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Economics of distraction
Social media, business models, and what is Substack anyway?
I have a complicated relationship with Instagram. I’m curious what my friends have been up to and I like scrolling through their photos and stories. But I always somehow scroll past the content posted by my friends, and end up watching viral reels that the algorithm predicts I’d find engaging.
And the algorithm is not wrong. The videos that show up in my feed have great hooks and relate to the topics I’m interested in. But after a few minutes, I feel frustrated. Here’s 10 minutes of my life I’m never getting back.
The distraction economy
Instagram, like most other social media apps, makes money from ads. The more I scroll, the more money the app makes. With this business model, the winning short-term strategy for the company is always to make me scroll for as long as possible.
In the long run, the app risks overdoing it. I may one day find that scrolling the feed is sucking out too much of my energy. I may then uninstall the app and dedicate the energy saved to other endeavors, such as smelling flowers, singing in the rain or riding a city bike at night. But due to market pressure and financial incentives, this balancing act between the short term and the long term objectives may be skewed towards the short term (maximize engagement!).
AI supercharges the power of the app to keep us engaged. The famously effective TikTok algorithm is very good at figuring out what type of content we enjoy and in making us stay on the app.
The Substack model
Since the problem is in the business model, the solution may be in finding a different one. This newsletter is hosted on Substack. Substack is a managed content platform which combines two features:
each Substack publication is an email newsletter. Substack manages the subscriber list, email delivery and and provides a browser UI for authoring posts. This part works like a newsletter service, like the ones offered by ConvertKit or Mailchimp
each Substack publication is also a site hosting an archive of the posts, available indefinitely and indexed by Google. This part works like Wordpress or Squarespace
Substack newsletters can be free to read (like this one) or paid, in which case the readers pay for a monthly subscription (separately for each paid newsletter they subscribe to). Substack takes a commission from the payments.
This business model creates a healthy incentive structure: Substack makes money only when the writers make money. And writers make money only when the readers choose to pay for their content. So it only works when all parties: readers and writers are happy.
Try this at home
If you’ve been meaning to set up a website or a newsletter to keep friends posted on your thoughts and projects, maybe Substack will work for you? If you end up setting one up, please let me know :), or share it with others in the comments below.
If you’re new to this newsletter, I hope you’ll subscribe to follow along:
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Postcard from Paris
The Pride parade in Paris this weekend was loud, fun and joyous. Happy Pride 🥳 ! Thank you for reading and have a great week 💫