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You need gravity to survive
Will Substack go the way of Buzzfeed and Vice?
In May, Vice Media went bankrupt. It was the conclusion to a stunning downfall for a company that just six years ago was valued at $5.7 billion. There are a lot of things that one can say about Vice - god knows there’ve been enough thinkpieces about the company and its edgy form of kinda-sorta-journalism. You could talk about how it ushered in a new era of provocative storytelling. You could talk about Vice’s many scandals, including sexual harassment scandals and accusations of exploitation. You could talk about the general struggles of digital media. But when I think about Vice, I think about digital gravity. And it makes me wonder if the site I’m currently typing these words on has enough gravity to escape the failure mode that ultimately doomed Vice.
Platform traffic to news sites is in a long term decline. DigiDay writes about how Facebook referrals have cratered to sites like The Daily Mail, CNN, The NYTimes, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and others. Axios doesn’t stop at Facebook, and notes that both Facebook and Twitter are sending fewer and fewer users to outside sites. The graphs here are stark:
For some sites this change has been devastating. But this isn’t new. Media firms have been blindsided by technological changes for generations. The ‘talkies’ left movie companies that specialized in silent films scrambling to adapt or die. The rise of television meant a long, slow decline for radio as a broadcast medium. The internet has wreaked havoc on the traditional newspaper and magazine industries. And now changes at large social media sites are causing upheaval among digital publishers.
Even this particular iteration - social sites impacting digital publishers - isn’t new. There are a whole host of sites like Upworthy, Distractify, and ViralNova that rode the early-Facebook wave of social media to massive success. All of those sites are now either dead or shells of what they once were. The king of this category was BuzzFeed, whose recent decline mirrors Vice Media’s downfall. BuzzFeed defined and absolutely dominated the first wave of sites designed around viral social content. You couldn’t exist on the internet without seeing their quizzes, listicles, and articles designed to be clicked. What Harry Potter character are you? Here are 28 reasons why Jack Black rules! They were inescapable. BuzzFeed was so successful at the silly viral stuff that they even opened BuzzFeed News, aiming to transition into more serious journalism.1
BuzzFeed went public in late 2021, aiming for a valuation around 1.5 billion. Today the company’s market cap is… not that.
BuzzFeed has lost more than 95% of its value in just two years, and the company was almost certainly worth more before 2021. BuzzFeed News has shuttered. BuzzFeed was touted as the future of media, the hottest brand on the internet, a new paradigm for journalism and content online. And now the company is a distant shadow of its former self. Why?
In one word, Facebook.
Facebook made BuzzFeed, and then Facebook destroyed it. BuzzFeed’s original insight was maximizing virality through a particular style of content and a particular style of clickbait that worked extremely well on Facebook. Facebook was the 800-pound gorilla of 2010s internet - if you wanted to be big, you needed to be big on Facebook. And nobody was better at using Facebook’s reach, mastering Facebook’s algorithm, and convincing Facebook users to click than BuzzFeed.
But all of BuzzFeed’s success masked a crippling flaw in their long term plans - they were far, far more dependent on Facebook than they realized. If Facebook’s algorithms changed, BuzzFeed could find themselves with a fraction of their previous traffic. There was no way to stop that kind of disaster from happening, and boy did it happen. The most notable instance of this was the infamous Pivot to Video where Facebook’s inflated video metrics convinced a bunch of media companies to overinvest in video content far beyond what was economically rational.2 But algorithm changes have been constantly terrorizing publishers for most of the last decade. Platforms are fickle, and can choose to prioritize vertical video over stuffy articles any time they’d like.
BuzzFeed’s main issue was that nobody turned on their laptops or phones and went directly to BuzzFeed.com. They opened their laptops or phones and went to Facebook (or Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, etc). And then they would see something fun from BuzzFeed and click on it. BuzzFeed never controlled their own flow of users. To put it simply, they had no gravity. They had no organic pull where users felt compelled to visit their site independent of other sites or platforms. Digital gravity is a real thing, and if you don’t have any your site will always be vulnerable to disaster - no matter how successful you currently seem.
I want to be clear about what I’m saying here. The concept of digital gravity sounds like an overly complicated way to say ‘popularity’, but gravity is distinct from popularity. BuzzFeed and Vice, in their heydays, were enormously popular. But neither had real gravity.
What is gravity? Gravity is being the first site someone logs in to each day. Gravity is the sites that people instinctively type in the URL of their laptop when they’re bored. Gravity is the app that gets opened mindlessly by default. Real gravity relies on no intermediary. It often comes paired with community. Giant social networks are the purest example of this - billions of people go to Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, etc, by default. They have an enormous, organic pull on users completely independent of other platforms, companies or technologies. They pull you in, they’re sticky. They have gravity.
