Substack launches Notes in challenge to Twitter

LOS ANGELES — The newsletter platform Substack’s new feature called Notes, which functions similarly to Twitter, rolled out to all users on Tuesday.

Whether it will become a real competitor to Twitter won’t be known for weeks. But Elon Musk apparently feels it might. Last week, he banned all Substack links from Twitter after Substack announced Notes. Twitter then hid from search results any news stories mentioning Substack.

Substack is just the latest company to attempt to cleave off some of Twitter’s users as Twitter’s services deteriorated in recent months. Others hoping to capitalize on the chaos that followed Musk’s October takeover of Twitter include T2, Mastodon and Post, all of which offer similar functionality to Twitter, and none of which have yet proved dominant.

But Notes has one advantage those others did not: Substack already is being used by many big names in media, entertainment and politics. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Margaret Atwood, the chef Alison Roman, and sportswriters Joe Posnanski and Molly Knight all use Substack.

Notes allows those with Substack accounts to post short status updates along with photos, GIFs and links. Many high-profile journalists have embraced Notes as a way of deepening their relationship with their readers. Ken Klippenstein, a D.C.-based investigative reporter, joined Notes last Friday and promptly began promoting his Substack newsletter, something he had previously done on Twitter.

Other Substack users have been using Notes as beta testers the past few weeks to better connect with readers and network with other professional writers. (Disclosure: This reporter has a free Substack newsletter.)

Sharon Hurley Hall, who joined Substack in August 2020 and writes a newsletter on anti-racism, said that it felt like the early days of Twitter, when she could connect easily with fellow writers and the network still felt small. “I can see Notes becoming a great add-on to enhance connection with my subscribers and supporters, and perhaps even boosting conversions,” she said.

Josh Wittmer, a sportswriter who runs Down on the Farm, a Substack newsletter dedicated to minor league baseball, said that he probably won’t fully quit Twitter, but that he thinks Substack will be a great addition to his suite of tools for reaching readers.

“The plan for now is to do both and see what happens,” he said. “If there’s some sort of tipping point where Substack Notes is better and we’re able to get some of the network effect of Notes then we’ll spend more time posting there. Having one centralized ecosystem to do all your writing and posting is attractive. I’m just concerned about the reach.”

Nishant Jain, an artist in Vancouver, who runs a Substack called the SneakyArt Post, said that he hopes Substack can provide some of the same utility as Twitter when it comes to building and connecting with a broader audience, but can leave behind the culture of Twitter, which he says can be toxic.

“I think [Twitter and Notes] serve different purposes,” he said. “Twitter has a reach that’s global. Almost every big store and government department has a Twitter account. I don’t think everything will become a Substack account, but there’s a lot of communication you want to have with people who like to follow your work, and I’ve increasingly found that Twitter is not good for that kind of thing. The Substack ecosystem is richer, and it’s more honest engagement from me to my readers and my readers to me.”

Just last month, Substack announced that the platform had surpassed 35 million active newsletter subscriptions and that readers have paid writers more than $300 million through the service. The top 10 writers on Substack make about $25 million annually combined, and Substack takes a 10 percent cut of all subscription earnings from writers on the platform.

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