Isabelle Roughol was done with her day job at LinkedIn and was ready to start something of her own. She quit in early 2020 and launched Borderline, a podcast and newsletter aimed at “defiant global citizens”, and to help her build it she became an early user of a new online service: Substack.
Substack has marketed itself aggressively to people such as Roughol as a new type of tech company, one that will let writers build their own brands and communities. The company offers software to help people set up free or paid-for newsletters and promises the people creating them that they can write what they want and that they own their own mailing list and can take it with them if they leave.
Initially, everything was great: Substack’s interface to make newsletters was much more intuitive than Mailchimp or other rivals and the company seemed keen to be friendly to small independent outlets such as Borderline, but then Substack started courting big-name writers and, with it, controversy.
Reports earlier this year revealed Substack has offered six-figure advances to a number of US writers to leave traditional media and go it alone on its platforms. Many are making more money than they ever did in traditional media, but concerns are emerging about what Substack is now, exactly. Is it a platform for hosting newsletters and helping people discover them? Or is it a new type of publication, one that relies on stoking the culture wars to help divisive writers build devoted followings?
Substack, until recently a darling of the technology world, has left people wondering whether behind it all, it’s just another media company – with all the problems that brings.
“It’s funny to think there’s so many people in tech who think that they’re just going to reinvent the media economy and they’re going to figure out some things that decades of people in media haven’t figured out,” says Roughol.
“And then they get to the point, they’re like, ‘Oh, actually, it is hard to make money and have a business model in content.’”
Substack rose to prominence among numerous rival newsletter services by positioning itself as a friend to people trying to set up solo media brands. The company takes a relatively small commission and to position itself as truly creator-friendly, it even started launching funds to help independent publishers tackle lawsuits.
But the bid to capture big-name writers changed the nature of the service. Where once Substack was a software tool, it started to become a brand in its own right, persuading big-name columnists to defect from traditional media and launch on Substack, perhaps changing how Substack itself was perceived.
If a company is talent-spotting for journalists and cherry-picking big names to offer them guaranteed minimum salaries of five or 10 times what most reporters could hope to earn, at what point does it stop being a technology company and start being just another new media outlet?
The controversial names Substack is hosting heighten that problem: one of the platform’s biggest draws, lawyer turned journalist Glenn Greenwald, has a reputation of a man able and willing to start 10 new lifelong grudges a day on Twitter, while the site has been much criticised for hosting Graham Linehan who has been banned from Twitter for trans hate speech.
Not only has Substack stopped being software hiding in the background for people to build their own brand, but being on Substack has for some become a tacit sign of being a partisan in the culture wars, not least because it’s a lot easier to build a devoted and paying following by stressing that you’re giving readers something the mainstream won’t.
For journalists such as Roughol, Substack’s emergence as a publisher of sorts and a brand in its own right is enough to make her rethink her position on the platform.
“For me, I was looking for a tool that could kind of recede in the background and allow my own brand to shine,” she says. “And that’s just not really what Substack is anymore. It’s increasingly a platform; people can even go and read on Substack rather than me reaching them directly with my brand in their inbox. So… some of those product changes, you know, are a bit concerning for me.”
Such is Substack’s recent notoriety that people are now worrying that it might be the latest thing that might kill traditional media. By offering star writers a bigger payday for going it alone, people fret it might break up traditional newsrooms and make it impossible to do the kind of journalism that needs reporters, editors, fact-checkers and lawyers.
Substack, they argue, is tearing apart that coalition of workers by ripping out the stars. But Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Enders Analysis, isn’t quite so sure.
“The internet just creates this endless cycle of aggregation, disaggregation, aggregation and disaggregation and that is an internet story, full stop,” he says. Substack “will end up aggregating particular kinds of content and trying to sell a single price point to access these 20 writers who talk about the environment or talk about the future of technology, or whatever it is they talk about”.
For those just trying to find something good to read, though, Substack’s foray into the culture wars is polluting other social networks. If you rely on people discovering your paid-for newsletter and giving it a try, you need to tempt new people into discovering who you are and what you’re offering.
One way to do that seems to be picking a fight. Charlie Warzel, a former opinion writer for the New York Times, left the newspaper to start a thoughtful Substack newsletter on technology and culture, Galaxy Brain.
Greenwald noted on Twitter that Warzel had only managed to attract “hundreds” of subscribers in his first week and suggested this showed the newsletter was failing. The Twitter spat led dozens of people to immediately subscribe to Warzel’s newsletter and prompted Warzel to write up the spat, knowing it would boost subscriptions.
“I can safely say that what I’m trying to create is the polar opposite of whatever it is he is doing,” said Warzel in his newsletter capitalising on that very row. But that statement is disingenuous: by capitalising on a Twitter fight for followers, Warzel is playing the exact same game as Greenwald, with the exact same business model.
