Backlog, Substack, Nazis, and what’s keeping you from just saying no

Backlog, Substack, Nazis, and what’s keeping you from just saying no

Hello and happy new year!

Here’s hoping this message made it to you, because I just flew in from porting Backlog from Substack to Ghost, and boy are my arms worried that I did the code copying part very wrong.

Okay, dad joke completed, I wanted to briefly explain to you all why I’ve joined the folks leaving Substack. Short answer: the Nazis. Long answer: read on.

If you haven’t heard, Substack has a Nazi moderation problem. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of it, because you don’t lack for options to read about it elsewhere, but I feel the need to explain my personal reason for jumping ship. For a while, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the platform’s approach to content moderation. And I’m not just talking about the Nazis. Before the current brouhaha, I remember listening to the Decoder episode where Substack CEO Chris Best spectacularly bungled a pretty straightforward question: Will Substack moderate racist content on Notes?

You can and should listen to the whole interview, if you haven’t already, but this segment in particular has stuck in my mind since April 2023:

Nilay Patel: I just want to be clear, if somebody shows up on Substack and says “all brown people are animals and they shouldn’t be allowed in America,” you’re going to censor that. That’s just flatly against your terms of service.
Chris Best: So, we do have a terms of service that have narrowly prescribed things that are not allowed.
Patel: That one I’m pretty sure is just flatly against your terms of service. You would not allow that one. That’s why I picked it.
Best: So there are extreme cases, and I’m not going to get into the–
Patel: Wait. Hold on. In America in 2023, that is not so extreme, right? “We should not allow as many brown people in the country.” Not so extreme. Do you allow that on Substack? Would you allow that on Substack Notes?
Best: I think the way that we think about this is we want to put the writers and the readers in charge–
Patel: No, I really want you to answer that question. Is that allowed on Substack Notes? “We should not allow brown people in the country.”
Best: I’m not going to get into gotcha content moderation.
Patel: This is not a gotcha… I’m a brown person. Do you think people on Substack should say I should get kicked out of the country?
Best: I’m not going to engage in content moderation, “Would you or won’t you this or that?”

Then, the phrase that’s been stuck in my craw since April 2023:

Patel: You have to figure out, “Should we allow overt racism on Substack Notes?” You have to figure that out.
Best: No, I’m not going to engage in speculation or specific “would you allow this or that” content.
Patel: You know this is a very bad response to this question, right? You’re aware that you’ve blundered into this. You should just say no. And I’m wondering what’s keeping you from just saying no.

I’m wondering what’s keeping you from just saying no.

I’ve asked myself this question about taking Backlog off of Substack quite a few times since my last post in December. What’s keeping me from taking my little newsletter off a platform that seems to have a really hard time just saying yes to basic content moderation? The most obvious answer to that question is: growth. I, like anyone else who uses Substack, benefit from their platform tools which help to increase subscribers and bring you new readers. The majority of you reading this discovered me via Substack’s network, if my dashboard is to be believed. So, that’s one thing I’ll lose, and it’s not minor. 

Another basic answer: it’s very easy to start a newsletter on Substack, and it’s free. Sure, they take 10% of any sales you make on the site, but there’s no cost associated with starting an account. That’s great for smaller newsletters like Backlog that aren’t big businesses, because what money it does generate goes right back into paying guest writers.

I won’t lie. I’ve hesitated about this! Many writers that I admire are hanging around and continuing their publications on Substack. I do feel that I’m stepping back from something right as it’s really getting going, and that moving to Ghost is objectively going to cost me in terms of subscriber growth. Yet, both these things being true, I kept coming back to Patel’s words:

I’m wondering what’s keeping you from just saying no.

Ultimately, the answer for me was: not much. Thanks to this incredibly helpful guide from Wes Fenlon at Read Only Memo, I was able to set up a self-hosted Ghost site that will cost me about $3–4 per month to use in the way I used Substack. Because one could buy 75% of a bad latte for that price, it seemed worth the cost for me, because, even though this is a newsletter about videogames, it’s also a newsletter written and edited by a person who really hates Nazis, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and bigots of all sorts. One could argue that you could spend your whole life fleeing websites to avoid fraternizing with such contingents, and you’d probably be right. But I feel like I’ve heard the story Substack is telling before, and I know how it ends. For a few bucks a month, I don’t have to wait around for the conclusion. And at the end of the day, I want to feel good about Backlog, and what Backlog contributes to. 

So, anyway, I’m going to send a newsletter next week about Super Mario Wonder that will be blessedly devoid of Nazi talk, which I hope you’ll stick around for. Backlog will remain the newsletter you’ve always known. Every two weeks, we’ll cross a game off our personal backlog and talk about it. And every two weeks, I hope you’ll stick around.

As always, I’m grateful to you for reading. With the shift to Ghost, more than ever I am writing for you. Not for any platform. Not for any company. For my readers. If you’re so inclined, I’d love it if you would share Backlog with a friend, or tell a random person on the subway to visit Let’s grow this together.

Now, with that all being said, it’s time to figure out what I’m going to say about Baldur’s Gate 3 besides Wow, where did the last 100 hours go?