Discover more from SCROLL SANITY
I Didn't Come Here To Scroll
Against Substack Notes
The other day, I received an envelope in the mail — and it was empty. It had been slit open on the side and the Easter card inside was nowhere to be found. This morning, I received another card in the mail that was also damaged. For some reason, the card and its envelope were ripped and part of it was missing.
We trust the postal service with our packages, birthday cards, birth announcements, wedding invitations. We take care as we compose birthday wishes, spell out the address, and affix a stamp. The postal service acts as the messenger, the middleman for our dear and precious blessings, and when that trust is broken, it can feel like a personal affront.
Substack is something like the postal service for me; I trust them with this labor of love, my writing, and have faith that they will deliver my missives to readers each week. I have put my confidence in Substack as a place to house my work and build my community.
When Substack launched the Chat feature, I just plain ignored it. I knew that there was no way in hell that I had any bandwidth for something like that.
But when they rolled out the Notes feature a few months later, I couldn’t ignore it. I felt my whole body tense up as I read and re-read the email from Substack detailing how this feature where “writers will be able to post short-form content and share ideas with each other and their readers” would be different from “legacy” social media platforms.
I didn’t process my feelings about it until I joined the weekly writer Office Hours hosted by Substack; the topic was Notes, and writers were crowing about how much they loved the new feature. My heart sank. I did not share their positive feelings. I posted my thoughts – that I wanted my writing to speak for itself and this feature did not seem in line with Substack’s mission of high-quality writing – and lots of writers responded. Many of them shared my hesitation and downright disappointment.
As a writer, I have to be online. Substack felt like an authentic way for me to have a “presence” and build a “following” without jeopardizing my mental health. I could focus on writing long-form pieces rather than composing the wittiest quips and finding the best meme to accompany someone’s tweet. The whole Twitter universe gave me indigestion. It was fast-paced, aggressive, high stress, confrontational, and not to mention, incredibly time-consuming and addictive. I kept Twitter, and other “legacy” social media platforms, at a distance because I knew they caused undue stress to my nervous system.
Substack felt different.
I joined Substack because it was a platform that felt low stress and manageable for my mental health. It didn’t overwhelm users with an expectation of constant connectedness and engagement. There was the significant absence of the scroll.
Substack is a social media platform, but I liken it to “slow” social media – like the slow food movement, which values growing food in a way that’s healthy for the planet and the people. Compare that to factory farming and industrial agriculture, which use harsh chemicals and inhumane practices to make vegetables grow faster and chickens grow fatter—at the expense of vast ecosystems that are destroyed in the process, not to mention our own bodies which accumulate these toxins.
As much as I want to grow my audience, I want an audience that’s deeply engaged with what I’m creating and putting out into the world. It’s easy—with a bit of cash—to have a tremendous following on TikTok and Instagram. But are those followers truly engaged? Or is that number bloated, the same we feel after indulging in a fast food snack? This cheap engagement won’t stick to the bones; you’ll be hungry again in an hour.
of echoed my thoughts: “I got active on Substack because it seemed like a platform where writers could be writers focused on quality and craft rather than the hamster wheel of modern internet marketing. Seeing the transformation into a noisy social media clone is making me wonder if I should back off and get a hosted Ghost site instead.”
I understand that Substack is a for-profit company. When their writers make money, they make money. And so, it’s in their best interest to do everything in their power to convert readers into paying subscribers. It is clear that this is the intention behind the new Notes scrolling feature, as highlighted in the many emails showcasing graphs of subscribers growing exponentially once a writer started using Notes. It’s about capitalism, pure and simple. So just say that. Don’t couch it in pretty language about “community.”
Don’t think of me as the Grinch who hates community and connection. It’s quite the opposite. I have really enjoyed the community and dialogue that Substack has facilitated. There are several newsletters that I read religiously, and some for which I am a paying subscriber. I followedwhen she migrated her newsletter here, and I find great value in the weekly threads, many of which focus on how to build community in real life, like the recent thread about specific care advice. I take part in ’s weekly mindfulness practice and I have joined Substack’s Office Hours on several occasions, which has connected me with many wonderful writers in this community who I wouldn’t have otherwise found, like of . I have used Substack's Recommend feature to boost other people’s newsletter and I had been planning on using their podcast platform for my own podcasting project.
These interactions count as “engagement,” but they have a very different quality than the type of prolific and overwhelming engagement that happens in a landscape of infinite scroll. They are contained – around a topic in a thread, or within the responses to a post.
Don’t get me wrong – I want to grow this newsletter. I wouldn’t even mind making money from the writing that I do on. But I want my writing to speak for itself. As much as I love writing my newsletter and connecting with readers around digital health, it would not behoove my sanity to dissipate my focus with short-form posts about whatever thought flutters into my mind. I don’t want to participate in another venue for self-aggrandization, self-promotion, and squawking for attention.
This addition to Substack might seem innocent. What’s the big deal, right? Remember, my generation was the guinea pig when it came to social media. I was among one of the first people to join Facebook as a high school senior in 2005, wielding my college email address that gained me access to this promising new land. Can you blame me for being incredible dubious of anything that smells like social media?
wrote: “The whole reason I started Substack was because I needed to get off social media.”
wrote: “I'm distressed by features like Notes and Chat. After reading Deep Work, Indistractible, Digital Minimalism, and The Shallows (which I'm close to finishing), I finally realized why I could no longer think as deeply or pay attention as well as I used to when I was a kid. My mind has been distracted and diffused (to borrow a phrase from Paul Simon) by computers and the internet for the last 25 years, and I'm only just now reclaiming my ability to focus and concentrate.”
