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.
In brief Thieves operating for the North Korean government made off with almost $400m in digicash last year in a concerted attack to steal and launder as much currency as they could.
A report from blockchain biz Chainalysis found that attackers were going after investment houses and currency exchanges in a bid to purloin funds and send them back to the Glorious Leader’s coffers. They then use mixing software to make masses of micropayments to new wallets, before consolidating them all again into a new account and moving the funds.
Bitcoin used to be a top target but Ether is now the most stolen currency, say the researchers, accounting for 58 per cent of the funds filched. Bitcoin accounted for just 20 per cent, a fall of more than 50 per cent since 2019 – although part of the reason might be that they are now so valuable people are taking more care with them.
“These behaviors paint a portrait of a nation that supports cryptocurrency-enabled crime on a massive scale,” the report finds. “Systematic and sophisticated, North Korea’s government — be it through the Lazarus Group or its other criminal syndicates — has cemented itself as an advanced persistent threat to the cryptocurrency industry in 2021.”
Football fans furious after FIFA 22 after top players’ accounts taken over
Electronic Arts (EA) has confirmed that some of the top players of the FIFA 22 football (soccer in Freedom Language) game have had their accounts taken over after it dropped the ball.
“Through our initial investigation we can confirm that a number of accounts have been compromised via phishing techniques,” EA said in a statement.
“Utilizing threats and other ‘social engineering’ methods, individuals acting maliciously were able to exploit human error within our customer experience team and bypass two-factor authentication to gain access to player accounts.”
In response EA says that it has strengthened its account verification process and is training up staff to be on the lookout for behavior that indicates someone is playing foul. It says this will take time and may lead to support delays, but asks fans not to show it the red card.
US government warns of Russia and Iranian online intrusion, makes tools public
It has been a busy week for those monitoring government hacking threats, beginning with a warning from the FBI, NSA and CISA about Russian state online spies are breaking into US systems, followed by a report from US Cyber Command on Iranian online foes.
The Russians are targeting US government, energy and infrastructure companies, the first advisory warns, and are using advanced tactics to do so. The key protection is frequent logging and examination of network activity, but also watch for unexpected equipment activity like unplanned reboots, and multiple failed login attempts on accounts, they advise.
Not to be outdone, US Cyber Command released a report into an online gang called MuddyWater, which the agency says operates under the auspices of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. It’s primarily an intelligence collection group and had been targeting other Middle Eastern states, but is now expanding operations in the US and Western Europe.
MuddyWater specialize in using open-source tools and side-loading DLLs, and they also are adept at using tunneling to shield their activities. VirusTotal have been informed and you can get the full details here.
Texans hit by QR code phishing campaign
Residents of the Lone Star state have been under sustained attack from a QR code phishing scam using traffic meters that is designed to harvest credit card information.
Police in Austin, Houston and San Antonio have warned that persons unknown are attaching fake QR codes to parking meters that redirect users to a carefully crafted phishing site. When the meter user tries to pay for their parking that are simply handing over their card information to the criminals.
What makes this form of attack particularly odd is that none of the cities targeted actually use QR codes on their meters. “We’ve talked to industry professionals who have warned us about using QR codes, and that’s why we do not utilize QR codes on our infrastructure at all,” Austin Parking Enterprise Manager Jason Redfern told Fox 7.
Still using WordPress? Plugin vulns rose 142 per cent last year
WordPress is a very popular platform but security isn’t one of its strengths, as a review of its progress in 2021 has shown.
Research by Risk Based Security found that last year the number of vulnerabilities found in WordPress plugins shot up 142 per cent, 77 per cent of them contained known public exploits and 73 per cent were remotely exploitable. While the average rating for flaws using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System was 5.5 there are still some very nasty issues out there that need to be addressed.
“There are over 58,000 free plugins for download, with tens of thousands more available for purchase,” the report warns. “Unfortunately, few of them are designed with security in mind, so one vulnerability could potentially affect millions of users.”
Astronomers ended 2021 on a high with the launch on 25 December of the James Webb Space Telescope, a joint mission between the European Space Agency, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. It was a relief to hear that the precision drives that opened up the complex sunshield, which is about the size of a tennis court, worked perfectly.
