Free speech on Substack should work like AA
Good standards come from a distribution structure to encourage good faith, not censorship.
In 12-step programs (like Alcoholics Anonymous), addicts come together and share their experiences, strength, and hope to move toward sobriety. Despite never advertising itself, it is the most popular addiction treatment ever.
But why does gathering the worst of the worst addicts in one room with no one in charge not immediately devolve into a free-for-all drug den?
Partly because everyone is allowed to freely share their outlook (no matter how dark). Importantly, the meetings are set up so the group does not linger on any particular instance of insanity. You’re allowed to share for 3 minutes, no “crosstalk,” and then the group moves on.
No question, it works better than anything ever has, and it’s not even close.
That being said, occasionally, there’s a guy named Sandy who uses his time to shout about how Puerto Ricans always drive small pickup trucks. Nobody shuts him down, but once his three minutes are up, that’s enough out of Sandy.
Sandy’s not the usual person in one of these meetings, but the very existence of Sandy makes everyone else go, “That guy is nuts… but I guess now I can reveal how high I was at my nephew’s birthday party.” Thus, recovery begins by bringing the darkness into the light.
This mechanism is a good analogy for why Substack is such an unusually positive pocket of the internet. The goal is to make a platform that does not censor darkness but also does not get taken over by darkness. That’s a difficult balance without easy solutions.
There are guidelines to what you can say in these meetings (avoid detailing graphic behavior, for example), but stepping over the line just means light admonishment and redirection from the tribe – not an outright ban of your ability to speak. In this note,, a long-time writer on Substack, grapples with his experience running up against the content moderation on Substack. Porn is something that’s never been allowed, for example. So, how exactly do we decide what is OK?
The answer, admittedly difficult to codify into a content policy, is about focus and intent. Substack should focus on the structure of their medium and how that allows for more trust, not playing wack-a-mole trying to censor content.wrote a fantastic open letter to the Substack community: Substack shouldn’t decide what we read.
For Elle, the magic of Substack is because of the structure of the medium; we mostly only see the ideas from people who we subscribe to. There is some mediated access to the external landscape of ideas, but usually never more than two degrees of separation (what the people you follow share).
This means Substack isn’t going to drive Sandy’s “small pickup truck” theory to virality. Here, virality only happens if lots of people trust you enough to share it with their audiences. There's less pure outrage bait like you see on Twitter, for example (The American Idol of Poisonous Ideas). Twitter would be more like a 12-step meeting where every time someone said, “Man, I love doing heroin,” the entire group started sharing tips about where and how to get the best heroin.
Maybe that makes for a more exciting meeting, but it would tend to destroy the entire enterprise of sobriety. Similarly, internet outrage works in the short term to grab our attention (remember, the internet is still very young), but it’s burning us all out. I know I’m tired of it — after reading Elle’s essay and reflecting on how much better Substack makes me feel, I deleted Twitter.
The internet is in its 20s, after all. Teen angst is fading. We’re bored with all the clickbait and outrage. Like a lot of 20-somethings, instead of slots and booze in Vegas, we gradually want walkable cities and cool coffee shops. I’m hopeful about Substack as the beginning of that shift. And, like Elle (and the illustrious list of people who signed her open letter [likeand ], good Lord), I’d like to keep this little garden going.
The platform should continue to encourage us to spend time cultivating deeper relationships with writers we trust. At the same time, not actively suppressing the people most of us don’t trust, which would only give them more reason to think they’re onto something. If we want to live in this garden, there will always be snakes.
If the snakes want an audience larger than a tiny cohort of smooth-brained Neo-Nazis (which is important to note, I’ve never even seen in my feed, not even once), they’re going to have to grow as human beings. It’s only possible to develop your thinking if you’re allowed to think out loud and see how people (in good faith) respond to what you say… or don’t.
Yeah, there are Nazis on Substack. Probably in equal proportion to the Nazis in the world. But, as Elle points out, on Substack, you actively have to seek them out. Even the people who wrote the now infamous Atlantic article “Substack has a Nazi problem” had to go on to extremist third-party sites to find the Nazis (again, I’ve never seen them in my feed). Let’s also not forget that the legacy media like The Atlantic is desperate to stop the bleeding as they lose cultural relevance.
Substack understands (I hope) that their job is not to crush every snake that comes out of every person's mouth. That just causes 7x the snakes (Hydra reference). The goal should be for the platform to not capitalize on negative behavior nor make their entire MO resisting it.
What the “Substackers against Nazis” people are saying is we have to have standards. This place can’t be a free-for-all – we all know from history how dark that can get. This is good and true, and I appreciate them for being concerned. I think it’s genuine. But, the standards should come from the structure of the medium to encourage good faith, not censorship. That’s what makes 12-step meetings work and why Substack is currently an oasis.
Someone in favor of censorship wrote that if you were at a dinner party of 15 people and 1 person was a Nazi, you’re all Nazis by association. First of all, no. Second of all, the best thing to do when someone has an anti-social idea is to not immediately punch them in the head. Most Nazis aren’t like Red Skull from Captain America. These people are more often like Sandy — they have a lot more going wrong in their life than what they’re outwardly saying. Give them space to exist without agreeing with them, and we can all move toward something like sobriety. It ain’t perfect. It doesn’t mean we’re condoning or encouraging hate. We just know what happens when you force ideas underground (like the Nazis did, remember). They fester into something even worse.
Sign Elle’s letter. Substack shouldn’t be in the business of telling us what to read.
Let’s be honest: we all have a shadow that won’t be neatly placed in a box. We need a place for all people, off their rocker or not, to have 3 minutes to just talk.
Otherwise, the snakes take over.
Thanks tofor the help with this one.