How Notes Might Kill Substack
One weird trick to ruin Substack forever ;-)
In the last week Substack launched Notes. It’s a social network for writers and readers to hang out, recommend stuff to read. That sort of thing.
So what’s the big deal?
(And what’s with the crazy headline, Brian?!)
Okay, so the moment I saw the launch of notes I thought, “Well, this is the start of ‘car crash’ Substack”
To understand what I meant, you need to understand some basic rules of any business that trades on attention - news, entertainment, tv, movies, and music. Any time there is an audience to rely on, the dynamics of the audience determine what happens.
Social media accelerates everything that used to take decades into years or even months, sometimes days.
One trend that I’ve seen on social media is a constant ratcheting up of nonsense. It used to just be tabloids that used crazy headlines and celebrity photos to get attention. Then it was cheesy direct mail ads. Then it was television news. Then it was people on tv arguing about the crazy news headlines. Then that bled into the internet with sites like Buzzfeed. Then bloggers, YouTubers, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok all caught up with the nonsense.
Now it’s all pretty much 24/7 stunts, gags, and “CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!” style headlines, thumbnails, and everywhere else.
Everyone is shouting for attention. The shouts get even louder just to rise above the previous shouting. In the end we all become numb to it and the whole experience loses meaning. Like the boy who cried wolf, eventually nobody listens anymore.
What Pro Wrestling Can Teach Us About Social Media
I watched this happen over decades with professional wrestling. I was a kid in the 80’s and early 90’s and pro wrestling was straightforward and a bit cartoonish. Good guys vs bad guys. Larger than life wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage talked a big game, but their wrestling matches were pretty tame overall.
Then in the mid 90’s a new thing started to happen. Reality TV became a thing and pro wrestling embraced it. The line between reality and wrestling has always been blurry, but from 1995-2002 it got crazy. WCW and WWE (or WWF at the time) went head to head with their Monday night shows. And that turned wrestling upside down.
For the longest time the format of pro wrestling was simple enough. A good guy comes out and does an interview. The bad guy shows up and says some unkind words about the good guy, the good guy’s lady, or the good guy’s mother. That causes a fight and they settle it in the ring. Usually the feud between wrestlers lasts a few weeks to a few months. There will be several matches building up to a big event like a televised pay-per-view. After the big fight, they find someone else to feud with and the whole cycle repeats itself.
In the 90’s the formula was changed. You still had good guys and bad guys. But, the drama became more about the backstage workings of the show itself. And the storylines became more reality-based. More skits were filmed outside of the arena, at someones house, in parking garages, that sort of thing. It was no longer just about fighting for a championship belt. The dramatic tension started to come from the soap opera/reality tv vibe of the show itself.
Pro wrestling turned into The Jerry Springer Show.
The phenomenon of factions like the nWo or D-Generation X who existed solely to do things that would “break the show” was a big part of the reality tv changes. Those groups did things that were more salacious, broke more rules, and became more of the kind of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen on TV.
Once one company went down that path, the other followed. Both wrestling companies were trying to one-up each other.
At first it was just stunts around breaking the rules or censorship. Then it turned into cranking up the violence and blood.
Pro wrestling matches are supposed to be pretty tame. Sometimes there is blood, but not often on tv. There are rules. Weapons aren’t allowed and only the bad guys use them to steal victories from good guys.
Over time there was more blood. More violence. More interference in matches. More use of weapons. More women in low cut dresses. More women trying to be as close to nude as possible on national tv. More of everything that will pull your attention in the same way that a car crash does.
In chasing attention the volume on every single attention grabbing aspect got cranked to eleven!
That worked for a while. It delivered the biggest ratings and the most money pro wrestling had ever seen. It changed everything, until it all fell apart.
At some point nearly every match ended with a cheating finish. Everybody wanted to be a bad guy. Women were wrestling in bra and panties matches (which was super cringe). The Divas were promoting their Playboy photoshoots. Hardcore matches with tacks, barb wire, chairs, bats, ladders, tables, and anything else became so normal there was a “hardcore championship”. Heck, there was even a wrestling promotion that was called TNA and included women dancing in cages in some early episodes.
Oh and the shows got longer too! It started as a one hour show. Then it was two hours. Then it got to three hours! It was too much.
My dad and I used to watch WCW Monday Nitro every week. At one point we stopped watching. I remember him saying something like, “What’s the point? Every match ends with cheating. The show is three hours long. Nothing happens the first two hours. It’s all hype until the last few minutes of the show and then they leave you hanging for the next week. It’s not worth our time.”
So we stopped watching wrestling for many years. WCW went out of business and sold to WWE. Pro wrestling fizzled out for a while. People moved on.
Decades later, pro wrestling and WWE continue on, but it’s no longer like The Jerry Springer Show most of the time. It matured into a more sustainable entertainment medium that still does spectacles, but isn’t ratcheting up the crazy each week.
Social Media = Jerry Springer Show
I tell you that story because I’ve watched the same Jerry Springer Show thing happen to social media since it started. At one point Facebook was just about college kids posting photos and lame status updates. Twitter and instagram used to be posting pictures of food and random thoughts. YouTube used to be a very low-fi/VHS vibe of song covers and weird viral videos.
Now every social media is crazy arguments about the latest controversy. Or people copying Mr. Beast’s video formulas. Or girls posting pictures of themselves as close to naked as possible on Instagram. Or being actually naked on OnlyFans. Real fights and beatings are posted online too. Kids in schools know when another kid is going to be jumped and then they record it and post to TikTok or whatever.
Everything that pro wrestling went through in the 90’s and early 2000’s, social media goes through. It’s a cycle.
As long as there is an “attention economy”, you get people doing even crazier stunts to get your attention and sell tickets/ads/whatever.
This goes back to circuses and carnivals (where pro wrestling started). No matter how dangerous the high wire act was, someone would do something even more dangerous to get even more attention. It escalates until someone dies or the crowd becomes numb to the spectacle.
Now, back to Substack Notes…
Great writing without a mountain of ads and nonsense is what made Substack great. Attaching a sensible payment model makes sense and is working.
A big part of the magic is driven more by quality than attention seeking. It’s more about making something great for your subscribers than it is pandering to a crowd to get more attention.
With Notes (basically a twitter clone), I can see people bringing the attention seeking of Twitter into the world of Substack. At first it will be interesting and new. Then whatever worked the first few months will wear off and people will ratchet up to grab more attention (and paid subscribers). This will go on until it becomes unsustainable.
At least, that’s what I would expect to happen if Notes takes off. It feels inevitable to me. Maybe it won’t be as dramatic as other networks. But, the larger the network gets, the more attention there is to fight over and the more likely all of this is to happen.
I really enjoy Substack as a platform, so I plan to continue to use it for writing and podcasting. I think it’s great. I plan to use Notes in a pretty boring way - just to promote my latest work. I’m not here to become “kind of a big deal” on Notes. But, I recognize that if Notes takes off, it will change Substack forever and some of the fun/magic will be lost with it.
As in all things, it’s a tradeoff. If it goes too far, readers will be tired of people crying wolf and will move on. Perhaps that is the way of things.