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Why crippling Substack links on Twitter is dumb, counter-productive and bad for everyone
After years of being harassed and banned from social media by the puzzling minions of the Trust and Safety Brigade, it is now our turn to be deboosted by Elon Musk, for the pettiest of reasons.
I understand that many of my readers have little or no interest in matters of inside social media baseball, so this will be my last dedicated post on the subject. Nevertheless, this really matters. Twitter is how I first built my audience, and the ability of readers to share Substack posts on other platforms is crucial for everyone who writes here, even if they have no other presence on social media at all.
To those of you are fans of Elon Musk, I’ll concede that his interventions at Twitter have not been all bad, and that a nontrivial portion of the bad things that have happened since he took over are not his fault. I include in this the exodus of politically self-righteous advertisers and egregious problems with the recommendation algorithm. It’s also true that much of the good people had hoped Musk would bring about has proven impossible, for reasons that are also not Musk’s fault. The forces for social media censorship are enormously powerful. Twitter can push back at the margins, but unless Musk wants his site to be blocked across the entire European Union or fined into oblivion, he’ll have to make many concessions.
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All of that said, Elon Musk clearly regards posting cross-platform links on Twitter as “relentless free advertising of competitors,” and in December he flirted with banning links to perceived rivals like Instagram and Mastadon. Twitter’s more recent targeted attacks on Substack are clearly intentional – part of this same basic anxiety about promoting competitors – and not the result of any glitch. They extend to crippling limitations on Substack’s official Twitter account, and now a warning which labels all Substack links as potential spam or security threats.
Twitter has provided two explanations of these developments that I know of. The first comes indirectly, via Matt Taibbi. He writes:
Earlier this afternoon, I learned Substack links were being blocked on Twitter. Since being able to share my articles is a primary reason I use Twitter, I was alarmed and asked what was going on.
It turns out Twitter is upset about the new Substack Notes feature, which they see as a hostile rival. When I asked how I was supposed to market my work, I was given the option of posting my articles on Twitter instead of Substack.
Later, Musk defended Twitter’s actions in this way:
“Why don’t you post to Twitter instead” is either a totally clueless response to Taibbi’s objections, or a not-so-subtle way of telling a political ally and major Twitter Files contributor to go to hell. If Taibbi leaves Substack, he’ll lose his current monetisation and a substantial portion of his audience. Twitter shut down their alternative newsletter platform, Revue, in December, and they don’t have any of the functionality necessary to support long-form journalism. Four-thousand character Tweets are not enough.
Then there is the matter of Musk’s disingenuousness: Disabling retweets, likes and comments on Substack links is a block. Call it a soft block if you like, but it’s a block either way. It ensures that all links to Substack will be buried on Twitter and receive very few views; functionally, it’s not very different from the hard blocks that Musk briefly debuted in December. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, Substack is the only domain on all of Twitter subject to these crippling restrictions. This obviously amounts to much more than an effort to deny a potential competitor access to the Twitter database.
By attacking Substack, Musk is simply hurting the ability of a lot of smaller bloggers to draw traffic to their posts, while also providing free advertising to the coming Substack Notes feature via the Streisand effect. Twitter is an enormously popular website for journalists in particular, and Substack is the most promising alternative, independent blogging and journalism platform. Musk’s fear of competition here is deeply misguided: Substack links on Twitter are Twitter content; they are one of the reasons to browse Twitter every morning. Disconnecting Twitter from closely aligned platforms, which share many of the same journalists and readers, makes the site less interesting and much less useful. Despite being one of Twitter’s most successful users, Musk often seems not to grasp how social media more broadly actually functions.
As for Substack Notes: The most powerful, important aspect of Substack, is the email list which every author builds for himself. Unlike contributors to Twitter and YouTube, authors at Substack have direct access to their own readers; their work is not filtered or selectively promoted by opaque recommendation algorithms, which have stifled a lot of engagement on Twitter recently. I have a real fear that, as Substack continues to develop ancillary social media functionality, they’ll come to resemble other media platforms, which mediate the audience relationship in various ways. Musk could recognise these tensions, which will obviously limit the ability of Substack to directly encroach upon Twitter’s user-base (at least in the nearer term), whatever features they debut; or he could pick pointless fights that alienate his allies and sympathisers and make Twitter worse. He chose the second option.
If you’re a Substack author, I really recommend you set up a custom domain, as I have. It costs some money, but it means your Twitter links won’t be blocked or subject to false security warnings. If you’re a reader, maybe you’ll consider subscribing. There’s no guarantee my posts will continue to make their way to you via the usual routes.
UPDATE: Following a massive backlash, Twitter appears to have reversed at least the most egregious limitations to links to substack.com. A massive thanks to all my friends and readers who made a lot of noise about this, it has paid off.