Substack Ho?

For a while now, I’ve been unhappy with WordPress. Their new editor is effectively unusable, and I’ve been using first Google Docs and recently LessWrong’s editor to compose new posts.

Last week, I was approached by a representative from Substack who pitched me on moving my blog from WordPress to Substack. This is my attempt to break down the pros and cons and decide whether to do it.

The advantages of Substack are:

  1.  The ability to sell subscriptions. It’s right there on the site, and many people who would subscribe have already entered their information subscribing to another Substack. Right now, if you want to support my writing (which to be very clear I absolutely do not need in any way, and if you are constrained by money please do not do this, but which is appreciated and motivating), you have to do so on Patreon. If I was bringing in more, I would be able to use some of that to improve quality (buy more subscriptions to other things, potentially hire editors or researchers to help, or simply justify devoting more time). At the extreme, there are worlds where this becomes my job, although no reasonable estimates have me close to that even if my other obligations were to wind down cleanly. 
  2. Email newsletter as a form of distribution, and a way to collect contact information. WordPress lets you subscribe to posts so you can get notified, but that’s one step removed and I don’t get those people’s contact information. This would likely get more people reading and give me a method of contacting people if it ever seemed worthwhile. You also get open rates and clickthrough rates on the emails, which is good data.
  3. Actual human support to help their writers seems to be available, at least at the level I’m currently on, which is nice.
  4. Their default comments formatting is superior to what I currently have on WordPress, except for the baseline ability to like comments, which I hate, but which I would be able to (and would) remove.  
  5. Some amount of extra discoverability via leader boards and via a link to my Twitter account. Some people are still subscribing to my mostly defunct Aikido Sports Substack that way. Some potential for additional promotion in the future, or other synergies with other Substack writers, although not now.
  6. If I had to guess, I’d guess that Substack was more likely to improve over time relative to a default WordPress setup I’d get if I don’t do any work.
  7. Poll said it would likely improve the blog’s value, and many seem to think the layout is cleaner/better.
  8. What else?

The disadvantages of Substack are:

  1. Switching costs are real, although over time they only go up. I’d have to choose whether to continue posting things to WordPress, and the old site would need to continue existing to avoid broken links, although the content could be copied across, but then it would be in three different places (as it’s already at LessWrong, which I am very happy about and have no plans to change). I’ve been told this can hurt search engine traffic for a while, although I don’t get much of that. Also, although I’ve tried out Substack, there’s presumably stuff I’m used to that I’m not thinking about now.
  2. If we do end up with three copies of everything, then there would be three distinct comment sections and pseudo-communities. Right now the comments I get at WordPress are pretty good unless the public gets brought in (when that happens, the internet will be the internet) and Substack might degrade that?
  3. WordPress can be customized yourself, Substack is trying to keep things standardized and doesn’t let you do that. If I got sufficiently big it might make sense to pay people to do custom work, or I could use tools created by Lightcone.
  4. WordPress offers some useful statistics in nice form, including what posts got how many hits on which days from what sources, views per visitor and a few other things. 
  5. WordPress standard front page layout gives you the opportunity to select where you’re going to cut (add the Read More button) so you can let people grok the essence and decide whether it’s worth proceeding further. Substack seems to limit the space here more than I would like, not allowing you to communicate the gist unless you can do it in two lines or so.
  6. Substack so far has not engaged in any censorship, but it seems more likely that there will be future censorship at Substack than WordPress. That would hopefully cause a mass exodus of writers, but various pressures likely will build over time. Given that my writing would likely have already been censored on Facebook or YouTube, this is a serious concern for me, even though I would have backups in place. Even a relatively light censorship regime likely would force me out, if only to avoid future ramping up. 
  7. Might make post auto-copying to LessWrong less trivial, although we think it mostly doesn’t.
  8. There will be the temptation to put some amount of content behind paywalls in order to increase monetization. This isn’t a pure negative, since money is good, and there are advantages to gated discussions, and people who pay for something value it more. But mostly the whole point of writing and discourse like this is to make it widely available to people, so it’s important that the content that matters stay completely free, both free as in speech and free as in beer. This could easily be a situation where choices are bad, or I might end up putting things behind paywalls when I shouldn’t. 
  9. The money could exert pressure on me to write more than I want to be writing, or worry too much about what people want, in ways that make my life (and writing perhaps) worse.
  10. What else?

