I'm going to tell you a story.
It's a story that anyone who has hung out at punk or hardcore bars has probably heard. There are many versions of it floating around, and it's almost certain that none of them happened. A fairy tale for the sonically enraged, then, rather than a bit of history. But like any good fairy tale, it has a moral and so is worth the retelling.
A friend of a friend got off work and stopped in at his favorite bar for a quick drink and to see who was playing that weekend. The place was slow, just him and a guy sleeping it off in the corner table. He made chit-chat with the bartender, drank his drink (or three), and paid his tab. But just as he's starting to leave a kid comes in and slides onto to the stool next to him.
The bartender, who's been the perfect mix of friendly and aloof that marks all good tenders, squinted at the kid's jacket and pointed to the door. "Out."
"C'mon," the kid whined, "I just want a drink."
The bartender shook her head and pointed. "I said get out."
"Man, I just want a drink. I'm being cool, what's ..."
The bartender pulled a bat out from under the bar. "Get. The Fuck. Out. Now." She pounded the bat on the bar to emphasize each word, glasses and ashtrays jumping with her anger.
The kid threw up his hands, called her a bad name, and scurried out the door.
Friend of a friend is astonished. "The kid just wanted a drink!"
"He had a swastika pin on his jacket. "
"Okay, but he wasn't doing nothing."
The bartender gave friend of a friend the same look you give a particularly stupid puppy trying to learn how to roll-over. "Thats how it starts. He's quiet, so you let him drink. The he brings a friend, and their quiet so you them drink. The they bring four friends, and they aren't quiet, but the rest of the bar ignores them, and four's a lot to handle, so you let them drink. Then they bring more friends and are louder and rougher. They're driving the other customers away, but there's too many of them to handle at once, by then. And now, like it or not, you run a fucking Nazi bar. Best to stop 'em up front."
Thus ends the story.
As I said, not original to me, and you've likely heard a version of it. It is a tale as old as time, passed down from bartender to bartender along with their drink recipes and Sacred Rag of Almost Cleaning for the glasses. A simple story with a simple lesson. One that social media companies cannot ever seem to learn.
Substack is the latest version of this willful blindness. In an interview with the Verge, they could not answer simple, basic questions about content moderation on their new Twitter-ish platform Notes. When asked if they would block people who said brown people shouldn't be allowed in the country, one of the owners froze and could not give the simple, moral, correct answer: yes. Substack's official response to the uproar is basically, "Nazi bar? What's that?"
The piece is an impressive bit of doublespeak and wishful thinking. They seem to have gotten their money's worth out of their P.R. team if nothing else. But the gist of the response is that they intend to do almost nothing about hate speech and harassment, leaving the writers to protect themselves by blocking people. Make someone's life miserable by questioning their right to exist? Feel free to do it over and over again, because Substack apparently won't do anything to stop that person. They are leaning heavily into the notion that free speech means allowing hate and pretending that because other platforms' moderation policies have not completely eliminated harassment, hate speech, and misinformation that moderation is worthless.
That last is a lie, of course. Since Twitter eased back on their content moderation, for example, hate speech and harassment skyrocketed. Moderation and de-platforming work. Are they perfect? Of course not. Nothing created by human hands ever is. But they demonstrably make the experience of social media better for the majority of people.
No, Substack is avoiding content moderation only because:
- They are Nazis themselves.
- They do not want to spend the money necessary to build a robust content moderation system.
- They want to make money from the Nazis.
I suspect. No, let me rephrase that. I hope that the answer is not number one. But numbers two and three are only marginally better from a moral standpoint. Regardless, the effect is going to be the same: Substack is likely going to turn into a Nazi bar, the same way Twitter is in the process of doing. It won't happen immediately, but it most likely will happen.
Which would be a shame, honestly. I like the idea behind Substack. Newsletters have a bit of the feel of the old RSS days, where you could read a lot of interesting people that you curated. It has a nice interface to work in, and it doesn't try to keep you locked into their ecosystem. Yes, they fund some truly terrible people, but so do most companies, and they fund some truly good people as well. Notes itself is a clean, easy to use Twitter clone that, so far, has fewer of twitter's problems. But none of that is going to matter if they allow themselves to be overrun by hate speech and harassment. I, and others like me, will leave.
Now, I don't matter. I am a nobody, with single digit subscribers (feel free to subscribe if you are interested. I have only a free tier.), but my sentiment is not unique. They are already experiencing a ton of feedback, most of it negative. Since Substack is primarily a newsletter producer, it is easy for people to leave and a competitor to replace them. Obviously, Substack's leadership does not think that it will come to that in the end. But if Substack thinks they can turn off the Nazi spigot after making their money from it but before it cripples the rest of their business, they should pay more attention to what is happening at Twitter.
Or maybe just go talk to the bartender at their favorite watering hole. They know how this story ends.