Side-Note: Don't Let It Happen Here
While it is true that Substack has had its own Terms of Service and Content Guidelines since its inception, the service recently put out a Community Guidelines post. Curiously, one cannot comment on or interact directly with this post, but that's neither here nor there.
We already knew that there were certain guardrails in place for content, though these were more implied than expressly stated. Now, they have been codified and given specific language, though some of that language is 'muddy' at best. And what precisely do these Community Guidelines do for us, the contributing writers of Substack?
By and large, for folks like myself, they change very little, if anything at all. I mostly write genre fiction here, so I don't have many adjustments to make, you see. That doesn't mean that my work is entirely without risk of removal; I have written some characters who are unpleasant enough to warrant concern as regards their dialogue or actions. If some random searcher were to come upon my Substack and somehow miss that it's fiction-centered, they might report me for posting 'problematic' material.
But I am easily among the people least at risk for this sort of thing- politically moderate or conservative writers, particularly of op-ed style Substacks, are under the proverbial Sword of Damacles with this new Community Guidelines announcement. I want to give Substack the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn't arbitrarily remove someone's content over socio-political distaste from the kind of howling 'RESPECT MY SAFE SPACE' hordes that have laid waste to sites like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but given the long-running trend of tech companies and social networks to go all-in on purging oppositional voices to what's accepted by the mainstream/socio-political 'left', there isn't much benefit to be had. I fully expect that people will soon start mass-reporting certain Substacks as 'problems', and in a perfectly expected move to appease their payment processor, Stripe, Substack will make the move to do away with those personalities/writers.
That isn't guaranteed, of course, but is one of three general outcomes I see as a result of trumpeting these Guidelines. In brief, here's the possible results as I see it:
A) Substack becomes the sort of left-wing echo chamber that so many other networks and sites have become as a result of unevenly enforced Community Guidelines (I'm looking at you particularly hard here, Patreon). Contrarians, moderates, and conservatives get shuffled off the service and disappear.
B) The majority of Substacks go 'Paid- Only', so that writers can defend themselves against spurious charges of being 'problematic' by pointing to the fact that these folks who complain about them know full-well what they're signing up for. After all, the logic will go, who would willingly pay monthly or annually to be perpetually offended?
C) Out of fear of recrimination, dog-piling and removal, the majority of Substack writers start to 'toe the line' and engage in self-censorship in order to stay in Stripe's/readers' good graces, remaining on-platform but with their tools blunted. Becoming just another blogging site, Substack loses relevance, and turns into yet one more digital ghost town.
If this post seems out of character for me, then you don't know me all that well on a personal level. I've long held that everyone should have the chance to write freely, even if what they write is crude, ignoble, or insulting. And let's be clear here, folks, that the guidelines do not require that the material to be removed only be that which directly calls for violence, which is itself already against the law; Guideline 3 explicitly calls for writers to be looking for ways to make Substack a 'safe space'. A metric fuck-ton of hay has been made in recent years by certain folks (a lot of them college students, I've noticed) regarding the notion that certain words, expressions or sentiments are 'dangerous' or are literal violence. Of course, these same folks will then cluck out of the other side of their mouths that silence is violence.
Heads I win, tails you lose. Very fucking convenient.
Here's a quick screenshot I took yesterday when a Reddit alert for the r/substack subreddit popped up on my phone yesterday:
Now, whether or not this user is alluding to the idea of reporting certain writers themselves, or they're just observing that Substack would be compelled by their own new Guidelines to completely remove certain accounts, I can't say. Given the socio-political tendencies of Redditors on the whole, I suspect the former rather than the latter.
Am I jumping at shadows here? Being paranoid? Certainly that's possible. I am, after all, a delusional schizophrenic with paranoid ideations (don't act shocked, I've talked about this before). But before you dismiss this cautionary piece altogether, let me ask you this: when was the last time YOU saw Community Guidelines on any site evenly/fairly applied?