Updates to the Substack Reader, and Twitter's curation as a service

Why better discovery for writers and a risky reliance on Twitter may be two sides of the same coin

Discovery is one of the hardest things for new products to get right. With Substack, the pressure is on to find new ways to help writers get discovered - and the opportunity and risk of relying on Twitter in that search seem to be two sides of the same coin. 

A few weeks ago in “Substack’s First Big Miss” I wrote about the launch of the Substack Reader app and missed opportunity to integrate already functional features to help newer writers get off of the ground:

“I can’t help but be disappointed, even for a beta. There’s already a functional discovery loop within Substack where if you connect your Twitter account you see publications from all of the people you follow.”

The Reader app is clearly important (Substack.com even redirects to it for logged-in users) and launching it without any nod to the growing throng of hopeful writers was a missed opportunity, at least on the marketing front.

Checking back in a few weeks later, that Twitter feature is indeed integrated. It’s a much more powerful way to discover writers (I’m genuinely surprised by how many of the people I follow on Twitter have a Substack). Nonetheless there are still a few bugs which make it feel a bit half-baked; I can find newsletters from people I follow, but I also see all my existing subscriptions to those people as well which doesn’t make sense for a discovery feed. This isn’t a big deal, only relevant to the point I made in the last piece that Substack’s strategy leaves very little room for error.

The Reader app is hoping to solve what is clearly a real pain: the UX of having so many newsletters is really bad! My inbox is so full of newsletters that I’ve regressed to a fairly tragic triage-by-title approach. I scroll through my inbox and archive most of the newsletters without reading past the subject line. May the most clickbaity title win. 

So ... are we doomed? I don’t think so, and I see how the new additions to the reader could be a step in the right direction. It comes down to layering the people I trust on top of the ocean of new articles.

Twitter’s curation as a service

Last week, Twitter announced the acquisition of Breaker, the podcast discovery app that helps you find podcasts based on what the people you follow are listening to. The Breaker team will help Twitter build out Twitter spaces, which, in simple terms, is basically the audio version of Twitter/an obvious Clubhouse competitor.

Twitter’s bet is that curation (of noise, of low-quality content, of valuable connections) is a scarce resource in the modern web, which means the best interest graph wins. Acquiring Breaker shows how they’re thinking about adding new services on top of that graph. This is sort of the Facebook social graph (FB, Insta, WhatsApp) network effects strategy applied to the interest graph: Twitter for text, Spaces for audio (and probably video at some point too). And whether or not the rumors of a potential acquisition were true, Substack for long-form does seem like a natural fit into this strategy.

In “The audience grows the creator”, I wrote about how audience members have more control in which creators will be successful, essentially because the connection between the audience and the creator is what drives virality, revenue, and even ownership in the future. That same point also underlies the power of Twitter’s interest graph, and Twitter’s potential to layer on more services in the future. There’s so much stored value in a list of the people I trust and am connected with, and applying that to any mountain of content is like having a map to the gold inside. 

Next steps for newsletter discovery via Twitter

Instead of a feed which pushes writers towards more and more clickbaity titles, Substack could build a service which recommends articles and publications to me based on what the people I trust find valuable. This would have a few main benefits: 

  • There’s an inherent social benefit to reading the same article as other people in your circle. You then know who you can talk to about that article. I’m not sure there’s a better term for this than the “Game of Thrones” effect.

  • If I know, for example, that a bunch of people I trust highly recommend an article, I'm likely to read it even if the title doesn’t grab me. That would help ensure writers aren’t judged as much on the cover. In other words, it would be a major step-up from my inbox.

As far as I can tell, Substack is in a position to make this happen. They know who I follow on Twitter, and they know which articles those people like. It would also deliver a benefit to any writer who chooses Substack, since that’s the only way Substack would be able to have the data to make this happen.

On a publication level, this would be pretty simple discovery via social proof ala “Bob, Jim, and X of your Twitter follows read Y.” And on an article level, likes from people I follow could help me find best articles within my current subscriptions and suggest any articles outside of my subscriptions that I shouldn’t miss.

The counterpoint to this idea is perhaps clear from the previous section on Twitter. While valuable, it would position Substack more closely as a service built on top of Twitter’s interest graph. Twitter already facilitates a pretty great experience similar to this in search, despite burying it in a way that ensures hardly anyone uses it.

One thing is for sure - solving an inbox with an even simpler feed feels distinctly like a step backwards for any writer who is worried about waging title-war over limited real estate. Social discovery could be a big win for readers and writers alike, but building a unique social network into Substack would require near-flawless execution that I’m not sure we’ve seen so far. It seems hard to imagine how that doesn’t position Substack squarely in Twitter’s crosshairs as the next Breaker to acquire or Clubhouse to copy. 

Big thanks to Kushaan Shah for the last minute edits.