Explained | What went wrong between Twitter and Substack

What is Substack and its upcoming feature Notes, and why did Twitter block Substack links, later reversing the decision

April 15, 2023 09:33 am | Updated 05:13 pm IST

Users of the digital newsletter platform Substack reported they could not like or retweet Twitter posts with Substack links.

Users of the digital newsletter platform Substack reported they could not like or retweet Twitter posts with Substack links. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: On 8 April, users of the digital newsletter platform Substack reported they could not like or retweet Twitter posts with Substack links. Users complained they could not add tweets to their Substack newsletter unless they were added as screenshots. Twitter also stopped returning searches for Substack on the platform, instead showing results for “newsletter”.

Twitter CEO Elon Musk denied claims of blocking access to tweets embedded with Substack links. Musk’s denial came after independent journalist and author Matt Taibbi blamed Twitter for blocking the sharing of links to his articles on Substack. Twitter later removed the restriction on Substack links, and stopped censoring searches for the term ‘Substack.’

What is Substack?

Substack, launched in 2017, is an online publishing platform that lets writers and podcasters publish and share content directly with their targeted audience. The platform allows content creators to generate income directly from subscribers on their terms. For readers and listeners, the platform provides an easy way to access content and support individual creators based on users’ needs and preferences.

How is Substack connected to Twitter?

Susbtack content creators look to social media platforms to create additional engagement with readers and listeners. It also helps them grow their audience base. So, creators post links on Twitter, Facebook, and other prominent social media for interested users to subscribe to and follow posts regularly. These links are used to redirect users to content published on Substack, driving online traffic toward the original content published on the platform.

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How did Twitter make it difficult for users to access Substack links?

Substack alleged that embeds and authentication of links had stopped working on Twitter. Meanwhile, users on Twitter complained that Substack links on Twitter were marked as possibly “unsafe.”

Users also raised complaints that they struggled to like or retweet Twitter posts that had Substack links. Some users said they could not add tweets to their Substack newsletters unless they took screenshots. Twitter users also reported seeing results with “newsletter” when searching for Substack on the platform.

How many people subscribe to Substack?

Substack is a younger platform compared to Twitter and, in recent times, has seen a surge in popularity with a million active users in November 2021, according to Statista. The newsletter platform claims it has 35 million active subscriptions to writers on the platform, including more than 2 million paid subscriptions.

Why did Twitter block its links?

Though their business models differ, Twitter has been trying hard to get more subscribers to its own Blue subscription since its launch in November 2022. Meanwhile, according to Statista, Twitter’s own monthly active user base as on December 2022 stood at 368 million worldwide. And the platform is expected to witness a drop in its monthly active user to around 335 million users in 2024.

This comes at a time when Twitter’s revenue from top advertisers has fallen sharply in recent months following its takeover by Elon Musk. In March 2023, Twitter reportedly witnessed a drop of 40% year-over-year in both revenue and adjusted earnings for December 2022. The platform also saw a decline of 71% in advertising during December 2022, according to advertising research firm Standard Media Index.

So, it seems Twitter does not want users to migrate to other platforms through links shared via tweets or retweets to ensure users spend more time on the platform which in turn boosts its position to increase advertising revenue.

What is Substack Notes and what is its role in Twitter censoring links?

Substack on April 5, three days before Twitter started censoring links, announced it would be launching its short-form content platform called Notes. The company shared that Notes will provide users with a platform to post short-form content while using recommendations to drive discovery across the platform.

Notes will come with features for users to publish brief posts, and quotes along with reactions, images, and links. Substack says Notes will run on paid subscriptions and not ads, unlike other social media platforms. However, its short-form content seems to pit it as a rival to Twitter, a microblogging format, which is also actively looking to increase its paid subscriber count.

Does Twitter allow sharing links?

While Twitter has not been against sharing links to other platforms, things seem to have changed since Elon Musk took over the company’s reins in October 2022.

In December 2022, Twitter, in a post, said it would no longer allow users to promote their presence on other social media platforms. These included Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Truth Social, Tribel, Nostr, and Post.

Twitter, in the post, said it would take action against users that violate the policy “at both the Tweet level and the account level,” according to a report from The Verge.

Twitter also said that while any type of cross-posting was not a violation of the policy, even from prohibited sites, it would allow paid advertisements and promotions for any of the prohibited social media platforms.

Twitter, after facing backlash, reversed the policy within 48 hours of being implemented with an apology from the CEO. Twitter later deleted the link announcing the policy.

Do linkless tweets perform better on Twitter?

While Twitter does not actively state whether its algorithms penalise tweets with links, an experiment from Hootsuite, a social media management platform, suggests that linkless tweets garner more engagement than those with them. The experiment did say that engagement for tweets with links could be lower as they require action on the part of users but showed that engagement for linkless tweets with shorter messages outperformed those with links.

An analysis of Twitter’s algorithms using the GPT-4 browsing feature by Rowan Cheung, founder of Rundown, an AI newsletter, also hinted that users should avoid using excessive links in their tweets. Especially ones from non-news or media sites. However, whether this is due to Twitter’s algorithms or user preferences cannot be conclusively established.

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