Sub stack announcement last week, it acquired Letter, a platform that encourages written dialogue and debate. Financial data on the deal was not disclosed, but the acquisition follows Substack’s recent move $ 65 million increase.
Newsletters are all the rage – Facebook launched its exclusive celebrity program Bulletin platform last month, and Twitter acquired the startup Revue newsletter earlier this year. Letter does not publish email newsletters like Substack, but rather allows writers to engage in letter exchange on sensitive topics like Brexi, go out together and the 2020 US Presidential Election. The idea behind Letter makes sense. Complicated conversations require nuance, but these online debates too often take place on platforms like Twitter, where abbreviated tweets make nuanced conversations more difficult.
“We could see that Letter, like Substack, was working in opposition to the ad-driven attention economy, attempting to change the rules of engagement for online speech,” Substack wrote in its announcement of acquisition.
But this acquisition may worry those already troubled by the controversy Substack faced earlier this year, when news is out that the platform offered some writers advances of up to six figures as part of its Substack Pro program. The problem wasn’t that Substack was getting writers to join the platform, but rather, who Substack handpicked to pay upfront. Additionally, Substack says it’s up to the writer to disclose whether or not they are part of Substack Pro, which creates a lack of editorial transparency.
As Substack grew, writers quit jobs at Buzzfeed and The New York Times, drawn by salary increases and cautious optimism. But as more and more writers have come forward as part of the Substack Pro program, Substack has come under fire for subsidize anti-trans rhetoric, since some of these writers have used their newsletters to share such views. Substack admits that it is not quite apolitical, but the choice of writers to subsidize and its decision to use only light moderation tactics, are a strong political choice in the internet age where content moderation has a tangible effect on world politics. Some writers even chosen to leave the platform.
Annalee Newitz, a non-binary writer who has since left the platform, written on Substack, “Their leaders decide what types of writing and writers deserve financial compensation. […] Substack adopts an editorial position, paying writers who fit that position, and refuse to be transparent on who are these people.
So when Substack described its new acquisition Letter as a platform that encourages people to “argue in good faith instead of dropping bombs for retweets,” this made the acquisition worthy of further consideration. Statements like this sound nice, but this kind of language often appears in arguments that view social justice as a threat to free speech. But freedom of speech shouldn’t mean endorse hate speech.
Substack wants to position itself as a neutral platform, and for many writers it is a valuable way to make money, especially in a volatile journalism industry. But given that some users have already become skeptical about who Substack chooses to financially incentivize, it’s worth considering the implications of purchasing Letter, a platform that includes writers associated with the so-called intellectual dark web in his group of twenty “featured writers. “On Letter, some of these writers question the validity of childhood transgender identity and refer to the statement “trans women are women” as Propaganda, for example. Substack already has lost confidence from some trans and gender non-conforming writers, and the content of her newly acquired letter won’t help restore that trust.
Additionally, Letter co-founder Clyde Rathbone written in support a controversy letter published in Harper’s Magazine, who called for “concerted repudiation of the culture of cancellation”. But critics of the letter point out that freedom of speech is not really at stake here.
The open letter had been signed by over 150 eminent writers – like Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky (an author of Letter) and Malcolm Gladwell (an author of Bulletin). He argued: “We must preserve the possibility of a disagreement in good faith without disastrous professional consequences.” These “professional consequences” echoed the predicament that JK Rowling – who also signed the letter – had started. After denying that trans women are women, her reputation suffered. Some might call it “canceling culture,” but others might call it the refusal to continue promoting people who perpetuate harmful beliefs.
“The panic over ‘culture cancellation’ is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. ” wrote journalist Michael Hobbes. “Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and the acceleration of generational transfer, are trying to amplify their feelings of discontent into a national crisis. “
Substack says it plans to use the acquisition of Letter to help writers collaborate, and that it will not integrate Letter into its platform. Instead, Letter’s team will move from Australia to San Francisco to “bring their expertise to help build more infrastructure and support.”
TechCrunch asked Substack if Letter’s anti-trans content is of concern within the company, given the recent reaction against the platform.
“We believe that open debate and disagreement is absolutely part of freedom of the press, and that includes opinions that you or I may not like,” said a representative from Substack. “…… Substack does not have an ad stream pushing content based on virality and outrage, and there is a direct relationship between writers and readers who can opt out at any time.” So the bar for us to step into that relationship and tell writers what to say is really high, and the fact that Letter has allowed writers to debate and discuss openly is consistent with that philosophy.
We don’t yet know how or if Letter will change Substack – but given the existing rhetoric about the type of content Substack pays for, Substack is not showing “good faith” with this acquisition.