Readers might tell themselves they’re there for the thoughtful conversation, but it’s the fighting talk that gets the social shares. Lines such as “CANCEL ME, GLENN! DADDY IS THINKING ABOUT INVESTING IN SOME NON-IKEA FURNITURE” are made for likes, shares and RTs, however much their author might protest otherwise.
The result of all this is that Substack finds itself in the middle of an identity crisis. Is it a cool online tool to help people outside legacy media build and write newsletters? Is it a publisher picking the journalists of the future? Or is it some combination of the two – and how much editorial control does it claim?
Given its team offer some writers massive advances, while leaving others to work entirely off their own merits, they are making very similar hiring choices to those made by traditional editors. The company is also hoping investors value it as a fast-growing tech company, rather than as a dowdy old media company reliant on a large staff of journalists, web developers and back-room employees.
“We’re a platform and in our model the writers are the publishers,” said a Substack spokeswoman in response to queries from the Observer. “So the intent is to enable writers to be their own bosses and shape their own brands. Our approach is to give them the platform and infrastructure, then stay out of their way.”
Substack started out offering writers a tool to build independent businesses. It’s now hiring editors and trying to poach talent and even offering a reading tool on its own website. The danger for the company is that it becomes just another new media outlet; while once it might have been fashionable to be BuzzFeed or HuffPost, the lustre has gone from both as they cut newsroom staff in a bid to be profitable.
“In the end, it’s a people business and journalism business,” says McCabe. “I don’t feel convinced that Substack has come up with something that is fundamentally new.”
Substack was supposed to be a tool, for people such as Isabelle Roughol, to help them build a brand and an audience, but now she’s unsure what it wants to be.
A product that won its early fans – like her – by having a much better and simpler interface than its rivals is itself increasingly bloated and unwieldy as more features are added. Being on Substack now carries connotations that you might be somehow aligned with its big-name writers. You’re competing with them for attention via the publishing tool.
But for all that, Roughol thinks the company might be getting a worse press than it deserves – it’s still a relatively young company, a smallish team, and she still has faith in its good intentions.
“They say if you stay in business long enough, there’s going to be a point where people think you’re the second coming,” she concludes. “And there’s going to be a point where people think you’re the devil incarnate – and that’s the business world we live in.”
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
¡Hola Papi! An LGBTQ+ advice column which originated on Grindr and is being adapted into a memoir.
Wild Holy & Free Author Austin Channing Brown and her takes on the black American experience.
Tracking, marketing, and analytics firms have been exfiltrating the email addresses of internet users from web forms prior to submission and without user consent, according to security researchers.
Some of these firms are said to have also inadvertently grabbed passwords from these forms.
In a research paper scheduled to appear at the Usenix ’22 security conference later this year, authors Asuman Senol (imec-COSIC, KU Leuven), Gunes Acar (Radboud University), Mathias Humbert (University of Lausanne) and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, (Radboud University) describe how they measured data handling in web forms on the top 100,000 websites, as ranked by research site Tranco.
The boffins created their own software to measure email and password data gathering from web forms – structured web input boxes through which site visitors can enter data and submit it to a local or remote application.
And many companies involved in data gathering and advertising appear to believe that they’re entitled to grab the information website visitors enter into forms with scripts before the submit button has been pressed.
“Our analyses show that users’ email addresses are exfiltrated to tracking, marketing and analytics domains before form submission and without giving consent on 1,844 websites in the EU crawl and 2,950 websites in the US crawl,” the researchers state in their paper, noting that the addresses may be unencoded, encoded, compressed, or hashed depending on the vendor involved.
Most of the email addresses grabbed were sent to known tracking domains, though the boffins say they identified 41 tracking domains that are not found on any of the popular blocklists.
“Furthermore, we find incidental password collection on 52 websites by third-party session replay scripts,” the researchers say.
Replay scripts are designed to record keystrokes, mouse movements, scrolling behavior, other forms of interaction, and webpage contents in order to send that data to marketing firms for analysis. In an adversarial context, they’d be called keyloggers or malware; but in the context of advertising, somehow it’s just session-replay scripts.
Gunes Acar, one of the report co-authors, was also the co-author of a similar research project in 2017 that looked at data gathering by session-replay companies Yandex, FullStory, Hotjar, UserReplay, Smartlook, Clicktale, and SessionCam.
Evidently, not much has changed since then, except perhaps that email addresses have become more desirable as unique identifiers now that privacy-oriented browsers like Brave, Firefox, and Safari are taking more steps to block cookies and tracking scripts.
Email addresses, the researchers observe, represent a cookie replacement because they’re unique, persistent, and can be used to track people across applications, platforms, and even offline interactions that may be tied to an email address like loyalty card transactions.