So far most people have almost entirely thought switching was a good idea, so I’m inclined to do it. But it’s a big decision, so it makes sense to put up a post, write out the pros and cons, and give people a chance to think of things I may have missed. It’s also an opportunity for someone from WordPress to make the case against leaving, if such people exist. I’m not going to make a final decision for at least a few days (and of course, creating the Substack doesn’t force me to actually use it going forward if I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake, there’s no contract or anything). 

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52 Responses to Substack Ho?

  1. Arnold Kling says:

    I think it’s easier to publicize from substack. It’s easy to echo to Twitter, if you have a Twitter account. And there is the automatic email distribution. Both of those used to be easy to do on WordPress, but they became more difficult–some of that was due to my Internet provider not wanting to blast out emails.

  2. Matty Wacksen says:

    With these questions it may be worth also thinking about it in the other direction – if you were already on substack, would you switch to wordpress?

    As a reader, I prefer wordpress/lw to substack, but I don’t see many advantages for writers provided you can “pick up your stuff and leave” substack if things go sour.

    • TheZvi says:

      Thank you, I hadn’t explicitly asked myself that question and it’s a very good question to be asking. The answer is that unless I had issues I don’t currently anticipate, I wouldn’t be thinking about it.

  3. myst_05 says:

    I think a big advantage is that you could add a $1/month subscription on Substack and lock comments on controversial posts to paying members only. $1/month shouldn’t hurt anyone financially but would significantly improve comment quality. Those without an account could still shoot you an email if they have useful info. You’ve previously mentioned that moderating comments is a big chore that distracts you from spending time efficiently.

  4. Dan Elton says:

    I wouldn’t bother unless you think you could make more money there and that would help you write more or better quality content. If the money is an important consideration, you might want to see if they’d be willing to offer you an advance.

    There is a way for readers to get email notifications for your posts on (which I have enabled), although it’s not as well advertised as on Substack (it seems you have to go to and manually configure it and there is no “email notification sign-up” button anywhere).

    • Dan Elton says:

      Right after I posted my comment, I found the button to “follow” and configure notifications in the lower right hand corner of the page on WordPress (it disappears when you scroll down).

    • TheZvi says:

      Yep. I get emails every so often when someone follows, but I don’t get the person’s email and most people don’t use it.

    • myst_05 says:

      I think a lot of people just subscribe via RSS readers too, which won’t be visible in stats. I’m using Feedly for all the bloggers I follow.

      • madonna says:

        I use Feedly too, so now I get notified in two places for Substack blogs (but I can change that). From a “building community” perspective I think it’s a good idea to have access to your reader’s emails.

  5. FoundOnWeb says:

    I’m a longtime, low volume WP user. When they went to the new editor I just made an almost blank draft article named ‘Classic Template’, and I just copy and rename that when I write something new. My all of my reader seems to be ok with that.

  6. hello_there says:

    I believe on substack, people can upvote/downvote comments, and sort by most upvotes. I’m a big fan of that. It has downsides, but is usually pretty good at bringing the best comments to the top, and encouraging people to write good comments, since that will get them seen.

    • TheZvi says:

      What’s interesting is that I sufficiently hate what that does in other ways that I made disabling that a dealbreaker condition of a potential move. I do get that it makes it easier to browse, but I hate the incentives.

  7. Adam says:

    Hello! Automattic employee here (the parent company of I’m happy to point you to some resources that will help keep a good home for you. :)

    I don’t work directly on myself, but I know it is possible to set up subscription payments from readers even on our cheapest plan, Personal. Here’s a site we have that walks you through it:

    In the interest of keeping this comment brief, I won’t address everything point by point here, but feel free to reach out to me via email. It should show up in the Comments section of your dashboard:

    Just click the User Info icon over on the right.

  8. Daniel Speyer says:

    As a commenter, I appreciate Substack’s “Email me when someone replies to my comment” feature. WordPress’s “Email me when someone comments on the same post I did” feature is way less useful.

    As for censorship, Scott listed resistance to that as a *benefit* of Substack

  9. My blog is now hosted on WordPress and Substack. One issue I ran into is that Google does not automatically index Substacks, and I cannot figure out how to do it manually. This article ( claims it used to have an easy way to do it, but Substack removed that option and now there doesn’t seem to be any way. If you find one, please let me know because I would love for my Substack blog to be googleable.

    • If you do switch, I recommend making your comments section subscribers only. It’s nice to have a place where only the big fans are talking, especially if there are other places non-subscribers can comment.

