by Will Schreiber

Don’t Judge a Substack By Its Cover

Medium was beautiful when it first launched. The WYSIWYG editor blew my mind. Ads didn’t cover the first three paragraphs. It’s where all the cool kids published.

Reading an article on Medium felt like getting an email from an address in 2004. “This person must know what’s up, they’re on Medium!”

The content was great. There were fantastic Federal Reserve breakdowns and Apple iPhone hot takes.

But when I land on Medium posts now, I find myself discounting the articles before I even read them. Perhaps it’s that every article has the same little M in the top left, the same h1 size and font and color, the same you’ve-reached-your-reading-limit pop-up. Perhaps it’s the fact that Jeff Bezos’ dick pic post lives next to JavaScript framework flamewars. Whatever the case, Medium’s layout no longer magnifies an aura of “expertness” for its authors.

Substack feels a lot like Medium’s early days. It’s great they’ve made newslettering easy. I love reading blogs. But as the number of Twitter bios with Substack subdomains grows, my eagerness to click through is shrinking.

The problem is twofold.

First, there’s a signal problem.

Medium used to amplify credibility. Now I find the opposite to be true for me. “Oh this person just throws stuff on Medium? Probably not worth my time.” X-out.

Second, there’s a visual memory problem.

I’m a sucker for unique CSS. As pretentious as that sounds, it’s not a conscious judgment. Daring Fireball’s grey background is soothing. The big green Marginal Revolution monster is endearing. It’s easy to find Paul Graham’s article in my tabs: it’s the only Yahooo! favicon.

Substack’s (and Medium’s) locked layouts mean I look past the author, read the post, and then move on. It’s similar to Spotify’s Discover Weekly. Despite listening to the playlist on repeat, I can’t name a single artist from it.

People who already have a huge audience will likely succeed massively with Substack. The experience is easy. It’s thoughtful. It’s simple. Lowering the bar for online publishing is fantastic. I am cheering for them.

But I hope I don’t find myself groaning when I click on Substack links.

Medium became a victim of its own success. Too much noise, not enough signal. I wonder how Substack can avoid the same fate.