2023 Net API Notes Retrospective (And an Announcement)

Net API Notes for 2023/12/27, Issue 229

2023 Net API Notes Retrospective (And an Announcement)

This Was an Unprecedented Year in Notes

The end of the year is as good of a time as any to look back, take stock, and begin conjuring what will be. Around issue 200, I consciously decided to move away from link rollups, opting instead to create something more evergreen and personal. The format change was a gamble. And yet, across several benchmarks, Net API Notes had a banner year. I'm proud of the nearly 45,000 words I've put out - concepts, observations, and models relevant now and for years to come.

Posts in 2023:

For the first time since I started in 2015, I felt like the newsletter hit its stride. That gave me the confidence to launch a companion series: ¡APIcryphal!, the (mostly) true stories of APIs' past. It was incredibly satisfying to research these pieces. And, as the number of trips to Archive.org's Wayback Machine demonstrated, there's an urgency in resurfacing these stories before they're lost forever:

Subscribers were up almost 50% from last year. The open rate was up as well, usually coming in around a fantastic 37%. Most importantly, the work catalyzed new conversations, relationships, and collaboration opportunities.

And I want to end this message on that happy note. I'd close by wishing each of you a happy and prosperous New Year, and then I'd return to looking up Dutch Oven recipes for my new cast iron. But because specific individuals are dead set on making this the dumbest timeline, I can't conclude without addressing one additional thing:


Substack Has A Nazi Problem

In September 2022, I migrated this newsletter from Tiny Letter to Substack. It was a risk, but I immediately felt the benefits of a fully-featured, growing platform. Newsletter software comparisons often miss Substack's most compelling feature: cross-audience promotion. It is a "rising tide that lifts all boats". If another newsletter attracts a thousand readers to the platform, they could also become my readers (if we're writing in similar areas). If I entice people in my networks to subscribe to me, Substack will encourage those people to follow others. More than sending emails or handling money, the "if you like this try subscribing to that" recommendation feature elevates Substack apart from its peers.

Unfortunately, Substack's growth engine happens to be piloted by suspect intent. This December, journalist Marisa Kabas created an open letter directed to Substack's leadership. It was in response to Jonathan Katz's story in the Atlantic that documented how Substack was hosting and monetizing Nazi propaganda and calls to violence.

This should be a PR layup for most companies (Facebook has implemented this playbook for nearly a decade):

  1. Express deep regret for the oversight
  2. Explain how the problem is really hard
  3. Thank those that brought it to Substack's attention
  4. Promise to do better in the future
  5. Implement the modicum of reporting and moderation processes

To be clear, that's not a great response. It is barely adequate in most cases, to be perfectly honest. But it provides at least a veneer of respectability that people who rely on the service can cling to.

But that's not what Substack did. Instead, Substack stated, in effect: "Yes, we know about the Nazis. And they deserve to be charged the same 8-15% per paying subscriber as anyone else." The rest of the post then flagellates itself in free-speech pedantry and pseudo intellectual bullshit.

I could retell the Nazi-bar story. I could also elaborate on Karl Popper's "Paradox of Tolerance". But I'm so tired of getting lost in details when the big picture couldn't be more obvious: we don't make a better world by normalizing Nazis.

ALL TECHNOLOGY IS POLITICAL. That goes double for technology platforms. Who makes decisions, how competing priorities are reconciled, and what behaviors are incentivized (or subsidized) are all governance questions. An apolitical platform does not exist. And de-platforming works.

Substack knows this. They're not neutral. They already deplatform certain forms of content. They have explicit language in their terms of service that forbids pornographic and sexually explicit material. Further, Substack states they cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on "protected classes''. They make and enforce political decisions about what behavior is and is not allowed on their platform.

And yet, nudging that line just a wee bit further to also include rhetoric that dehumanizes other people - the kind of bigotry that includes racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, misogyny, or transphobia - is a bridge too far. This isn't Substack's first time to fail to do the right thing. Earlier this year, when the Substack CEO, Chris Best, was asked whether they would ban posts that said "all brown people are animals and they shouldn't be allowed in America", Best refused to answer the question. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. There are lots more compelling pieces by others that are brighter and thought about this longer than I have. But, bottom line, I'd rather distribute my writing via carrier pigeon than financially support a platform afraid of moderating its bad faith actors.

As usual, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick nails it:

“Substack has every right to make the choices it has made, but it shouldn’t pretend that it’s standing up for civil rights or freedoms, because it’s not. It’s making value judgments that everyone can see, and its value judgment is “Nazis are welcome….”

Net API Notes and Better Bits Newsletters Are Leaving Substack

I'll be moving Net API Notes and the companion newsletter for my in-progress book, Better Bits, off of Substack.

Migrating is not trivial. I fully expect to lose both free and paid subscribers along the way. Further, things initially look like they'll be 2-3 times more expensive for a newsletter of this size. Finally, I wasn't prepared to be moving again so soon, and trying to do so during the holiday break too, for crying out loud.

However, I recognize the privilege I have in being able to leave. While a move will be uncomfortable for me, there are others for whom their newsletter is their primary livelihood. I am lucky I get to peacock about ethics while not undermining how I pay the bills. There will be those who can't just up and leave. This will be a deeply complex and painful decision for many authors. I beg that folks save their ire for Substack and not for these creators who have been backed into a compromising position. Please give them your patience.

In the same way, please be patient with me as I get this sorted out. Even with the best tutorials and migration guides, it will take some doing to unwind and rebuild this effort elsewhere. Thank you for understanding in advance. Likewise, thank you for the phenomenal year - let's do it again in 2024, albeit somewhere less afraid to embrace becoming their better selves.

More as I figure things out.

Matthew (@matthew in the fediverse and matthewreinbold.com on the web)

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