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Thursday, December 28, 2023

Substack, the right-wing scam (and Nazi bar)

One facet of the Subscam business model

Allan Stromfeldt Christensen of Filmers to Farmers writes

 According to a writer that goes by the name "Cow Girl" and whose publication Life at the Rodeo used to be on Substack but is now on Ghost, when they mentioned on Substack their plans to migrate one of their sites away from the platform "the subscribers started to pour in".

It's hard to prove that this occurrence was due to anything more than coincidence, but what can be more easily proven is the manner by which quite possibly all Substacks have highly inflated subscriber numbers. Because as many Substack writers have described it, their subscriber figures have become wildly inflated upon Substack having removed the option of requiring new signups to confirm their (free) subscription (also known as "double opt-in").

So Substack subscriber figures wildly inflated when Substack stopped making Substack account owners approve free subscribers.

Two years ago I speculated about another possible Substack scheme:

I mean, what do Razib Khan and Matthew Yglesias do for a living, other than express their unoriginal, monotonous, conservative opinions all day long?

The fact that they both have Substacks is one reason why I suspect Substack is an astroturfing scam, similar to the money-laundering scheme that Saul Goodman created for Walter White in "Breaking Bad."

If you saw "Breaking Bad" you know what I'm talking about: Walt's son created a crowdfunding web site savewalterwhite.com and a little later Goodman got a hacker to create thousands of fake accounts to make it look like regular people all over the world were sending money in. But it was coming from one very rich guy.

That the right-wing racist plutocrats who fund Substack are funneling money through fake accounts to their favorite courtier Substackers has never been proven. But I've never seen anything yet to indicate that they could not do that - and if there's a dirty trick available to the Right, I doubt they think twice before using it. As far as I know, paid Substack accounts have never been audited.

But as Christensen makes clear, paid-up subscribers are not the only subscribers of value to Substack authors or the Substack Nazi Bar:

For those unaware of what that term means, double opt-in implies that in one way or another a user must confirm that they did in fact subscribe and/or sign up to whatever it is you're offering. Those confirmation emails asking you to "click here" to confirm your subscription or email address or what have you? That's double opt-in, and that's what Substack jettisoned sometime in late-2022. What that means is that by discarding double opt-in functionality bots are readily able to carry out fake signups, regardless of what the motivation of the creators of those bots may be. Moreover, it's not even too hard to prove.

Because while subscriber numbers is one metric, another metric, which makes the first metric arguably meaningless on its own, is open rates. Open rates, which is self-explanatory enough, is a measurement of the percentage of interactions, which in this case means how many emails were opened. And according to several accounts, those email open rates on Substack have been plummeting.

Although current Substack writers brought to my attention – that had cratering open rates and of which a vast majority of their subscribers driven by Substack were said to be "garbage" – were said to not want to speak publicly about it all (reasoning explained in a moment), one former – and prominent – Substack writer who also didn't want to be named stated that they were getting hundreds of fake signups, often in blocks of 50-100 at a time. Although they couldn't be sure, they estimated that a third of their signups were fake. Regardless, they certainly aren't the only one whose Substack has been receiving hundreds of fake signups.

In regards to why current Substack writers/publications wouldn't want to speak about their deteriorating open rates – and certainly not to cull their subscriber lists of fake accounts – is for the simple reason of optics. Yes, your open rate may be an abysmal 20%. But if you've got 10,000 subscribers (a metric which Substack prominently displays on the splash page one sees upon visiting a Substack for subscribing purposes) and a similarly-oriented publication also has 10,000 subscribers, even though your open rate of 20% may lead you to believe that you could quite safely cull 50% of your email list due to them being bot signups, doing so would drastically reduce your public-facing subscriber numbers to 5,000, half of what your competitor has (who also has 5,000 subscribers they could probably cull but similarly won't due to optics). As a result, everybody involved is incentivised to keep up the charade...
...Meanwhile, using the existence of the so-called "Substack ecosystem" to claim ownership over subscriber numbers that may have otherwise eventuated is another easy way of creating that facade. Uri Bram, publisher of The Browser (which doubled Substack's paid subscriber base overnight when it became one of Substack's first publications, which was at one time Substack's second-biggest customer before it moved to Ghost, and which then spent years trying to recoup improperly charged fees after Substack kept charging The Browser – and wouldn't pay it back – after it had left the platform), described one way in which this might work earlier this year...

...So yes, go ahead and sign up to Substack where you can attain subscriber numbers beyond your wildest dreams and where Substack will tell you just how much your success is supposedly due to them, but don't pay any attention to the non-existence of that double opt-in, the possibility that your actual readership is nowhere near as large as you think it is, and that the genuine subscribers you do have aren't so much due to Substack itself as much as they're due to the efforts you've put in yourself. 

I may not have been right about exact (proven) scam tactics of Substack two years ago, but I was right that Substack is, fundamentally, a right-wing scam.

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