Leaving Substack for Ghost

Leaving Substack for Ghost
Midjourney: Steampunk scene with a robot flying away in a steampunk hotair ballon.

I didn't expect to be writing another post over the new year, but here we are. This blog isn't intended to be political or socially activist (except perhaps insofar as AI impacts big societal decisions), but sometimes issues come to your door.

Substack is a great technical platform and certainly lowered the barrier for me to start publishing again. Unfortunately, its leadership is choosing not to act against extremist violence-inducing content on its platform. The issues were highlighted in the Atlantic by Jonathan Katz, "Substack has a Nzi Problem" (paywalled) and debated elsewhere. Substack writers also wrote an open letter to the platform leadership ("Substackers against Nazis"). The leadership response was to be silent for quite some time and then finally respond in a post on the 21st December. In the post, Hamish McKenzie makes a number of free speech arguments and states that Substack's distributed (read very permissive) approach to content moderation is intended to avoid the kind of suppression of speech used in the past "by the powerful to suppress the powerless." The core of the argument seems to be that unless speech is directly inciting specific violence or unrest, it is acceptable on the platform.

While I'm absolutely pro-free speech, I cannot agree that these arguments apply in this case.

The change...

For this reason, I've decided to follow the lead of multiple others and move this newsletter to Ghost instead. Hopefully, very little will change for you in the experience, but I recognize not everyone might be happy with the change (substack is convenient for readers, too). You're receiving this post via Ghost already. I've also taken the opportunity to finally attach a proper domain so you can now see all previous posts on http://www.steampunkai.com/. (Links in old emails will cease to work soon since they are to the substack domain.). If you experience problems, please let me know in the comments or by email!

Pro free speech

If I say, "I'm pro-free-speech," why would I disagree with the substack leadership and move SteampunkAI?

Firstly, this is not something I do lightly. (I'd rather not spend my time moving platforms, but more than anything, I don't want this newsletter to focus on this topic).

I believe that current attitudes to free speech in the United States have become highly toxic. Specifically, those on the United States Democratic ("political left" if there is such a thing) have continued down the "cancel culture" path of dismissing unpopular voices and opinions. Effectively shouting them down in popular discourse and ostracising speakers who make unpopular statements. This is extremely dangerous because:

  1. It contributes to the already deep polarization of political debate.
  2. It means anyone with "moderate" opinions in the middle is much less likely to speak out. They fear of being attacked by both sides of an argument.
  3. It makes it impossible to build compromise.

To be clear, this polarization and cancellation happens on both sides of the political spectrum, but it is (unfortunately) the supposedly progressive Democratic/Left side of the spectrum that is pushing it hardest. Certain political positions on each side of the spectrum have now become "ideology." to the extent that speach about them is shouted down. There is little chance of building a center consensus when both sides are consumed with shouting each other down. A similar pattern is building in other countries.

So why leave?

Wanting hard truths and opinions to be heard and debated isn't the same as believing it's okay to support and amplify the voices of hate groups. While an individual post may not include a specific incitement of hatred, it is very clear that some of the hosted writers are white supremacists and subscribe to many of the principles of one of the most hateful ideologies humanity has ever seen. (See the "Substackers against Nazis" post.). These groups and views:

  • Promote harm (even eradication) of certain groups of individuals. While they might not incite violence in a specific post, their entire purpose is to harm some social and racial groups.
  • These ideologies, where they hold sway themselves, suppress speech. A cursory glance at the history of Nazi Germany will tell you that. They would have no qualms in supressing the speech in others that they aim to benefit from.

I firmly subscribe to the idea that to foster tolerant discourse, the one thing you cannot tolerate is intolerance. (This is part of the the Tolerance Paradox.) Groups with ideologies that call for the elimination of other groups or seek to shut down discourse will ultimately destroy tolerance if they are allowed to do so.

Should Substack change its policy? I don't know. I would have hoped for a more understanding and proactive approach. Arguing such hate groups should be platformed since they are "free speech" seems highly disingenuous to me given their nature, but ultimately, the management team has to decide.

For my part, I have the luxury of moving my blog elsewhere. Minor as it likely is, I hope it counts as at least one vote toward curbing hateful content on the platform.

Why Ghost?

There are a number of substack alternatives. Thank you to Audrey Watters for tipping me over the edge to go with Ghost (see her post here). It's been a good experience so far.

I'd add that one very big factor for me was that Ghost has a fully open-source version available. I think that's hugely valuable because people can move their sites to independent hosting if they wish.

Other Substacks

One thing I definitely will not be doing is unsubscribing from other substack newsletters I follow (there are plenty) that don't switch. None of them are focused on topics remotely related to this issue, and a writer's life is hard enough without dealing with platform issues.

I recognize that I'm in an easy position in the fact that I can move without any significant impact on me (I don't earn my living from the posts here). Ultimately, I'll continue to read them if they stay or go.

After all that...

Happy New Year!

I'll be upgrading and tweaking the blog/newsletter as we go into 2024.