The telescope is now on the way to its destination, 1.5m kilometres away from Earth, where it will begin a series of tests once it arrives in late January. If the mission goes to plan, we can expect to start receiving images from the telescope in mid-2022.
But what else lies in store for space science this year? Here are a few missions to watch out for.
NASA’s Artemis programme to send human astronauts back to the moon in 2024 should get underway in 2022. The last astronauts to step foot on the moon in 1972 made it there on a Saturn V rocket.
Now NASA has created a new generation of rockets, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be tested for the first time in March with the launch of the Artemis 1 mission. This will be a three-week-long, uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which will include a flyby 100km above the surface of the moon.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is lifted into a thermal cage for testing. Image: NASA/Marvin Smith
Eventually, the SLS will transport astronauts to the Lunar Gateway, the next-generation international space station that will be positioned in orbit around the moon and act as a way station for missions to the surface.
The moon will also be targeted by other space agencies in 2022. South Korea is hoping to launch its first lunar mission, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, from Cape Canaveral in August. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, plans to launch Luna 25 to the moon’s south pole in July – over 45 years since Luna 24 returned almost 200g of lunar soil in August 1976.
Mid-2022 will be a busy time for space exploration, as NASA will also launch its Psyche asteroid mission. Psyche, which is orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, is an M-class asteroid, made of metal, so it’s similar to the core of the Earth.
We’ve never been close to an M-class asteroid before, nor have we been able to study the core of the Earth because it’s too deep down, so once this mission arrives in 2026 it should give us a whole new understanding of asteroid and planetary processes.
Not long after Psyche’s journey begins, the DART mission, which launched in November 2021, should arrive at its destination in late September.
DART – which stands for the double asteroid redirection test – is heading to asteroid Didymos and its moonlet Dimorphos. The goal is to test what technology it would take to save the Earth from an incoming asteroid in future. DART will deliberately crash into the smaller of the two bodies, Dimorphos, to move its orbit a little bit closer to Didymos, the larger one. This could give valuable insights into how to shift any asteroid on a collision course with Earth in the future.
2021 was a busy year for Mars missions with NASA’s Perseverance rover and the Chinese Zhurong rover, both of which continue to send back incredible images and data from the surface of the Red Planet.
In September 2022, the European Space Agency is due to launch the next part of its ExoMars mission in collaboration with Roscosmos. The first part of the mission, ExoMars 2016, sent a Trace Gas Orbiter to orbit around Mars in late 2016.
ExoMars 2022 plans to send a Mars rover, the Rosalind Franklin, to the Martian surface to look for signs of past life. If the launch goes to plan, we’ll have to wait until 2023 for ExoMars to arrive and for the rover to start roaming the surface.
All in all, 2022 is looking to be a very exciting and fruitful time for space exploration.
“Here’s what I found on Google,” Domnhall Gleeson cheerily answers when I screech: “I have spilt coffee all over my stovetop – how to clean white shirt and kitchen bench?” I feel like he is negging me – or playing hard to get, perhaps.
Changing my iPhone’s Siri voice to that of an Irish man has been an exercise in self-soothing. Generic American register begone; now I have a generic Irish lilt – or, if I suspend my disbelief hard enough, the rapturous musings of Colin, Michael, Domnhall, or Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.
Niall Horan was (obviously) my preferred One Direction member as a boyband-crazy teen. As everyone swooned for Paul Mescal and his chain-sporting ways last year, I finally felt vindicated. Good old Pauly had been telling me the forecast for years.
Of course, being Irish is not the only virtue of these men. They also have great faces – which you, too, can conjure up at a moment’s notice by navigating the labyrinth of settings on your phone. The payoff is well worth it; with each gentle instruction from your personal Irish smooth-talker, you may feel your cortisol levels declining. (Your doctor may disagree.)
There are more tangible psychological ramifications to be found: a 2019 study by the United Nations revealed that the female voices of digital assistants – like Siri and Alexa – were entrenching gender stereotypes. “The speech of most voice assistants … sends a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers,” the study found.
By altering your Siri’s voice setting, you are training your brain to unlearn the coded biases within its subconscious – or at least that’s what you can tell yourself.
No more women doing your bidding. Just make Ronan Keating do it instead.