Substack – the past, or the future of (social) media?

Newsletters are only marginally different from independent blogs. Blogs have been around as probably the oldest unit of individual content creation on the internet – in all these years, their appeal hasn’t died, but they’re not exactly the hottest thing in media today. And yet, ‘going independent’ through newsletters has been exactly that of late – it’s been heralded as the future of media, and even a cultural revolution. And, leading that revolution, has been Substack. High-profile writers are going independent and everyone is starting a newsletter.

Why is media going back to its past (independent blogging)? What really is special about Substack? Is it just a newsletter platform or a media company? Will it usher in social media 2.0? And what does this mean for readers? Are we really getting better content, now that so much of it is being created? A deep dive, if you will, on Substack…

Substack’s evolution

  1. Creator tool

Substack started as a tool for writers to start their own newsletter in five minutes – complete with a mailing list, payment integration, blogging functionality, and social sharing features – in exchange for 10% share of a writer’s revenue. Till about six months ago, Substack was ‘a place for independent writing‘. This page used to be the website home page.

Andreesen Horowitz, which led a $15M Series A in Substack, said something similar in 2019

Substack is building the leading subscription platform for independent writers to publish newsletters, podcasts, and more. It lets writers — of all kinds — directly connect with their readers.

A classic creator tool – helping writers go independent, without having to worry about the technology and all the boring administrative tasks of setting up a newsletter. You could set up a newsletter in 5 minutes, albeit sacrificing some customization in terms of the look, feel, and branding of your newsletter – but, for the vast majority of writers and potential writers, it’s a tradeoff worth making. Substack’s focus was solely on writers – attracting them, building for them, and retaining them.

In the newsletter-platform space, Substack has also had competition, such as i) TinyLetter, now owned by Mailchimp ii) Revue, which charges 5% of revenue and was recently acquired by Twitter and iii) Ghost, which has a flat-fee model, starting from $29 per month. All these platforms are very similar in terms of functionality, and nearly all are cheaper than Substack for a writer running a paid newsletter.

The big question is – what really is Substack’s value proposition? Surely, it’s not the actual software solution for writers, essentially WordPress + Mailchimp + Stripe. When the top writers’ revenue grows, they will shift to cheaper alternatives such as Ghost, like The Browser did, or even string up their own newsletter, like this writer did. When Substack does not help a writer find and grow audience, why will she continue to share 10% of a growing revenue base with the company? Early adopters may not mind, but as Substack becomes more mainstream, writers outside of Silicon Valley will struggle to part with 10% of their revenue for a fairly replicable tool. That’s why consumer SaaS companies like Shopify and Teachable charge a fixed dollar price every month, irrespective of how much their customers’ revenue grows. Because the customer is the one working hard to attract users and grow her business.

In the newsletter world, writers have many options. Ghost, for instance, charges a fixed dollar amount, starting from $29 per month – its most powerful plan costs $199 a month, or $2,400 a year. So, at $24K+ revenue per year, a writer would be better off moving away from Substack. This roughly translates to 200 subscribers paying $10 a month, far lower than what the top paid newsletters on Substack are making today. Alexey Guzey did an interesting estimation of Substack’s top 25 paid newsletter’s earnings, and the lowest bound of those earnings is $130K. If everyone making $24K+ left, Substack will be left with the long tail of newsletters making no to minimal revenue. It therefore needs a longer-term moat, and a way to retain its top writers until it figures out the moat.

Enter, Substack, the media company…

2. Media company

Over the last few months, a slew of high-profile writers quit their full-time jobs and started their own Substacks (yes, it’s a common noun now!). Casey Newton, a renowned Silicon Valley tech writer at the Verge, left in September to launch a paid Substack, charging $10 a month. Matthew Yglesias, a co-founder of Vox, left Vox in November. And Scott Alexander (one of my favorite online writers) moved Slate Star Codex to Substack after the New York Time’s doxxing controversy. Scott himself said this

Substack has made me an extremely generous offer. Many people gave me good advice about how I could monetize my blog without Substack – I took these suggestions very seriously, and without violating a confidentiality agreement all I can answer is that Substack’s offer was extremely generous.