  10. Nate says:

    If there’s no lock in (in the short term) then it’s something of a two way door. You could always try it out, continuing to crosspost, then revert back to just this blog and lesswrong if it isn’t a value add.

  11. thechaostician says:

    I would vote against Substack.

    I personally find paywalls and subscription walls infuriating. If I click on a link and it takes me to something that I can’t read, it makes me want to quite reading that blog entirely. Even if the payment is trivial, paying to read something feels qualitatively different from reading something someone offers you for free.

    Substack is taking a strong stand against censorship right now. I don’t know if they’ll continue to be strongly against censorship in 5 years. The internet is full of places that started as anti-censorship places and gradually adopted censorship.

    Substack’s main benefit is that it helps blogs optimize for publicity and monetization. I’m not convinced that that is a good thing. It looks like a good thing for the individual and for the short term. I certainly wouldn’t mind more publicity for my blog. But getting better at optimizing for publicity and monetization might led to and then to something like current media or social media. It might be harder to maintain your blog as a peculiar people on Substack.

    Something Substack is particularly good at is connecting people to more blogs they might like. This reduces the fragmentation of the blogosphere. Fragmentation is the best defense against groupthink. I’m concerned that Substack is going to get all of the bloggers in one place and talking to each other, which will reduce the biodiversity of the blogosphere.

    I’ve been impressed with what you’ve written for the last year or so that I’ve read your blog, so I would keep on reading if you moved to Substack. But I would prefer it to stay here.

    • TheZvi says:

      I too find the walls infuriating, and would have a strong intention to avoid them, but I do know how that one goes over the long term, and there would be pressure to offer at least something – e.g. subscription-only comment threads or strategy posts at first, probably, but then other things. The good news is I’m under zero money pressure, so there’d be no reason to sacrifice reach for cash, but yeah, it’s a temptation.

      The connecting question is more interesting. Fragmentation being a ‘this is good actually’ thing is something I notice I’m skeptical about, but it’s not impossible. Certainly being able to find all the good blogs is good and I’m sad about the ones I didn’t find, but also I’m sad about all the f***ing paywalls. The homogeny issue with regard to content? I dunno.

      • thechaostician says:

        I don’t think that fragmentation is a good in general. But I do think that it is one of things that makes blogs a uniquely useful contribution to the public discourse.

        What makes blogs different from over forms the media?

        Fragmentation is one of the key differences. Blogs exist and compete in smaller circles. They are less subject to intense competitive pressure – or at least to a lot of different competitive pressures. And so blogs are much more diverse than, say, online newspapers.

        Fragmentation is especially valuable if you believe that there are multiple legitimate value systems that are not completely compatible. Optimizing for rationality will not lead to the same results as optimizing for compassion – or for a weighted sum of rationality and compassion. If you want there to exist groups of people who are optimized for multiple different values systems, then fragmentation helps a lot.

  12. AnonCo says:

    You have probably already seen this, but Nintil has written a great overview / longview of the Substack trajectory that is excellent:

    Even though I like a lot of individual substacks atm, I’m against it simply because:

    I know it’s not the same, but walled gardens gonna walled garden…

    • AnonCo says:

      Edit: I did not remember this, but turns out ADS wrote the article as a guest post on Nintil. Just to give proper credit.

  13. Mango says:

    Dear Zvi, I have a few concerning questions about Covid-19 that don’t let me sleep, so I hope that posting them here would be fine:

    1. Would it be safe/appropriate for me to take the “new, effective drug” ( in case of infection? It has been synthesized and studied very recently, and since last year I struggle with trusting the mainstream consensus and my local doctors without carefully investigating things on my own.

    2. I’m a young man after two doses of Pfizer taken 5 months ago (still alive, no major adverse reactions). Should I be concerned about the potential long-term side effects in the light of such whistleblowing reports?

    3. This is a study from The Lancet with a large sample size, suggesting (please correct me if I’m wrong) that the vaccine is at best ineffective and potentially detrimental after 9 months. Authors conclude with a call for the booster shot – but what if they’re pressured to frame it like this? What if it might as well indicate that vaccines offer less protection than expected, and given the frequency of side effects and potential long-term risks, there might be specific groups (e.g. young, relatively isolated men) for whom getting booster shots twice a year might be a suboptimal strategy?

