What Substack is hiding
a random walk through email hyperspace
Signups for the first session of Deep Sea Diving on the Web: The Workshop: Season 2 are now live! We’ll be diving into Twitter. The format will be slightly different than last time: we’ll all spend about an hour diving and then about an hour making stuff. Wednesday, April 27 at 7pm, should be loads of fun, tell your friends, sign up here!
You may have seen Wikipedia’s random article button. Click it and, as the name suggests, you’ll be taken to a random Wikipedia page.
Most websites don’t have a button like this. That’s because by definition, randomness entails relinquishing control. Platforms do not like to relinquish control — they want to design every aspect of what you see and when, to appear as a blank slate on which you can project all of your hopes and ideologies.
My experience of using Instagram, because of my social network, my behavior, and the data that has been gathered about me, is very different from your experience of using Instagram. It’s like we’re each trapped in a room and all of our content is quietly delivered through a slot in the door.
But imagine if we could walk down the halls and peek into the windows of each others’ rooms? What would we see?
In search of an answer to this question, I made a random Substack button called 🔀 Scrubstack.
You are reading a newsletter hosted on Substack right now. It is more likely than not that you are generally interested in what it has to say (I hope you are!), that there are relatively few degrees of separation between you and me, and that you’re reading this pretty soon after I wrote it.
Jumping through 🔀 Scrubstack is more akin to the experience of walking into a stranger’s home and taking a random book off of the shelf. What you read may not interest you, may not be meant for you, may be written for an imagined audience in the distant past.
But it also gives us some insight into some of the things Substack doesn’t want, or at least isn’t designed for, you (specifically you) to see. Substack, of course, is not shy about its commitment to protect free speech, but saying that in the abstract is different than showing you just how much of the newsletters on its platform pedal in Covid denial, political conspiracies, transphobia, and crypto grifts. Spend just a few minutes on 🔀 Scrubstack and you’re almost guaranteed to find some. So proceed with caution.
Some newsletters, on the other hand, are sure to delight you. Some will bore you. Some will make you feel like you’re infringing on intimate communications between friends, others like you woke up from a strange dream into a world where people still care about Bad Art Friend.
Popular discourse will have you believe that we are in the midst of a collective vibe shift. But 🔀 Scrubstack feels more like vibe whiplash: thousands of vibes vibing, each shifting along its own timeline, nothing collective to speak of. Like your sort-of friend or lover who tries to be everything to everyone, a VC-powered fuckboy.
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Anytime anything claims to be random, there are sure to be disclaimers. 🔀 Scrubstack pulls its newsletters and posts from Substack’s public sitemap. The sitemap does not contain all of Substack’s newsletters, and I can’t say for sure what the logic is behind what appears and what doesn’t. It doesn’t appear to be based on popularity, based on whether the newsletter has many posts, or filtered for offensive content. 🔀 Scrubstack selects a pseudo-random newsletter from this list, and then shows a pseudo-random post from that newsletter.