Substack has been paying heavy upfront advances, as high as $250-500K, to attract brand-name writers, locking them in for at least a year, taking 85% of what the writer makes in year one. After the first year, it reverts to the standard model of sharing 10% of the newsletter revenue. It has also been offering (select) writers, benefits like health-care stipends, a legal-defense fund, design help, and even money to hire freelance editors. This is Substack’s interim solution to retain its top writers and attract new ones. In doing this, it is becoming a new kind of media company – offering writers the best of both worlds – financial safety and job benefits, without the trappings of an institution. It’s ironical that writers ‘going independent’ are accepting advances and ‘locking’ themselves in, but it’s understandable – Substack represents a new media alternative; one where they can have editorial independence, with job-like safety. The New Yorker said it better –

Substack, like Facebook, insists that it is not a media company; it is, instead, “a platform that enables writers and readers.” But other newsletter platforms, such as Revue, Lede, or TinyLetter, have never offered incentives to attract writers. By piloting programs, like the legal-defense fund, that “re-create some of the value provided by newsrooms,” as McKenzie (the founder) put it, Substack has made itself difficult to categorize: it’s a software company with the trappings of a digital-media concern.

Interestingly, Facebook and Twitter, as social networks, have the protection of Section 230,  meaning they are not held responsible for any type of third-party or user-generated content on their platform, since they are only a ‘medium of transmission’ and not creating the content themselves. While Substack largely has positive content today, it will be interesting to see what happens if there ever is objectionable content – Substack is clearly not just a ‘medium of transmission’. In paying writers upfront and providing them benefits, it may not be able to distance itself from the creator of the content and seek the protection of Section 230. Will Substack therefore have editorial oversight and moderation over its independent writers, thereby becoming more and more a media company, than a newsletter platform? This is an important point as we think about the future of media and content moderation online.

Now that Substack has found ways of retaining top writers for the time-being, on to figuring out its longer-term moat. Enter, Substack, the content marketplace…

3. Marketplace

This is where Substack goes from the ‘Shopify’ model to the ‘Amazon’ model. It goes from being a newsletter platform for independent writers, to aggregating and intermediating both writers and readers on its platform.

It could have continued being a platform for independent writers, by building more powerful tools, services and third-party offerings for them, and by moving to a fixed-dollar-per-month revenue model. These offerings could include growth and marketing tools for writers, community features, audio rooms, integrations with Roam and Notion – similar to Shopify’s platform of services for its customers (independent businesses).

But it looks like Substack is instead choosing to go the Amazon route, attracting and aggregating demand i.e., readers, on its platform. It has started becoming an intermediary, like Amazon, providing writers a place to showcase their offering, and providing a wide selection of content, to its readers. This is the long-term moat Substack is trying to build – if it can aggregate readers and help writers grow, then it can also justify sharing in the writers’ revenue.  Though if Substack truly does dis-intermediate the reading and writing relationship, then it goes away from its mission – it is no more a place where writers can nurture personal relationships with their fans and audience.

Substack has taken early steps to build the readers’ side: it rebranded the website recently – the primary messaging has evolved from ‘A place for independent writing‘ to ‘Take back your mind‘, and the primary call-to-action text changed from ‘Write on Substack‘ to ‘Start reading‘. From showing ‘Who writes on Substack‘ to attract writers, the home page now shows top newsletters, by categories, to help readers discover newsletters.

Source: Substack website

This is perhaps the most important point in its evolution yet. The first step in building for readers has been Discovery. Work on this front has been preliminary – leaderboards and Twitter-led discovery.

Leaderboards – categorized by topic, and by paid vs. free

Source: Substack website

Twitter – Find Substacks by people you follow on Twitter

Source: Substack website

Alongside discovery, the second step has been to build a native experience for readers, so Substack can start building its own ‘captive audience’. To this end, the Reader dashboard was rolled out in public beta, as a place to aggregate your newsletter subscriptions and discover newsletters by topic.

