The Rise of Substack and the Changing Landscape of Media

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Aug 24, 2023

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The Rise of Substack and the Changing Landscape of Media

In today's digital age, attention has become a scarce resource. With the rise of social media platforms and the algorithms that power them, our time and attention are constantly being pulled in different directions. The traditional media model, which relies heavily on advertising revenue, has struggled to adapt to this new reality. However, Substack, a platform for paid newsletters, has emerged as a solution to this problem.

The underlying hypothesis behind Substack is that the traditional media model needs to change. Instead of optimizing for users' time, Substack aims to optimize for their money. By offering a platform where writers can monetize their content through subscriptions, Substack shifts the focus from generating more article views to creating value for both writers and readers.

It's clear that there is a demand for niche content in various interest areas. Platforms like Patreon have already shown that people are willing to pay for podcasts, YouTube shows, and in-depth reporting on specific topics. Substack capitalizes on this trend by providing a simple and accessible way for writers to create and monetize their newsletters.

One of the key strategies behind Substack's success is its focus on differentiation rather than cost. Traditional media publications often compete on the cost dimension, trying to generate as many article views as possible at the lowest cost. Substack, on the other hand, encourages writers to differentiate themselves by offering unique and valuable content to their subscribers.

To maximize value creation for writers from the early days, Substack took a focused approach. They built the product for one person, Bill Bishop, the author of Sinocism. This small-scale approach allowed them to discover and build features that may have otherwise been overlooked. For example, they introduced group subscriptions in the very first version of the product, addressing the needs of writers with a dedicated following.

Trust is another crucial element of Substack's success. Unlike many other platforms, Substack does not lock writers into their platform. This lack of platform lock-in is one of the core value propositions of the product. Substack sells trust, which makes readers more likely to subscribe to multiple Substack publications.

In a similar vein, Jeff Hawkins's book "A Thousand Brains" explores the concept of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and the role of the neocortex in intelligence. Hawkins argues that the neocortex, the organ of intelligence, is responsible for various capabilities such as vision, language, and problem-solving. By understanding the neocortex and its learning algorithm, Hawkins believes that we can build brain-like AGI without the need for complex circuitry.

The idea that a simple scaled-up learning algorithm can reach AGI is intriguing. If the neocortex is indeed a relatively simple and human-legible learning algorithm, as Hawkins suggests, then the prospect of brain-like AGI becomes more feasible. It challenges the notion that AGI is centuries away and instead suggests that it may be within reach sooner than we think.

In conclusion, the rise of Substack and the ideas presented in Jeff Hawkins's book highlight the changing landscape of media and the potential for new models of content creation and distribution. Substack's focus on differentiation, trust, and value creation for writers has allowed it to thrive in an attention-scarce environment. Hawkins's exploration of the neocortex and its learning algorithm offers a fresh perspective on the future of AGI. As we navigate this evolving landscape, here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Embrace niche interests: Substack has shown that there is a demand for specialized content. Instead of trying to appeal to a broad audience, consider focusing on a specific topic or interest area that you are passionate about.
  • 2. Build trust with your audience: Trust is crucial for building a loyal following. Be transparent, authentic, and consistent in your communication with your readers. Offer unique insights and perspectives that they won't find anywhere else.
  • 3. Experiment with different revenue models: The traditional advertising-driven model is not the only way to monetize your content. Explore alternative revenue streams such as subscriptions, sponsorships, or merchandise sales. Find the model that works best for you and your audience.

As the media landscape continues to evolve, platforms like Substack and ideas like those presented in "A Thousand Brains" provide valuable insights into the future of content creation and distribution. By embracing the changing landscape and adopting new strategies, writers can thrive in this attention-scarce world.

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