For a while now, I’ve been unhappy with WordPress. Their new editor is effectively unusable, and I’ve been using first Google Docs and recently LessWrong’s editor to compose new posts.
Last week, I was approached by a representative from Substack who pitched me on moving my blog from WordPress to Substack. This is my attempt to break down the pros and cons and decide whether to do it.
The advantages of Substack are:
The ability to sell subscriptions. It’s right there on the site, and many people who would subscribe have already entered their information subscribing to another Substack. Right now, if you want to support my writing (which to be very clear I absolutely do not need in any way, and if you are constrained by money please do not do this, but which is appreciated and motivating), you have to do so on Patreon. If I was bringing in more, I would be able to use some of that to improve quality (buy more subscriptions to other things, potentially hire editors or researchers to help, or simply justify devoting more time). At the extreme, there are worlds where this becomes my job, although no reasonable estimates have me close to that even if my other obligations were to wind down cleanly.
Email newsletter as a form of distribution, and a way to collect contact information. WordPress lets you subscribe to posts so you can get notified, but that’s one step removed and I don’t get those people’s contact information. This would likely get more people reading and give me a method of contacting people if it ever seemed worthwhile. You also get open rates and clickthrough rates on the emails, which is good data.
Actual human support to help their writers seems to be available, at least at the level I’m currently on, which is nice.
Their default comments formatting is superior to what I currently have on WordPress, except for the baseline ability to like comments, which I hate, but which I would be able to (and would) remove.
Some amount of extra discoverability via leader boards and via a link to my Twitter account. Some people are still subscribing to my mostly defunct Aikido Sports Substack that way. Some potential for additional promotion in the future, or other synergies with other Substack writers, although not now.
If I had to guess, I’d guess that Substack was more likely to improve over time relative to a default WordPress setup I’d get if I don’t do any work.
Poll said it would likely improve the blog’s value, and many seem to think the layout is cleaner/better.
The disadvantages of Substack are:
Switching costs are real, although over time they only go up. I’d have to choose whether to continue posting things to WordPress, and the old site would need to continue existing to avoid broken links, although the content could be copied across, but then it would be in three different places (as it’s already at LessWrong, which I am very happy about and have no plans to change). I’ve been told this can hurt search engine traffic for a while, although I don’t get much of that. Also, although I’ve tried out Substack, there’s presumably stuff I’m used to that I’m not thinking about now.
If we do end up with three copies of everything, then there would be three distinct comment sections and pseudo-communities. Right now the comments I get at WordPress are pretty good unless the public gets brought in (when that happens, the internet will be the internet) and Substack might degrade that?
WordPress can be customized yourself, Substack is trying to keep things standardized and doesn’t let you do that. If I got sufficiently big it might make sense to pay people to do custom work, or I could use tools created by Lightcone.
WordPress offers some useful statistics in nice form, including what posts got how many hits on which days from what sources, views per visitor and a few other things.
WordPress standard front page layout gives you the opportunity to select where you’re going to cut (add the Read More button) so you can let people grok the essence and decide whether it’s worth proceeding further. Substack seems to limit the space here more than I would like, not allowing you to communicate the gist unless you can do it in two lines or so.
Substack so far has not engaged in any censorship, but it seems more likely that there will be future censorship at Substack than WordPress. That would hopefully cause a mass exodus of writers, but various pressures likely will build over time. Given that my writing would likely have already been censored on Facebook or YouTube, this is a serious concern for me, even though I would have backups in place. Even a relatively light censorship regime likely would force me out, if only to avoid future ramping up.
Might make post auto-copying to LessWrong less trivial, although we think it mostly doesn’t.
There will be the temptation to put some amount of content behind paywalls in order to increase monetization. This isn’t a pure negative, since money is good, and there are advantages to gated discussions, and people who pay for something value it more. But mostly the whole point of writing and discourse like this is to make it widely available to people, so it’s important that the content that matters stay completely free, both free as in speech and free as in beer. This could easily be a situation where choices are bad, or I might end up putting things behind paywalls when I shouldn’t.
The money could exert pressure on me to write more than I want to be writing, or worry too much about what people want, in ways that make my life (and writing perhaps) worse.
So far most people have almost entirely thought switching was a good idea, so I’m inclined to do it. But it’s a big decision, so it makes sense to put up a post, write out the pros and cons, and give people a chance to think of things I may have missed. It’s also an opportunity for someone from WordPress to make the case against leaving, if such people exist. I’m not going to make a final decision for at least a few days (and of course, creating the Substack doesn’t force me to actually use it going forward if I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake, there’s no contract or anything).