Source: Substack website

In building this discovery and reading experience on Substack itself, it is moving away from its own ‘email is intimate and the best way to deliver and read newsletters’ messaging. But an attempt at RSS readers 2.0 is not a bad place to start, and we never really recovered from Google Reader being shut down. Anyhow, Substack’s marketplace plan is simple: Readers go to discover a vast collection of content they wouldn’t find elsewhere, and writers come to grow their audience and business, because the readers are all there. Classic Amazon model.

The difference, however, is that, in Amazon’s case, its product catalogue was simply not available elsewhere – customers had to buy from Amazon. In Substack’s case, readers can discover newsletters through several other channels – Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, 1:1 sharing among friends. So, they have much less incentive to discover and read on Substack – the value proposition is not much more superior than their current alternatives.

Which brings me to what I expect is Substack’s long term play…

4. Substack, the new-age Social network – The Bull Case

Come for the tool, stay for the network.

Substack can build a truly differentiated business by building a social network for writers and readers. Rather than being Amazon, it could be Facebook. Writing, publishing, sharing, discovery and reading could all happen on the same platform. If writers get access to a captive and differentiated audience to grow, Substack can justifiably share in their revenue.

Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s co-founders, said that he sees the company as an alternative to social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

As a reader, Substack becomes a place where you can discover content, annotate it, rate it, share it with friends, know what content friends and influencers are reading and recommending, and engage meaningfully with your favorite writers. Writers can write and publish, find audiences, grow subscribers and connect with them on Substack. For all this, Substack only captures 10% of the value. That doesn’t seem too bad now!

Imagine you love reading about sports. Today, you get your content from Twitter, email newsletters, sports blogs, and from friends. With Substack’s social network, your friends, the sports blogs you follow, and the email newsletters you like, could all be in one place. You could see what content your friends and top sports writers are reading and rating, get social signals on what content is likely worth your time, share content you enjoy, make notes for yourself, and even write occasionally. If you’re also passionate about climate change, you can ‘flip over’ to the climate section, where you access an entirely different set of newsletters, follow different friends and influencers, and share different content. Interest-based micro social networks. This could be Substack’s path to becoming a billion-dollar company.

Substack’s journey would then mimic several social networks’. Presumably, the writers themselves will form the first cohort of readers, as we saw with Instagram and Tik Tok as well – initially, those creating on the platforms became the consumers too – and soon, creators and consumers were all the same.

Source: Me

This could also be what social 2.0 and media 2.0 look like. Social media fatigue exists today less because it’s social and more because we’re tired of being the ‘product’ that advertisers sell to, and we want some control back. A content-only social network where you control what you see and read, have privacy, have a community of like-minded individuals, and get content recommendations from people you trust, could be a new type of non-anxiety-inducing social network. There is also no denying that Substack has ushered in a media revolution. Newsletter platforms and independent writing/ blogging have been around for a while, but Substack is really taking it mainstream. It’s made writing more accessible and given people a medium of expression that doesn’t feel sales-y or click bait-y. It’s also made readers feel in control and part of an intimate connection with the writer, in a time where most things feel out of control and people are craving authentic human connection.

The Bear Case

Building a new social network is hard. It’s harder when your audience already exists on another platform and you’re not building for a niche interest. It’s even harder when you’re up against Twitter and Facebook.

  • Substack has the same social graph as other social networks: Readers currently discover newsletters through other social media – Twitter for technology content, LinkedIn for business, and Instagram for lifestyle. New social networks of late have emerged because of new demographics (e.g. Snapchat and TikTok for teenagers), very niche interests (e.g. Discord, Twitch for gamers) or a new medium within the same demographic (e.g. Clubhouse is the Twitter equivalent for audio, Tik Tok made video accessible). Substack overlaps with other social networks’ demographics, interests, and mediums (text) – it is a horizontal network and will find it challenging to build a new social graph. There is little incentive for someone to switch to Substack’s social network when the same set of people are on another platform, where you already have a following.
Source: Me
  • Twitter’s acquisition of Revue and Facebook’s newsletter offering: Twitter recently announced its acquisition of Revue, a newsletter tool, very similar to Substack. This is a game-changer, given so much writing, sharing and discovering of newsletters, happens on Twitter. Writers will be able to write, share, and grow their newsletters from within Twitter, as opposed to writing on Substack, and then sharing externally on Twitter. Twitter’s experiments with Spaces, its Clubhouse-like audio-chat product, will further allow writers to host real-time audio conversations with subscribers within Twitter. Readers will be able to discover newsletters from people they follow, read them within Twitter, share the content they find compelling, and engage with their favourite writers right there. Packy McCormick, who writes a popular newsletter called Not Boring on Substack, said –