The website categories with the most leaking forms include: Fashion/Beauty (11.1 per cent, EU; 19 per cent US); Online Shopping (9.4 per cent EU; 15.1 per cent US); and General News (6.6 per cent EU; 10.2 per cent US).
Websites categorized as Pornography had the best privacy when it comes to surreptitious form data harvesting.
“A somehow surprising result was the following: despite filling email fields on hundreds of websites categorized as Pornography, we have not a single email leak,” the researchers say, noting that previous studies of adult-oriented websites have relatively fewer third-party trackers than similarly popular general interest websites.
Those pesky regulations
The report authors say that EU websites practicing email exfiltration may be in violation of at least three GDPR requirements: transparency, purpose limitation, and prior consent. Firms found to be violating these rules can be fined up to $20m euros or 4 per cent of annual revenue, per Article 83(5).
The US doesn’t have a federal data privacy law, though it’s conceivable one of the handful of US states with applicable privacy rules could take action against pre-submission form harvesting. But given the toothlessness of US privacy regulation over the past decade, don’t expect much.
The authors say they attempted to contact 58 first-parties and 28 third-parties with GDPR requests. They report receiving 30 responses from the first-parties, which varied from surprise and remediation to justifications of one sort or another.
“fivethirtyeight.com (via Walt Disney’s DPO), trello.com (Atlassian), lever.co, branch.io and cision.com were among the websites that said they had not been aware of the email collection prior to form submission on their websites and removed the behavior,” the report says.
Marriott, meanwhile, said the information collected by digital analytics firm Glassbox helps with customer care, technical support, and fraud prevention.
Third-parties Taboola, Zoominfo, and ActiveProspect defended their data collection practices.
Facebook, aka Meta, is among the third-parties involved in this. The researchers say that email addresses or their hashes were spotted being sent to facebook.com from 21 different websites in the EU.
“On 17 of these, Facebook Pixel’s Automatic Advanced Matching feature was responsible for sending the SHA-256 of the email address in a SubscribedButtonClick event, despite not clicking any submit button,” the report says.
Advanced Matching – called out recently for harvesting student loan data – is designed to collect hashed customer data, such as email addresses, phone numbers, and names from checkout, sign-in, and registration forms. The researchers speculate that on these sites, Facebook’s script treats clicks on non-submit buttons as a click event for the submit button.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
The report concludes that browser vendors, regulators, and privacy tool makers need to deal with this issue because it isn’t going away. “Based on our findings, users should assume that the personal information they enter into web forms may be collected by trackers – even if the form is never submitted,” the report concludes. ®
A William Fry-commissioned report has found that funding deals under €10m have taken a big hit in the first three months of 2022.
Venture capital funding into Irish tech businesses was up by more than 50pc in the first quarter of this year, but there’s an unfortunate and potentially troubling caveat to that.
The Irish Venture Capital Association (IVCA) has published today (15 May) its latest report on VC funding into tech start-ups and SMEs in Ireland, which found that the investments increased by 52pc to €379.7m in the first three months of 2022, compared to the same period last year.
But the report, commissioned by Dublin law firm William Fry, also found that VC funding in deals valued less than €10m have taken a hit.
IVCA chair Nicola McClafferty said that the headline figure of a funding boost conceals a “potentially worrying fall” of 30 to 50pc across all categories of deals under €10m – including seed funding.
“All the growth came from eight deals worth over €10m each, including three over €30m. While the momentum carried over from last year has continued for more established companies raising large rounds, some of that impetus seems to have stalled for earlier stage companies.”
Even the total number of deals overall fell by almost a third to 50 from 74 in the same period last year.
McClafferty said that this could be related to international trends affecting the business world right now, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“While challenging market conditions may continue, we also know that many great companies are started and built in times of downturn, so we await with interest the data in the coming quarters,” she added.
Deals in the €5m to €10m range fell in value by more than half, while those in the €1m to €5m range also halved from €70.3m last year to €34.5m in Q1 2022. The value of deals below €1m dropped by 31pc to €8.9m.
Seed funding also took a hit, falling by nearly 40pc to €22.3m from €36.5m last year.
Nearly four-fifths of all funding came from overseas sources, according to IVCA director-general Sarah-Jane Larkin.
“While this is to be welcomed and emphasises the quality of Irish tech firms and their appeal to international investors, we have expressed concern before about where any shortfall would be made up if the global economy contracts,” she said.
Wayflyer, Ireland’s latest tech unicorn, led the way in terms of total value of funding received with a $150m in Series B funding valuing the start-up at $1.6bn. Flipdish, another Irish tech start-up that became a unicorn this year, raised $100m reaching a $1.25bn valuation.
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As a source of dating advice, Kevin Samuels would seem a last resort for America’s Black women. On his YouTube show and podcasts, Samuels criticized Black women for being old and out of shape, and for having children out of wedlock. He sneered at “modern women” who flaunted their multiple college degrees and boasted of their independence. He dropped these bombs in the softest voice, in a tailored suit, and bathed in mood lightingwith a funky kinetic energy sculpture on his desk.
