Where to Share Thoughts
(About Substack Notes and Social Media)
There is another, more-like-usual, letter in draft form, to wing its way to you like those returning swifts of summer, along with a couple of other, briefer offerings too, like the one I shared last week. I’m experimenting*.
This is something different, something you might be interested in.
The photographs here have nothing to do with the text, other than they were taken by me. I simply wanted to share something visual, rather than just a lot of words. All pics are from Lisbon, little street pics which have not yet all found a home elsewhere. I have a LOT of similar shots, and shall be sharing some more soon.
If you’ve read my letter for a while, you’ll know how I have been trying to find my place in the world of social media, testing different platforms and wondering where I fit best, if anywhere. These days, I have exploratory accounts all over the place, some with no posts, others with brave attempts to share things I love, words and thoughts I think others will like, and ideas which should make the world a better place.
But, thus far, nothing has fit as well as the earlier days of twitter. In those far-off, mythical times, conversations were full of interesting things and conducted with kind, interesting people. I listened, I learned, I asked questions and, sometimes, I even provided answers. I spoke to other writers, other naturalists, to people who loved what they do, whose passion was evident in every tweet.
I have seen talk of twitter always being toxic — maybe I was lucky, but my feed never felt that way in those days. Not until the arrival of the Russian troll houses and bot networks, tested during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, then intensified with Brexit and onwards, did I find much else other than healthy debate and thoughtfully-considered answers. It was a good time to be alive. There were outliers, of course, but on the whole I did not consider my feed toxic.
(There is a strong caveat here, one I need to highlight. I was not personally attacked on twitter up until around that point, but others certainly were, especially women, Black people, those who identify as LGBTQIA+, those who follow a religion — in short, those who are sadly so often targeted simply for being who they are. There is no doubt about that. There is an ongoing debate about content moderation on Substack — in short, it is not perfect [is anywhere?]. Personally, I’m still all in favour of not giving Nazis or other bigots a platform. If someone doesn’t play nicely, why should we play with them?)
Sometime, starting in the early 2010s, came the fall, the decline of twitter into an arena for shouting, for misinformation, for the deliberate destruction of real knowledge and the erosion of decent values. Algorithms changed, things went from a place where I honestly felt safe and happy and full of words which meant something to, well, whatever the opposite of that is. I had managed to shield myself from much of the bile and hatred simply by deign of being careful who I followed, who I befriended, who appeared on my feed. At some point, those algorithms began to ensure I was force-fed some of what I had been missing.
The people I loved to talk with slowly began to fall silent, or in many cases simply disappeared overnight. Writers, by and large, are not usually predisposed to putting up with abuse and bile — we want to share things which mean something, whether through fiction, narrative non-fiction, or a simple tweet. Arguments broke out and festered, people — and those aforementioned trolls and bots — would immediately jump on threads and share their own brand of hatred.
It was not what it had been. Yet, there were — and still are — those who persevered, who kept trying to show the way through goodness, kindness, and the free exchange of respectful thought and idea. I stayed, probably longer than I should have, to be honest. Technically, I’m still there now, but my recent tweets are a poor excuse for media in general and even poorer for ‘social media’.
I did not want to spend time on twitter any more than I wanted to spend time on Facebook. Neither seemed to be a good use of the hours I have left on this planet and, after trialling and testing several possible alternatives, I was happy to take myself away, return to the “peace” of a Scrivener draft, or the “harmony” of the edit (ha, ha, ha.).
But, being globally feral and having not lived in an English-speaking nation since I left Scotland nearly 6 years ago, I missed varied conversations which inspired, which taught, and which felt safe and warm. I have my family and my friends of course, but the input from near or total strangers is a powerful thing, doing wonders for the writer. Finding like-minded people and exchanging words is not to be sniffed at.
Earlier this month, something changed. Substack Notes appeared. Perhaps this could be a shining beacon of hope in the dark places of the internet? (Said tongue-in-cheek.)
You might have heard about this already, about how El*n M*sk had a panic over Notes, banning and shadow-banning tweets, users, searches, anything to do with Substack. In some ways, he has good reason — but Notes is not a twitter-killer. It is something more, something potentially much better. It is what twitter could have been, had things been different.
Some of the people who had been denigrated over on twitter, those who fell silent or disappeared, had turned to the functionality of the newsletter, and Substack is perhaps the best known platform for this. Soon, I will personally have been sending letters out for four years. That’s a long time on the internet.
Why would we, as writers, want to stand and have a shouting match with someone who doesn’t want to try and understand the words we share? We don’t. Instead, we have carefully and steadily built up and curated valued subscribers and readers, people who actually choose to read what we share. We care about you — you are an audience, yes, which therefore gives value to what we do, but we also see you, the letter reader, as someone elevated above those who spill their rage all over social media. It is good to have you, and to be able to share my words with you.