I’m watching closely and would love to switch to Twitter Newsletter as I learn more about the company’s plans for the product. It’s where I promote Not Boring anyway, and connecting with Twitter would allow me to find new readers more easily, and connect with and learn more about all of you.

The ‘Newsletters’ option, nested under ‘More’ on Twitter; Source: Twitter desktop

Facebook also recently announced that it is planning to offer newsletter tools for independent writers and journalists. If Facebook and Twitter, the major text-based networks, offer similar newsletter tools for writers, with the added benefit of sharing to an existing social network, it will be difficult for Substack to build a new social network with little differentiated value prop. Micro interest-based-social networks are promising, but Twitter’s tried doing that with ‘Topics’ and Facebook tried doing it in the past too, in Australia for instance, but it didn’t work. Substack will need to give readers an ‘aha’ moment – a reading or discovery or content sharing experience they simply cannot get elsewhere. That is the only way it fights off network effects at Twitter and Facebook. Or it gets acquired J

So, if Substack struggles to become a social network for content, what are its options? It can go back to being Shopify for writers – a newsletter platform providing best-in-class functionality, infrastructure, and customization to writers. To keep writers from moving to more economical alternatives, it can pivot from a revenue-sharing to a tiered flat-fee model, for instance $25 per month for a basic plan, $45 for intermediate, $100 for advanced. The market size remains to be seen, but it may not be as lucrative as the social network future.

Outside of the company’s future, I personally have a fundamental question about the dynamics of a paid newsletter: How many writers actually have that much insightful to say about the same topic week-on-week? And how many writers who churn out content consistently every week or two, are actually high-quality enough to charge for their writing?

Most Substack newsletters are focused on one topic. It makes sense – one person’s area of expertise is usually limited, and people only want to hear from the best in every field. They don’t want to hear from the same person about ed-tech, healthcare, philosophy, gender, and China. The problem, however, is that how much insightful content can one say about the same topic week-on-week? For instance, if you are a great product manager who writes about product management, do you really have 52 or even 26 very unique and very insightful things to write about? They have to be very unique and very insightful because people are paying to read them. On the reader side, even if you’re an aspiring product manager, do you care enough to read a long article every week that you pay for? The reality is that there really isn’t that much truly unique and insightful stuff to say about most topics every week. And even if there is, there are probably only a handful of writers who can make it worth your while. There’s a reason there’s only one Ben Thompson. Most of Substack’s top paid writers today are also people who’ve been expert full-time writers for several years, and just migrated to Substack. When you have to churn out content every week or two, are you writing because you have something meaningful to say, or are you writing just because you started a newsletter? Personally, I’ve seen the signal to noise ratio of most newsletters has ended up being average at best.

Nintil’s How Substack became milquetoast, captured it well:

If you have to publish a newsletter every week, you don’t have the room or incentive to take risks.

In financial terms, blog posts have asymmetric returns with capped downside but unlimited upside. If you write a bad post it won’t get shared and no one will see it. If you write a great post and it goes viral, everyone on the internet thinks you’re a genius. Since content is shared organically, your best work gets way more exposure than your worst. The incentive in these situations is to ramp up variance and do the most interesting writing you can muster. This (issue) is aggravated by the one way valve on subscribers: once someone churns out, they’re unlikely to give you a second try. So the ensuing incentive is not to take any bold risks, avoid alienating readers, and write whatever will appeal to your current audience.