    4. There’s also this paper on all-cause severe morbidity, though I’m not sure about its credibility. Thoughts?

    5. How do you generally feel about spending the next few years on – unless something changes – getting booster shots each 6-9 months, having to wear masks, maintaining constant vigilance in public spaces, living in the atmosphere of increasing tensions, and being largely isolated? It affects my productivity and overall quality of life…

  14. TheZvi says:

    For those seeing this, I’d prefer Covid comments on Covid posts even if they’re not the most recent one, but happy to answer here.

    Before I get to the answers individually, seriously, none of this should keep you from sleeping. Not sleeping is a *bigger problem* for you than the health risks of Covid-19 (or any worries about vaccines, which are far smaller even than that). You’re young, it’s fine to stay informed but there’s no need to obsess over this stuff and lose sleep, please don’t!

    1. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. Haven’t seen that study, no time to look in detail now, will put it in notes for this week’s post. But ‘useless or detrimental after 9 months’ is obvious nonsense, if that was true we would know because it would be obvious in the stats. Same with this being in men but not women, etc.
    4. I can’t even with this one. No just no, the idea that there were enough ‘adverse severe events’ in the clinical trials that they make up for 96% prevention of Covid is… no, sorry, can’t even.
    5. I would not stand for that package of things, or most subsets of it, and I hope I’ve been clear about that. Seriously why would you be vigilant forever if you’re getting boosters? Why would you isolate? Or even wear masks if not required to do so?

    • lunashields says:

      Regarding 4 and “can’t even”. I opened the study to read and make fun of(being hugely pro-vaccine and all). And on a first read it looked surprisingly solid. Eg moderna study did only have 30 severe cases of covid reported in treatment group, and they did have several thousand(!!) more grade 3/4(requiring invasive treatment at the very least) adverse events reported in the same. I plan to read through vaccine studies some more to get clearer picture (eg perhaps severe covid and grade 3 severe effect aren’t really the same severity level), but would be interesting for your take on it.

      But it doesn’t take a lot of events to overcome just 30 cases differences. And grade 4 events are “life threatening or disabling”, and there’s 11 more of those in a treatment group in first 7 days already.

      • lunashields says:

        Now, one immediate objection would be that there were a very little covid cases in both groups overall(in absolute numbers), and protection is ongoing, so hopefully there’d be no more continuing adverse effects later, but covid protection will be collecting more and more differences to the right side. But if you need to do boosters every 6 months I’m not sure even that math would be obviously clear, needs to be closely checked.

      • TheZvi says:

        Nope, they’re saying we’re seeing more health effects from vaccines than they’re preventing and we need to stop vaccinations before we have a public health crisis on our hands, can’t even, sorry, not unless I’m getting my hourly fee.

      • lunashields says:

        What they are saying is an obvious bs, but the amount of severe adverse effects in the vaccine trials came as a big surprise to me. That’s the part that was interesting.

        Also for some reason I can’t nest comment more than this level, another reason to move to substack

      • TheZvi says:

        Yeah, I cut off deepness at this level because if you don’t it looks awful. I don’t know how to fix that but looking into it.

      • It’s total nonsense. You should know that can’t represent a hospitalization rate because think about what that world would look like (including the FDA flipping their shit over 1 in hundreds of thousands blood clots but being fine with sending 20% of the treatment arm to the hospital, come on now)

        If you look at the actual filing,

        Grade 3 is any impairment of daily activity. 20% of people felt too crappy post-jab to do something. Sure, seems in the ballpark. The actual bad stuff is in their grade 4 and it’s effectively nonexistent.

    • Mango says:

      Thank you, Zvi. I feel at least partially reassured, though I still worry about the possibility of subtle, decentralized, multi-layered suppression of input suggesting the decreased effectiveness and/or the increased risks of getting vaccinated. I’m vaccinated and generally strongly pro-vax, but I’m afraid that if there were some hypothetical, valid, emerging concerns about the Covid-19 vaccines, it would be very difficult to distill them from the noise and signal-boost under the current incentive structures.

      I don’t want to pick between the pure conspiracies and the very fallible mainstream, so I resort to the opinions of people like you doing the “top-notch rationality thing” using empirical data and logic.

  15. kaminiwa says:

    Slate Star Codex moved to Substack and I haven’t had any objections to following them there -vs- here.

    Using RSS to follow a feed with paid posts is a bit frustrating if you’re not a subscriber: there’s not a clear indicator of free -vs- paid posts until you click and find out you don’t get to read it. But that’s only an issue if you’re doing paid posts, and you could easily just prefix the article title.