I see what’s happening. With the Notes feature, Substack is trying to fill the hole left by a dying Twitter. I can see how that makes good business sense. But as a person who is simply trying to stay sane in a digital world, I’m at capacity. I have nothing left in me to give to yet another scrolling hellscape.
In their email launching Notes, Substack wrote: “We set about building a system that fosters deep connections and quality over shallow engagement and dopamine hacks.”
I believed this, and I’m left feeling duped, lulled in by a false idea that Substack was different – a safe space for people who wanted deeper interactions and connections than what Facebook and Twitter afforded.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s lovely to see an update fromin Cologne and a photo of ’s dog. I’m not a monster. But how necessary is it? Does it add to or detract from my life? If we recognize that our time and attention are finite, we will understand that all of this micro stimulation and information overload occupies space in our brains and takes attention away from other endeavors. It lingers in our subconscious even when we’re not actively engaging on the platform, tugging at our attention. Did someone respond to your (very witty) comment? How many people liked your cute kitty meme? Has anyone posted anything interesting in the last 30 seconds?
The more I think about this new feature, the more pissed off I become. We are digitally touched out, people, trapped in a maniacal cycle of posting, reposting, liking, linking, commenting, hearting, emoji-ing, meme-ing. It’s like living in a fun house of mirrors, caught in the maddening merry-go-round of the endless scroll, delirious with overwhelm. I know this seems normal to us because it’s the water that we’re swimming in, but it’s taking a toll on us – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, intellectually.
In their email, Substack wrote: “We started Substack in 2017 because we wanted the internet to be better for writers and readers. We were dismayed with the clickbait and content farms, the listicles and liars, the cheap outrage and culture wars. We thought there could be something better if writers and readers were given more control and treated as a higher priority than advertisers.”
If Substack cares so much about their community of writers and readers, why would they create something that will inherently be bad for our mental health? Another thing designed to fractured our already fragile attention, another place to compare ourselves to others? With all that we know about the negative effects of social media, it’s irresponsible. This is not what creating community or caring about community looks like.
I have already seen multiple writers’ Notes without seeking them out, just because Substack has made sure of that. They are delivered fresh to my notifications, whether I like it or not.
So, I can just opt out, right? Sure, I can take a deep dive into Substack’s settings to find a way to silence the notifications and to counteract the many ways that Substack is pushing this new feature onto its community. Once again, the onus is on the individual to create boundaries and install limitations for their own mental health. I can put up barriers and try to build my own little world within the platform. But I’m pissed that I have to do so.
of wrote: “This would probably be an unpopular opinion but I wouldn't mind seeing something like a post limit per day on Notes. This would encourage more high-quality content related to your own newsletter and make it a little less social media-y.”
of wrote: “I've found that I have to relentlessly curate and limit my media diet. I only allow myself to read one social media platform and three media outlets as standard - and that's done a huge amount of my peace of mind. The older I get, the more I realize that FOMO is a myth - instead, find what excites, inspires, or comforts you, and stick to that.”
We all know that social media companies are not in the business of imposing any sort of limitations on their users. I wish that, for once, a social media platform would honor their users – their attention, their mental health. Substack says that it prioritizes writers and readers, but these additions show me otherwise.
I seriously just let out a big, long sigh right here at my writing desk. It’s so exhausting existing in this digital world. As social animals, we want to be included. On a primal level, social media makes sense for us. We want to connect with fellow humans and we are fed by human interaction. It’s written in our DNA. And yet, we’ve reached maximum capacity. System overload. Fried.
We also need food to survive, and yet, a bowl of Frosted Flakes won’t nourish our bodies the way a bowl of yogurt will. Like with food, there are different kinds of social engagement, and they nourish our minds and souls in different ways. For me, the kind of connection that occurs in a scrollspace does not give me the kind of long-term benefits that a more personal one-on-one conversation gives me, even if that interaction happens online with a stranger and not in person. It’s the difference between shouting into the void and sharing an intimate moment with another person. I want to prioritize the latter.
I’m not a naysayer, I’m just very judicious about where I spend my time and energy. Substack used to be a place that felt safe. I could allow myself to be free here, to feel at home. But I realize that that feeling of safety has been lost for me. The way things are headed, Substack will soon become one more place where I must tread carefully, constantly aware that I can’t let myself go here. Instead of feeling safe, I will be on edge, cautious, vigilant, guarded, careful with my attention so that I don’t burn too much of it on something random and thoughtless.
Can I participate in a community where the communal engine will be thrumming in a feature that I can’t engage with? I refuse to have my attention further splintered and manipulated. These may be strong words but I’m sick and tired of it. Knowing what we know about social media, scrolling, attention, distraction, deep work – why add something new to the scrolling hellscape? It’s irresponsible and it’s disrespectful to the users who have trusted Substack with our words, with our money, with our attention, with our community.
I was one of the first users of Facebook and I remember how it felt every time they changed a feature, added and took away features, tweaked, amended and made big changes to the platform that I was using every day. I felt out of control, like a rider holding onto a horse that was bucking wild. All I could do was hold on.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I have been in this fun house too long to hold on to anything that doesn’t serve me. I’m in control, and if a platform that I am using no longer serves me or is causing me undue stress, then it’s time to move on. I won’t be afraid to cut Substack loose.