Organic sharing, growth and virality exposes readers to a wide variety of authors, serving up the best of each one’s writing. On Substack, instead of getting the best 1% of posts from 100 authors, you get 100% from each one. Instead of getting the cream of the crop, you’re left with low fat milk, mostly water.

It’s better for authors to think persistently and write occasionally than the other way around. But on Substack, you’re paid monthly, creating pressure to churn out regular updates. Since it’s impossible to have interesting novel thoughts twice a week every week, this also means writers skew heavily towards summarizing the news, pumping out quick takes, or riffing on whatever they read on Twitter.

This is bad for intellectual biodiversity, but it’s also just bad for quality. A blogger known for their long-form content said:

“If you’re writing a substack, you can’t go on a creative vacation! You can’t spend 3 months writing something epic! you have to churn out content week after week after week preferably many times per week.”

Since there’s always something to read, increasing output is not intrinsically good. What matters is quality-density. In the past, you might have spent 10 hours reading a book that took 4 years to research and write, a 3500x multiple on time! Today, a newsletter that publishes M-F and takes 30 minutes to read only provides a 67x multiple.

Lastly, I fully understand and accept the argument that writing is more for the self, than for others; to clarify one’s own thinking – and if that’s the case, then your newsletter is probably free, and you write when you have something meaningful to say. If not, well, time will tell – I’m hearing newsletter fatigue is already a real thing!

Additional reading:

New Yorker – Is Substack the media future we want?

Nintil – How Substack became milquetoast

Alexey Guzey – Estimating the earnings of top Substack writers

Stratechery – Platforms vs. Aggregators

The case for, and against, under-represented minorities hiring

I know, I know.. this is a touchy topic, and the proponents on both sides usually have had deep personal experiences, warranting their strong emotions on this subject. I am not a researcher or diversity specialist. I’m a woman, a feminist, and I have often debated this, with people on both sides. I write this more to clarify my own thinking, than anything else.

First, a disclaimer. I’m not politically correct, so please read at your own discretion.

Let me start with the case against diversity, women, and URM (under represented minorities) hiring (also referred to as ‘affirmative action’). I start with the case against, because, as a feminist, this has been the more challenging perspective to internalize. But, having now personally counted towards ‘diversity quotas’ at several companies, I am beginning to fully understand the negative repercussions –

  • First, the candidates hired from ‘diversity categories’ often suffer imposter syndrome. Since they know their organization has a diversity hiring target, they sometimes feel they ‘made it’ because of this target. This has severe implications on that individual’s self worth and sense of self. Even if this individual believes in her/ himself, it can create a ‘pinch’ in their sub-conscious mind, particularly in situations where s/he makes a mistake at work (for instance ‘I was hired because I am a woman, but I am not good enough, and that’s why I made this mistake’). Nobody wants to feel that their background had any role to play in their hiring – everyone deserves to feel that they were hired solely based on their competence and merit
  • The other oft-quoted negative consequence is ‘mismatch‘ – when someone who isn’t at the same academic or professional level is accepted to a university or hired into an organization that is in fact a ‘mismatch’ for that individual’s current competency levels. This results in alienation. Students and employees start doubting themselves – they drop out, or quit, and suffer terrible mental health consequences
  • Thirdly, the non-URM majority may be ‘resentful’ of those hired from URM categories. This could foster a negative culture and create preconceived notions of the URM individual not being as competent as the others. This is not only a burden for the person who’s been hired, but also, for the non-URM majority who constantly feel they work with others ‘not as good as them’
  • Lastly, many of those who benefit from such policies, have in fact themselves been privileged. For instance, a black girl born to rich parents, went to private schools and had access to the best resources and equal opportunity

It feels unfair that this individual now gets a preference in hiring. The non-URM majority feels that this particular URM individual basically had the same life as everyone else – so, why should s/he get an unfair advantage now?

On the other hand, most of us fundamentally understand the need and reasons for these policies –

  • Those from under-represented backgrounds have historically not had access to equal opportunities. Traditionally, those from URM backgrounds have also been on an unequal financial footing – for instance, been unable to go to a good school. It therefore becomes important to pursue ‘equity over equality‘.