  16. I’m trying to identify a single thing you posted that would actually result in deletion from facebook/twitter/youtube. I think your fear of these corporations is far greater than the reality. What is posting “masks prevent roughly 12% of cases” or “Children under the age of 10 are more likely to die in a swimming pool accident than COVID” really going to be yelled at as “wrong?” or what about “COVID killed fewer people in 2020 than heart attacks” None of these statements (of which I could only find a few that you personally posted) would get moderators in a hissy fit. They have FAR more pressing matters than that even if they were maximally evil.

    • TheZvi says:

      They have rules that contradicting health authorities is grounds for such action, and we know of a number of cases where people got in trouble for statements of fact, or for advocating obviously correct policies that were later adopted, etc. I’m not going to worry about pulling examples, so my model is it would come down to attention – usually they’d have more pressing matters but if a few people decided to complain who knows.

  17. DCM says:

    Zvi, while I will miss the wordpress astehtic I would support the move! Have come to quite like substack, in fact, I get your postings through my substack reader!

    Just a note, as you might imagine, I would expect that your readerbase might grow quite fast once you are on Substack, so be prepared for that and make sure that it is what you want (I think this is good for the world and you, just noting). It is much easier/more learned to sub to someone on substack and I am sure your stack would get plenty of pointers from ACX and others.

    I also suspect that the comment section here would migrate, if you asked it to.

    Best of luck!

  18. TheZvi says:

    Ghost presented a strong case that it’s a better option than Substack. You sacrifice some discovery and some ability to collect payments (e.g. people won’t have their CC information already entered) but in exchange you get better pricing, better customizability, better and faster improving features and full security since it’s all open source and you could self-host on a dime if anything went wrong, and people who want to help you.

    What are people’s thoughts on this option?

  19. Pingback: Covid 11/11: Winter and Effective Treatments Are Coming | Don't Worry About the Vase

  20. Name says:

    One more disadvantage is that substack requires javascript to read comments, much less post. Javascript is an unnecessarily large attack surface, has a long history of vulnerabilities, and is widely used for spyware. Even if one trusts the current site operators, malicious advertisements and script injection vulnerabilities are common.
    I realize that this affects a very small minority of users, and makes abuse by bots and trolls easier. And, in the first place, I rarely read comments and almost never post. But still, I appreciate that I can post here.

  21. Greg Taz says:

    Two thoughts…

    1) on censorship… get a guarantee that they won’t. If they providing a public guarantee and statement of principles, don’t take risk, and,

    2) on subscriptions, seek a micropayment option. I would pay for content gladly, but won’t spend $200 / month on, say 20 or 30 subs. There has to be a way to let the public in at modest overall substack cost.

  22. art says:

    stay, switch, cross-post, other
    I suggest other as the likely solution, or at least as my preference. Keep what you have here while posting additionally elsewhere.
    Shorter, easier, more frequent posts can go to Substack or Ghost.
    I will keep watching this feed in the hope that you continue to post longer and less mainstream articles occasionally.
    I also like the comment feed here. Most platforms don’t have them, and most sites don’t attract a supply of comments worth reading.

  23. art says:

    working around the wordpress editor
    I’ve just tried the editor again, and yes, it’s a mess.
    Years ago, when I was using, I didn’t put up with the "classic" editor. I bypassed it by posting and updating through the API or pasting the finished html into the "code" editor.
    I’ve checked on a closed site, and bypassing the editor still works.
    Type control-shift-alt-M to switch to "code". Due to the perennial focus bug, you may need to click in the editor text area first.
    Control-v to paste your finished text. If you’re updating a post, control-a to select all first.
    That is all you ever do in the wordpress editor. You edit the text elsewhere and convert to html for pasting.

  24. SM says:

    On censorship: WordPress is already censoring:

    And it’s partially owned by Salesforce Ventures, and the CEO of Salesforce is very openly political, on the pro-censorship side. While I doubt he would personally be involved in such decisions, these things – e.g. the pro-censorship stance – have a way of trickling down the chain.

  25. occasional commenter says:

    substack has extremely poor performance on my low end laptop. I’m not sure what they’re doing wrong for what are basically text pages but it’s very noticeable. so I’d register a switch as a slight decrease in value for me.

    but as long as rss syndication continues to work correctly (which it has for substacks I read) it’s not a big deal. substack is certainly cooler these days.

  26. Alex N says:

    I use RSS for everything. If I take as an example, right now (1/6) the latest update was on 1/3. Yet my RSS reader (feedreader) shows no new entries. For anything but Substack it usually works well.

    So RSS may or may not be working on Substack.

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