Yet many women not only tuned in to Samuels in droves, they cued up to Zoom into his show – some in hopes of putting the self-made image consultant turned relationship expert in his place. When Samuels suddenly died last Thursday in Atlanta at 57, as his star was still rising (the Fulton county medical examiners office has not yet revealed a cause of death), his many detractors reacted like Munchkins at the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East. The overwhelming lack of sympathy for Samuels – whose mother reportedly found out about his death as speculation raged online – comes down to his profiting from dismissing single Black women over 35 as “leftovers” whose unrealistic desire for “high-value men” would doom them to a lonely death.
On a recent episode of the Fox Soul streaming show Cocktails with Queens, the actor Vivica A Fox called Samuels’ death karma payback. “This man was a hypocrite, in my honest opinion,” she said. “He insulted African American women on a consistent basis.” In a Mother’s Day sermon, the preacher-influencer Jamal Bryant indirectly singled out this “high-powered man” for allegedly needing “a GoFundMe for his funeral”. The many women in Bryant’s congregation ate this up.
Still, just as many Black celebrities have rushed to defend Samuels. “Love him or hate him,” said the actor Marlon Wayans, “he spoke his truth. If you hated [him] why tune in?” The rapper turned comedian TI scorned the gleeful reactions to his death as a “fucking travesty” while branding Samuels’ haters as “despicable” and “bullies”. “Whatever he did, he did it, and [he’s] gone,” said the Why You Wanna emcee. “He got away with it.”
Besides his mother and daughter, Samuels is survived by his legion followers in the online community known as the “manosphere”, a sort of digital bathhouse for naked pushback against feminist ideology and the reprisal of traditional gender norms.
Casually drawing on relationship and income statistics, Samuels delighted in playing the role of market adjuster and scolding “average” Black women for pursuing Black men in the Talented Tenth – good-looking men with minimum six-figure incomes, no kids, no priors, and no hangups in bed. According to Samuels, guys mainly wanted women who were “fit, feminine, friendly, cooperative and submissive”. He barely had patience for callers who defied that description, and regularly played those clashes with them for laughs. And this was against the backdrop of Black women having a tough enough time being taken seriously online, let alone settling down.
More than 30,000 people signed an online petition calling on YouTube and Instagram to de-platform Samuels, believing he had “galvanised a community of men of all races and nationalities in the outspoken hatred of women”. To many, Samuel’s polished and bespectacled presentation was little more than a pseudo-intellectual cover for misogynoir. “I think he has had an outsized impact on poisoning the social discourse between Black men and Black women around matters of love, dating and intimacy,” the Rutgers women’s studies professor Brittney Cooper wrote in a recent Facebook post, after Samuels used a clip of her talking about racism and fatphobia as an example of a low-value woman. “I hope that the Black women who liked Kevin’s work stop letting the latest brother with relationship advice exploit your pain.”
Samuels’ public persona wasn’t always such a troll. A chemical engineering major who segued into a career in marketing, Samuels established himself on social media as a self-improvement coach and tastemaker (“the godfather of style”, he called himself), hipping men to the coolest clothes, watches and fragrances.
But Samuels eventually saw the bigger audience for relationship content, and quickly distinguished himself by doubling down on the “negging” techniques that undergirded the pickup artist craze of the early aughts. It’s a blueprint that launched the mainstream success of Steve Harvey. Before he was widely known as the avuncular host of Family Feud and the Miss Universe pageant, Harvey was writing plainspoken relationship manuals for Black women and spinning them into the box-office topping Think Like a Man franchise.
After one video sizing up a woman as “average at best” drew millions of views, Samuels was essentially rebooted as a relationship expert. In another oft-shared video he writes off a proudly curvy Black female caller as “running back-sized.” Before his death, Samuels had amassed more than 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and more than 1.2 million Instagram followers.Mainstream renown wasn’t much farther off.
Already, Samuels was a fixture of the Black gossip blogs for his viral put-downs and for his interviews with Nicki Minaj, Future, and the social media influencer Brittany Renner. Those same blogs were quick to hypothesise about the chaotic circumstances of Samuels’ death and echo reports that the ultimate high-value man died broke.
But his village of YouTube peers have rallied to debunk those rumours and rebuff what they characterise as efforts to defame Samuels in death. Mostly, they claim he was a tireless worker and shrewd businessman who could be harsh, but all in the interest of uplifting the community overall. In a YouTube eulogy, Melanie King, a Samuels protege who credits him for helping her rebuild from an agonising divorce, likened taking advice from him to “chewing broken glass”.
“We needed that shock,” said King, who thought of Samuels more like a tough dad. “Because, let’s be honest, if he had not been so shocking to so many people, would you even know about him?”