a viral meme cross-posted from TikTok. Left to our own connected devices, even the most diligent readers among us will often choose to put this stuff into our brains ahead of a challenging piece of writing.
But even when we do choose to take a momentary break from our self-administered gavage, a near-ceaseless endeavor to turn our minds into the intellectual equivalent of foie gras, we are seldom presented with an appetizing alternative. TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram at least look nice. They are beautiful apps. By contrast, reading on the internet can be an assault on the senses. How many pop-ups must we fight through to get to an article? How many Adsense blocks are we willing to tolerate as we read that 4,000-word feature? Why are there banners at the top and bottom of my screen? Is that chumbox serving my interests? Why the hell is that video playing?
To a large extent, the answer to most of these questions is that the economic model for supporting content on the internet sucks. It does not put readers first. Twitter and TikTok are addictive because they are serving advertisers, zeroing in on the most titillating content to keep us in a perpetual state of not-quite-satisfaction—but close!—so that we follow our thumbs for just one… more… scroll. Meanwhile, the ad-focused business model that supported print media for hundreds of years has been vaporized by the internet, so aggressive paywalling and race-to-the-bottom ad-overload is all the legacy outlets have left.
The last decade-plus of the internet has stripped writers and readers of a basic sense of agency. We have been made subservient to platforms that seek to use our content and attention to build giant advertising businesses, larger than the world has ever known. Listen to an earnings call for one of the social media giants and you’ll notice how much talk is dedicated to “time spent,” price per impression, and how many ads can be put in front of a user.
The Substack model is different. The only way Substack makes money is by taking a 10 percent cut of subscription revenue generated on the platform. Our business can succeed only when writers succeed. One of the best ways we can prove our value to writers is to help them find more readers and make more money. And the best way to do that is to make sure readers are happy. Doing the right thing for writers means doing the best thing for readers.
So, we are trying to make a great reading experience. We started those efforts by making every web version of a Substack post clean, simple, and fast to load. There are no pop-ups or ads or whirring gadgets. In email, the experience is just as clean; the post finds its way directly to you with the least fuss possible. And now we have an iPhone app where you get all of the above without having to live in your email or on social media (the Android app is nearly here, too, so please join the waitlist).
The reading experience on Substack, however, is about more than just aesthetics. If you’re reading this post, chances are good that you know what it’s like to subscribe to a writer on Substack. You know that feeling of having a closer relationship with a writer you care about, of going deep into issues that really matter to you. You know how good it feels to support a writer’s mission and to contribute to their financial well-being.
As a Substack reader, you know you can find coverage of obscure subjects—from construction physics to local news to AI art—at a level of depth that is difficult to find anywhere else. Because of the subscription model, you know that the writer’s primary loyalty is to you, and that they get rewarded for using your attention wisely. You know they’re not trying to game an algorithm or trick you into clicking. You know they are independent and not answering to a corporation, or falling into line with an interest group’s editorial agenda. And if they do disappoint you? You have the power to unsubscribe. It’s only one click.
You can look forward to a continually improving reading experience on Substack, across email, apps, and the web. We have a world-class product team focused exclusively on serving readers. That team and others are also working on ways to help you find amazing things to read and new writers to fall in love with. You can see the start of this with our Recommendations feature, through which writers suggest other writers to their readers. That feature alone now drives more than a third of all the subscriptions across Substack. There’s much more to come.
I’ve been a “Substack reader” for almost five years now—but, actually, I don’t think that’s quite the right term. I’m a reader of writers, and many of my favorites just happen to be on Substack. My reading experience with those writers is superior to what I find elsewhere not because of what the platform adds but because of what it removes.
On Substack, I have a direct relationship with the writer; the platform isn’t getting in the way, and it’s not trying to drag my attention elsewhere. When I’m reading a writer’s post, it’s just me and the words. I get to enter that flow state where I bury myself in the writer’s thoughts and eloquence. It’s not a newspaper or a book, but it has some advantages over those formats: it’s up-to-date, it’s interactive, and it’s delivered to a device I almost always have on me. When I get a push notification alerting me to a post by a writer I love, I spend all my time thinking about when I will have the chance to read it. And for the publications I pay to subscribe to, I love knowing that for every $1 that Substack gets, the writer gets $9. I feel invested in the writer’s project alongside them. I know that when I click on one of their posts, my mind will be nourished instead of depleted. Every time I read a writer on Substack, it’s an act of reclaiming my mind from social media.
There’s so much room to grow here. The first thirty years of the internet were built on the mistaken business assumption that online reading isn’t worth as much focus as video or clickbait or social flotsam and jetsam. But the internet is still just getting started, and so is Substack. The way we’ve thought about online writing and reading for these first 30 years won’t be true for the next 30. Big things are still to come. We will be readers again, and we will love it.
Are you a writer? Start your Substack here.