Open Notes

Leaving MailChimp and Substack

I’m leaving MailChimp and Substack and going to Buttondown and The decision is shaped by my wanting to support indie development and trying to move away from surveillance marketing.

As Michael Donaldson wrote in his 8-Sided blog, it is an admirable value to pursue “the punk rock dream.” The punk rock dream means that you are independent and powerful. The dream had a nourishing growth medium in the Seventies and Eighties. It’s harder to maintain now in the online world.

Marketing Surveillance - No Thanks

MailChimp is all in on marketing surveillance. MailChimp tracks clicks, opens, subscribes and unsubscribes. When I was a regular MailChimp customer, it seemed “normal” to track all that, until I realized that it wasn’t. I’m not running a store. I don’t need all that information about customer behavior. My readers aren’t customers, for the most part. They are readers. So walking away from MailChimp was easy. I started to hunt around for an emailer that would let me turn off the tracking. Buttondown did. So, easy choice. I also got the benefit of emailing from my own subdomain, increasing deliverability,1 and I got to write my newsletters in Markdown. My readers can read privately, without being tracked.

When the Platform Wins and the Writers Lose

I’ve ended relationships with platforms like some people end marriages. A lack of compatibility or a vague feeling that the whole thing wasn’t working drove us apart. This is the first time I’ve decided to break up because of a divergence of values. I’m not alone in this with Substack. Substack was founded to give writers more independence. Writers are leaving it now, however, to seek independence, as Jared Newman first wrote in Fast Company a while back. And there’s a growing sense that Substack is The Man. Our writing helps Substack build their platform instead of amplifying our voices. Add to that, Substack’s play to get attention seems to involve supporting toxic people. As I’ll get into below, and as others have investigated, Substack has rescued toxic writers who were booted off other platforms, given them back their megaphone, and paid them to write more toxic stuff. I’m all for paying writers. I’m okay with writers holding views that I don’t like. Paying toxic people to spread hate pushes me over the line. I’ll present some evidence on why I think that’s happening in a moment.

Substack tracks opens, clicks, shares, subscribes and unsubscribes. This can be valuable data, no doubt, but it also contributes to the culture that we all must be tracked when on the web. I don’t think we do. What is Substack doing with all that information, anyway? I want my readers to have the freedom to read a blog without being tracked.2

When exploring all this, I occurred to me that we just don’t have to be tracked everywhere. It’s not a given if we don’t want it to be, but it takes some doing to shake free of it. You have to leave gmail and join for email. You have to leave MailChimp and try Buttondown. You have to find an alternative to Substack, Ghost, and Squarespace. We, as writers and makers, can set up our tent on an island in the ocean of the internet, a nice little place with a palm tree where we have some agency.

Trouble in Online Paradise

In the last few weeks, troubling news kept surfacing about Substack. Turns out, as I read on Today In Tabs (a Substack newsletter as it happens) and on Om Malik’s newsletter (a Hey.World newsletter), Substack apparently had a secret list of writers they paid handsomely. Substack was rescuing writers who had been banned from other platforms because of hate speech, giving them a platform on Substack and paying them to write.

Remember, a few paragraphs ago I wrote that there is nothing wrong with helping writers make a living. And, let’s face it, when you run a platform, there are going to be people using it who are bad folks. This is a given. It’s been a major problem for the open internet and it’s a problem for those who are the target of hate speech.

Annalee Newitz, writing on Substack, put it this way:

Substack’s business is a scam. They claim to offer writers a level playing field for making a living, and instead they pay an elite, secret group of writers to be on the platform and make newsletter writing appear to be more lucrative than it is. They claim to be an app when they are a publication with an editorial policy. They claim in their terms of service that they will protect writers from abuse, but they don’t.

Right. I get it. Newitz turned on the light bulb for me. Substack is not merely a platform. It is a publication. Publications must be held to account. Publications have mastheads and lists of staff writers you can email. That doesn’t exist on the Substack platform.

Jude Doyle wrote in their newsletter:

Substack has become famous for giving massive advances — the kind that were never once offered to me or my colleagues, not up front and not after the platform took off — to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.

Since Doyle wrote that, they have moved off Substack and on to Ghost, after having a dialog on email with one of Substack’s founders.

The argument for leaving Substack stands: Substack can’t pretend to be anything other than a publication. It needs content moderation.

Profiting off the Backs of Unpaid Writers

The Substack thing brought me back to the old days of the Huffington Post. I was an unpaid contributor in the early days of Huffpost and my wife was also. We wrote columns once a week. We, along with many other unpaid contributors, built the foundation of that place on our words. When it was sold and they were done with us, they cut us loose. Some folks made a lot of money.

Substack is working with a similar model. It goes like this: Recruit free writing labor with the promise of making a living at writing. Employ, in Substack’s case secretly, some big-time writers for prestige and sometimes to build controversy. The writers supply the creative juice. The platform reaps most of the attention and money. Some writers will make a living at publishing on Substack. Many won’t. Someday, when Substack decides to cash out, the owners will walk away with a sack of cash.

Hmm. I already did this with Huffpost, so why am I doing it again on Substack? 3

It is, as Newitz wrote, the old Silicon Valley game. Build the platform, ideally on the labor of unpaid “users” who provide “content.” Then walk away with the money. It worked for Huffpost. It works for Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Working for Substack.

Moving On is a minimalist platform without an interface. You post your material to Dropbox and Blot turns it into a blog. You can write in Markdown, HTML, or use a Word doc. It is pretty much, as far as I know, a one-man operation. David has been really helpful answering all my questions. I like minimalism. Blot delivers that. I could probably get some similar minimalism over on Svbtle or Ghost.

At Buttondown, I write in Markdown. I send newsletters from my own subdomain. It’s also pretty much a one-man operation, as far as I know. Justin has been great about helping me set everything up. I didn’t want to track my readers. It was as simple as checking a box. (I asked Substack if we could turn off tracking. They said no. I asked Revue, another email/blog combo, if we could turn off their Twitter and Facebook buttons. They said no.)

My Buttondown newsletter feels like something I own instead of something I am renting from a company waiting to cash out.

Could either of those platforms vanish if something happened to their creators or the companies were to be acquired? Certainly. No platform or app is immune. Remember Google Reader? Remember a great calendar app called Sunrise? Every time a platform or app I like is acquired I wonder how long it will be around or accessible.

Since many of you are reading this on, you may know and celebrate the value of supporting indie developers and small, human-led companies. At places like, Plausible, and Buttondown, I get the sense that the people who made them are doing it for their love of the work and to make money doing something they love, to provide a good product, and to make the internet a better place. The sense I get from MailChimp and Substack is they have their own agendas, will steer my work toward their values when they can, and care about me so long as I produce “content” for them.

  1. Deliverability refers to the likelihood that your email ends up being read by a human instead of getting chucked into Spam or mired in the Promotions tab. If you’re emailing from your own subdomain, then you can set your DNS and MX records so that the email will come from you. This makes spam filters back off a bit. ↩︎

  2. I do like data, though. tracks the most popular pages on your website, tracks your traffic sources and referrals, but does it anonymously, without a connection to the user’s email or IP and without using cookies. ↩︎

  3. We could talk about Medium, too, but that’s another blog. ↩︎