But it’s not just the gigantic social networks. The New York Times has gravity. If Twitter and Facebook both completely stopped showing NYTimes.com links, it would sting a little bit but the NYTimes would be completely fine. Users navigate directly there because it’s the nation’s foremost newspaper for serious reporting. It also has the most popular and engaging Opinion page and nation/world-leading sections on Food, Books, Style, Games and more. It does not rely on other sites to drive traffic, it attracts its own users with its own gravity.
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Gravity is not size. Gravity can often be found with smaller sites. The SomethingAwful forums have been going strong for almost 25 years, and lived through numerous iterations of the social web while still thriving. SA may only have a core of a few hundred thousand users at most, but those users are loyal. They log in to SA directly, and for many it’s one of the first places they go online every day. The gravity of the SA forums is so strong users happily pay a one-time $10 fee to register.3 You can see a similar dynamic with many smaller sites. Sarcastic sports rag Deadspin had such a loyal following that even after their parent company Gawker went bankrupt, the writers all left, started a new subscription-based site called Defector, and have been thriving there ever since. I was one of those readers who migrated from Deadspin to Defector, and the community there is their community. They own it. Deadspin and its writers had real gravity, enough to survive a full-on site migration.
Size certainly helps when talking about gravity. It’s not an accident that famous national papers like the NYTimes and the Washington Post are thriving while local papers continue to shrivel and die. The biggest newspapers are prestigious enough that they have their own gravity.4 Giant social networks and the biggest, most prestigious brands are more likely to have gravity, but it’s not a guarantee. BuzzFeed, Vice and all the other hot new media companies of the 2010s were enormously popular and had huge traffic, but did not truly have their own gravity. Nobody opened up the homepage of BuzzFeed.com every morning. And so they died.
Everyone in digital media has learned that platforms can’t be trusted. They learned this lesson far too late, but to their credit they have learned it. Some brands seem to have already divorced themselves, and feel fine about what’s happening. NPR left Twitter six months ago, and reported losing only 1% of traffic due to that decision. Other brands are feeling the hit of declining referral traffic more acutely, and are scrambling to either build alternative referral pipelines5 or create their own organic traffic not dependent on referrals.
The second path is the correct one - you simply can’t trust platforms, even if they’re a solution that works right now. Social media companies are more and more teaching their algorithms to promote content that keeps people onsite rather than leading them somewhere else. Facebook is de-prioritizing news altogether. Threads won’t promote politics or news. Elon Musk nerfed links by removing headlines, and he’s also known to throttle and de-boost links to sites that make him mad like Substack. You have to build your own gravity, because you won’t survive in the long run without it.
Substack is one of the most interesting cases when thinking about digital gravity. Nobody I’ve ever met goes to Substack.com directly. The site viewed as a whole has almost no gravity. But what Substack does have is a large collection of writers who all have strong personal gravity. Whether it’s Matt Yglesias, Anne Helen Petersen or any number of small/medium sized blogs, these authors individually have enormously loyal followings. The central question: can that large collection of personal, individual gravities translate over time into collective gravity for Substack as a whole? Or is Substack vulnerable to a ‘run’ if authors decide to leave the site en masse?
Substack is also interesting from the perspective of traffic, because their primary function isn’t necessarily to drive traffic. They don’t rely on people visiting the URL every day or opening the app. Instead, they rely on email - most of you who read this will either read it via email or click through and read it on the web after having opened it in email. They’ve short circuited the need for web traffic - while it’s still enormously helpful, it’s no longer the be-all and end-all. Can emailed newsletters create the same kind of community and gravity that apps and web browsing can?
I think improving Substack’s gravity is the central challenge for the site moving forward, and I think they realize it. I have a personal stake here - as someone trying to build a paid newsletter (Sign up! It’s objectively6 a good decision!) on this platform I would very much prefer the platform to keep growing rather than collapse. Substack traditionally has not had strong discoverability functions, and there aren’t many ways to organically leap from reading one substack to another on the site. But they are working on it and slowly making some improvements. They added a Notes feature. They’re trying to fix their normally poor SEO. They’re updating their app and site to try to boost discovery and engagement. These are the things they’ll have to figure out for Substack to stick in the long run. They need to lock in users and make Substack a true network, a site with real gravity that can hold on to its own users.
BuzzFeed News would eventually win their first (and only) Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for reporting on the Uyghur genocide camps in Xinjiang, China.
One of the interesting notes about the Pivot to Video scandal is that it’s often used as an example of Facebook being evil, but it didn’t even work for Facebook! They gained nothing from misleading the publishers, it was pure fuck up on their part.
I’ve written before about why these user fees don’t work at scale, but fees are a fine solution for a small, tightly knit community.
Local papers thought they did, but when anyone can read the NYTimes cheaply it turns out that nobody wants to read local news.
Usually through Instagram or TikTok