We Have to Talk About Platform Proliferation
This Week In Writing, we ask why no platform is content on doing one thing well and instead want to do all things poorly.
Elon Musk reportedly wants to turn Twitter into an "Everything App." Prevalent in other parts of the world, everything apps integrate social media with shopping, payments, and more. Basically, it's a way to contain everything you do in one place so the company can track everything and sell ads that target you.
While everything apps work in a country like China, where the government has unfettered access, I can't see the appeal in the United States. I'm also not sure if anyone wants such a thing. I also wonder how such an app gets developed when the current version of Twitter is held together with duct tape and hope.
Twitter began as a side project meant to update friends and co-workers on lunch plans. Eventually, it became the project and was released to the public. It has grown in popularity and functionality in nearly two decades since. Shortly before Musk purchased the site, Twitter bloated from simple messaging to groups, newsletters, news, subscriptions, and more. Now, Musk wants to bloat the functionality even further.
This desire to expand a platform's functionality isn't unique to Twitter. Facebook/Meta purchased Instagram and WhatsApp to broaden its feature set, capture more attention, and sell more ads. Substack is now following suit by adding Chat and Notes to the newsletter product.
As I pointed out last week, sending mass emails is expensive. It's also difficult to pull off well. Yet, Substack's core business model was providing this service at essentially zero cost. The platform allowed writers of any size audience to directly reach their audience without paying through the roof.
Unfortunately, this core model isn't profitable, and, to capture more users, Substack added a social media feed no one asked for. To complicate things further, the company has no real plans to add content moderation to this social feed.
I don't know why Substack wasn't content being the platform for newsletters. Sure, it isn't profitable, but there are ways to fix that without building a boring Twitter clone bathed in self-promotion.
The adage "you can't be everything to everyone" rings true here. Tech companies don't seem content with doing one thing really, really well. I don't know if it's the expectation of venture capitalists or just something in Silicon Valley's water, but each platform continues adding features that drastically change the business model. What results is a poor feature set across the board and, typically, an abandonment or devaluation of what brought the company success in the first place.
I still hope Substack figures out what it's doing and succeeds. Though, I'm more skeptical than I was a few weeks ago. I chose not to invest in the company, and they've basically resorted to begging me for my modest dollars.
The original deadline to invest in Substack was April 20. I then got an email that I had until April 28 to fund my investment. Over the weekend, I got one extending the deadline to May 8. It's not a good look at all.
Platforms refusing to be content just reinforces the point that their era ended. Why clone Twitter when there are better opportunities to dream about what comes next? Why try to be everything when you can do one or two things in a way that people can't resist? Twitter didn't learn and is bleeding users, and now Substack is trying to follow suit.
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A few weeks ago, I began building my Substack life raft on a self-hosted installation of Ghost. Over the weekend, my Ghost site launched! Behind the scenes, I still need to do a lot of work, but the core functionality is ready for visitors.
I'm in the process of transitioning subscribers to my other newsletter there. I am not currently moving This Week In Writing. Moving the paid subscriptions will take a lot of work that I need more time to prepare. There is no timeline to move This Week In Writing off of Substack. If and when that day comes, I'll provide ample notice.
For now, you can check out my Ghost-based site at JustinCox.com.
It reminds me how, at one point, LEGO decided to start making toys instead of building kits. Their value plummeted, and it took a surprisingly long time for somebody to realize, "We have the best toy in the world... THAT'S what people want from us!" The people at the top can make appallingly bad choices.
I'm a lot more enthusiastic about Substack. I think it's perfect for a free newsletter funneling people toward a paid thing hosted on ghost. I get the benefits of the platform without the cost.
And I actually think Notes is pretty cool. It's Mastodon I have to keep making myself use.