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Substack Notes is giving me an identity crisis
Have we reached social media capacity?
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
Alternate title: Will anything ever feel like 2008 Tumblr again?—Kate
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I was somewhat skeptical of Notes, Substack’s take on Twitter, which centers each user’s network around the writers whose newsletters they subscribe to. I wasn’t skeptical because I thought it was a bad idea or because I didn’t think Substack could pull it off, but because I was worried that we, as users, were pretty much at social media capacity. (I’ll leave the debate about moderation on the platform to other folks.) The theory of Dunbar’s number suggests there’s a cognitive limit to the amount of people we can have meaningful relationships with (it hovers around 150). For social media, I would say my Dunbar’s number of platforms is somewhere between three to five—not because of the strain they have on my relationships with other people, but the one I have with myself.
Each platform I’m active on as a “creator”—Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Substack—contains a parcel of my personality, one that has been trained by algorithms and trends over the past 10 years to be the best version of me for that audience. For instance, my Instagram began as series of curated flat lays and ice cream cones held aloft in front of city streets. Now it’s a collection of everything. It’s where I post my professional accomplishments, share my art, and reflect on times with friends. Out of all the platforms, it is the most thorough record of my existence (through an algorithm-friendly lens, of course).
TikTok is a more recent experiment with my identity. The app contains almost every kind of creator, and in my first few years on the platform, I posted and deleted a number of attempts to see what part of my personality worked best. My stabs at being funny flopped, as did any videos in pursuit of some kind of aesthetic. But when I posted a video of me sitting down and analyzing a trend to the camera, it took off. It’s become a consistent formula, and whenever I deviate, the numbers are a swift reminder to get my “brand” back in line.
Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Substack will forever own the parts of my personality that I’ve handed over to them, as do the platforms from my past: Facebook still claims the extroverted college student; Tumblr, the angsty, artsy teen; MySpace, the confused and flailing twelve year old who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But it’s become harder and harder to harvest myself over the years—to find something new to offer up to the Next Big Thing.
Which is maybe why Substack notes has been so weird for me. I was among a group of Substack writers with early access to the feature, and was encouraged to try things out and report back any thoughts or kinks that I discovered. But every time I opened up the feed, my mouse hovering over the “What’s on your mind?” prompt, I completely choked. Even now, with conversations and debates and shitposts reliably filling up the feed, my brain is blank.
I think this is because, while I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how active Notes has become, it’s still too early for the culture of the platform to have defined itself. I see people posting off-handedly like Twitter, others more formally, like on LinkedIn. But I couldn’t necessarily tell you what a successful post looks like or how much engagement is enough to say something “did well.” I know this thinking is rooted in the kind of platform Substack is actively defining itself against, but it’s hard to unlearn 15 years of subconscious social media conditioning.
This blank canvas should be freeing. I get to be part of defining a platform! I’m being asked, I guess, to be myself—but if my long history of parceling and shifting my identity across platforms hasn’t made it clear, I don’t really know who “myself” is. And this gets to the root of why these conversations about the future of social media platforms should consider the emotional implications alongside the financial and societal. Public perception feels like a requirement of modern society, but the work of it is largely unacknowledged. As these digital spaces where we store and explore our identities and cultures morph and die and get born anew, we’re forced to confront ourselves over and over again. In my case, it’s wearing me down. “What’s on your mind?” Substack Notes asks. Whatever is left of it, I guess!