For the third time in its short existence, Astrolabe has a new home—hopefully a permanent one this time.
As you're likely aware, Substack has long had an issue with courting anti-trans and white supremacist creators, gleefully making money off their content while also trying to establish themselves as a bastion for queer and otherwise marginalized writers.
In other words, It's got a nazi problem.
It's always been messy, but, more recently, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie responded to a collective request to implement strong moderation policies against harmful publications with the insipid and tried argument that deplatforming objectionable content only makes it stronger (which is categorically false), and indicated they have no plans to improve their moderation policies.
Casey Newton on Platformer—a newsletter initially funded largely by Substack—has a good run down of the situation in his explanation for why they're leaving. What it comes down to, for me, and what I could no longer deny after Substack's recent response, is that McKenzie and Substack are not trying to build a good platform—they're trying to build a platform that will generate the most wealth possible when they inevitably sell it.
This is a textbook example of what Ed Zitron calls the "rot economy":
Venture pumps millions or billions of dollars into ideas that might sell a product or a service, but ultimately resemble things that can be sold to other companies or put on the public market for a profit higher than what was paid on a per-share basis. I once suggested that Silicon Valley conflated “making great ideas work” with “making ideas I like work,” but on consideration, many of these companies aren’t even things venture capitalists like - they are things that resemble things that they can sell. Do I genuinely believe that everyone who invested into the Web3 grift was a strident believer in the brave new decentralized economy? Hell no. They just went where the winds blew — or where they seemed to be blowing.
If you're looking for a $1B buyout and $50M in your personal bank account, building the idea of a product that specifically appeals to Ayn Randian billionaires is the most tried-and-true method, even if your decisions are actively and obviously hurting the long-term health and viability of the product itself.
It's clear to me now that this is Substack's endgame. So I no longer, naively, expect them to change.
Some of you might recall that this isn't the first time I've left Substack. A couple of years ago, when these issues first became apparent, I abandoned the platform for Revue. I was happy there, for the most part, and appreciated the integrations with Twitter, but, of course, it was acquired by a white supremacist, anyway, and was shuttered without much warning. At that time, I begrudgingly moved back to Substack, and was impressed by their vastly-improved writing and discoverability tools. More than that, Astrolabe saw, for the first time, real, genuine, steady growth.
It was enough to make me hope that maybe (MAYBE) Substack would find its way out of the mess it created and stabilize as, by far, the best newsletter platform available.
Alas. They didn't.
So now I've moved Astrolabe onto a self-hosted instance of Ghost.
First of all, Ghost is a robust, feature-rich writing platform. Second, I'm confident enough in its roots and goals as a not-for-profit, open source project that I can self host disincentivizes the platforming of bad faith creators, and, at the very least, ensures my content won't end up alongside some truly heinous shit.
Again, Newton has a good explanation of why Ghost's infrastructure is more equitable and good faith than Substack:
One, its terms of service ban content that “is violent or threatening or promotes violence or actions that are threatening to any other person.” Ghost founder and CEO John O’Nolan committed to us that Ghost’s hosted service will remove pro-Nazi content, full stop. If nothing else, that’s further than Substack will go, and makes Ghost a better intermediate home for Platformer than our current one.
Two, Ghost tells us it has no plans to build the recommendation infrastructure Substack has. It does not seek to be a social network. Instead, it seeks only to build good, solid infrastructure for internet businesses. That means that even if Nazis were able to set up shop here, they would be denied access to the growth infrastructure that Substack provides them.
As a day job web dev, and someone who has self-hosted many of my platforms going all the way back to the beginning of A Dribble of Ink, going with a self-hosted solution feels empowering and right in my wheel house. I resisted moving Astrolabe again because, to my mind, there was nothing to say platforms like beehiiv (which has recently been going down the AI rabbit hole, a major red flag) and Buttondown aren't just months away from also being bought out and ruined. Self-hosted, open source platforms solve that because there's little incentive for a buy-out based on their business model's lack of emphasis on profitability.
One of the major appeals of Substack (and, ultimately, one of its major flaws) is that it requires no upfront fees. Ever. Switching over to Ghost means I'm now going to have to be paying fees for hosting (PikaPods) and using a mail client (Mailgun) to send emails. I'm hoping this will be offset by Ghost not taking a cut of subscription revenue, though I've yet to run the numbers.
If you're on Substack and looking to migrate your own newsletter, I highly recommend Wes Fenlon's guide:
This changes the game, and I need your help
I'm not going to lie.
I'm going to miss Substack's built-in growth tools. Dearly.
They are, without serious competition, best in class, and responsible for the overwhelming majority of Astrolabe's growth since migrating back to Substack. I've never managed to hit consistent growth on any non-Substack platform (Revue, Wordpress, Medium, etc.), and now that social media is going all-in with algorithmic content delivery and link suppression, I can't even rely on a relatively large following on some of those platforms to drive growth. I can barely reach my existing audience anymore, let alone new readers.
So, I'm gonna need you to help with that. The two best ways you can support your favourite writers—bar none—is through direct paid subscriptions, so they can continue to write the things you love, and word of mouth, so their work can find its readers. If you like Astrolabe and my other work, share it with your friends and family. Social media likes to lump people into little bubbles, and it's nearly impossible for writers to break out of those and find new readers if they're not going to pony up marketing bucks.
As freelance games journalism has collapsed, so has my writing income. Historically, I've used that money to directly fund my journalism, games writing, and features. I made the decision halfway through last year—after being unable to sell more than a small handful of pitches—to shift the energy and focus I put toward freelance writing onto Astrolabe, in the hopes of building up a paid subscriber base to help offset the loss of freelance money. This led to stuff like Video Game History Week, and a bunch of other great content and features that I otherwise would've have pitched around. I got about a 1/3 of the way there, money-wise, before leaving Substack. And now, I genuinely have no idea how to keep that growth going so I can triple my paid subscriptions and hit a place where writing is financially sustainable again.
So, I need your support. If you enjoy my writing, here on Astrolabe and elsewhere, and want to see more of it, please consider a paid subscription.
They're 50% off from now until Jan 24th, 2024 to celebrate this move—and they truly, honestly, make a huge difference.
There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!