However, conversation, quick ideas, thoughts, snippets, images and responses — these things have felt lacking, for me at least. I have craved a place to be able to talk to those who want to listen, and listen to those whose words I want to hear. I would like to be able to talk to you, the reader, more.
Substack Notes gives me, and you, the functionality to do exactly this.
Is this social media as we know it? No. Despite looking very familiar to Twitter users, the model behind Notes is completely different. Here, the writer and reader are central to the whole, not the advert or faceless company trying to encourage clicks and purchases. There are no adverts. Instead, the money for Substack comes from another place — a percentage of the subscription fees for the writers who share their work here.
At the time of writing, my letter is free. It will remain so, in that you will continue to receive an email once a month, perhaps more often, in much the same fashion as you have thus far, for the last four years (which has amounted to a LOT of words).
At some point in the future, I will almost certainly release a subscription-based version. I also have at least one other letter-based project in the pipeline, which will also be predominantly paid-for.
The thing is, I need to make a living. And, up until fairly recently (the birth of our daughter, Ailsa, perhaps?), I have struggled to justify this. I am too British, too indoctrinated to believe art can have true, financial value — it is something I have tried hard to overcome and, the more I live in places where the writer and artist are valued as they should be, the more I begin to realise there is no shame in asking people to pay for my work.
Writing is work.
Substack Notes, to me, feels like a proverbial missing piece of the puzzle. It arrived in my life and slotted in exactly where I had a gap, a need. I am trying not to spend too much time there, limiting my interactions and ensuring I do not lose valuable long-form writing hours (and reading hours), but there is a flip side to this — the better the quality of conversation, the deeper other writers and readers make me think, the better my own work. It is that simple — I love to read, whether novels or non-fiction, but I also want to see shorter forms of worthwhile writing (and images, for that matter).
Substack Notes gives me that — and perhaps it can give you that too? Maybe you have also been craving a space where you can have civil, engaged, deeper and more interesting conversations? Or, for that matter, somewhere you can be yourself with a better chance of no one shouting you down. You can follow someone on Notes without subscribing to their newsletter, or do both. You can reply, restack, share images, quotes, posts and more. It will feel familiar but strangely fresh.
The people I follow, the writers who will populate my Notes feed, are thinkers, they are artists, they are far, far more considered in their responses and what they share than those whose tweets seem to be promoted over on twitter these days. A safe space is crucial to a healthy internet.
Others have talked about how the internet seems to want to be fragmented once more — forums dedicated to niche interests, ideas shared in smaller places as they once were in the early days, without fear of being shouted down by those who wish to do nothing but try and bully. There will always be those who want to destroy instead of build and, frankly, I have no desire to engage with them. I choose my battles carefully and I really have no time to argue in that fashion.
Substack Notes is a space which offers me hope. It is once more a thrill to read my feed, rather than fear it. I feel like I can actually talk again, rather than silently shake my head and head away to write something else. I don’t think it is going to be the twitter many people would like but, for me, I think it is certainly closer to what I need: the words, images, thoughts and musings of writers and artists and respectful, interesting, interaction with them. Maybe that’s what you want too?
In short, give it a try if you wish — you are likely to find many people who share wonderful letters, I know I already have.
It feels very good to have the opportunity, as a writer and a reader, to have a space which can be populated with good and kind and fascinating things.
*For some, change is always bad. After my last, brief (by my standards) letter about the returning swifts in Gruissan, I lost quite a few subscribers, compared to the usual letters.
For me, change is not always bad — in fact, I view change as growth. We need to keep pushing ourselves, need to keep trying to be more, to make a difference in new and interesting ways — but only if we enjoy it.
In my eyes, change and growth should be a little scary, sure, but they should also bring reward and joy. If my letters do not bring these things, then please don’t worry about unsubscribing! I’d like to keep you here by writing things you enjoy, but there will never be any way to please everyone.
Here’s an example of a Note I shared this morning:
The following paragraphs are from Substack’s own template for explaining Notes to subscribers. They offer technical details of how to use the platform and, as such, I think they are useful here:
Notes is a new space on Substack for us to share links, short posts, quotes, photos, and more. I plan to use it for things that don’t fit in the newsletter, like work-in-progress or quick questions.
How to join
You can also share notes of your own. I hope this becomes a space where every reader of Not A Travel Writer can share thoughts, ideas, and interesting quotes from the things we're reading on Substack and beyond.
If you encounter any issues, you can always refer to the Notes FAQ for assistance. Looking forward to seeing you there!