Equality focuses on creating the same starting line for everyone. Equity has the goal of providing everyone with opportunities and benefits based on their unique starting point – i.e. move towards the same finish line.

  • Having diverse view points at the table, makes everyone better – different perspectives are considered, and decision-making is more empathetic and holistic
  • It makes those from under-represented backgrounds feel more ‘at home’. For instance, if I am the only woman in the room, I feel alienated and unable to blend into the ‘boys’ club’. If there are several others like me, I feel I have more allies and I ‘belong’
  • Perhaps most important, is the long-term implication. When young girls and children from other under-represented backgrounds, see someone like themselves – at the best universities, in lucrative jobs, leading others, they start to believe in themselves. They think ‘I can, too’. The importance of having someone from your gender or race who you can look up to, cannot be overstated

According to this study, students who reported having at least one race- and gender-matched role model at the beginning of the study performed better academically up to 24 months later, reported more achievement-oriented goals, enjoyed achievement-relevant activities to a greater degree, thought more about their futures, and looked up to adults rather than peers more often than did students without a race- and gender-matched role model

As I write this, I’m beginning to form a perspective: for the ‘individual‘ as a unit, affirmative action is painful. The individual from a URM background suffers self-doubt, coupled with isolation and unfair judgement from others. The individual from a majority background feels resentful, and has a feeling of unfairness and ‘superiority complex’ regarding her/ his peers. On the other hand, for society as a whole, affirmative action is the long-term path towards equality. If there are under-represented minorities in important positions, they raise their communities with them. Children from their communities believe they can do it too. Every child can dream big.

The individual pain, both for those from URM backgrounds and from majority backgrounds, is the cost we pay in the short term, to undo past damage, and move towards equality in the long term. The feelings of alienation, imposter syndrome, resentment, unfairness for both sides of the table – represent the sacrifice each of us makes – it is an imperfect ‘means’ for the hope of a perfect ‘end’, in the long term.

Naturally, the ones (including me) who believe in pure meritocratic systems, believe that there is a mid-way: a way to lessen the short-term pain. That is – the bar for every individual, irrespective of background, should be equal. Meaning, even if I decide to hire 20% URMs, everyone is evaluated against the same benchmark. The problem is that there are often not enough qualified candidates from URM backgounds (we all understand why!). This essentially means more efforts in increasing the ‘top of the funnel’ from under-represented communities, rather than making concessions in evaluation of under-represented individuals. Rather than interview 100 URM individuals for a position, you may have to interview 500. And if, after ‘reasonable and honest tries’, you’re unable to find a URM candidate who fits the bill, you still don’t change the benchmark. In that case, you hire a non-URM candidate. But then you send a message – to both the majority and URM categories, that everyone who ‘makes it’, is equally competent. This can significantly reduce the personal emotional and psychological costs both sides have to pay.

Lastly, in reality, and as organizations scale, this could become tougher and tougher to execute, because the universe of qualified candidates from URM categories, by definition, may be more limited. Also, evaluating ‘reasonable and honest tries’ is subjective and could lead to gaming the system. Therefore, I do not have a perfect antidote. But, I do have hope and a somewhat-imperfect and perhaps idealistic idea, to keep moving towards the long-term objective we all agree on, while lessening the short-term pain.

Additional reading:

Big tech & Parler

What is the purpose of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, of platforms/ app stores like Apple and Google, and of services powering the web like Amazon (AWS)?

The purposes are many and wide-ranging, but taking on the role of the judiciary, is definitely not one of them. As is not, deciding what content deserves to be distributed, or being an arbiter of lawful vs. unlawful speech. There is little grey here – the United States is a democracy with institutions like the Congress, the judiciary, and our elected representatives, responsible for upholding the law and acting against unconstitutional behaviour. If, hypothetically, these institutions or representatives are not doing their job well, does that mean other powerful forces can seek power that’s not theirs, and take on the role of the judiciary?

If, the above is given and accepted, what must follow, is shock and discomfort with Facebook’s and Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, and Apple’s, Google’s, and Amazon’s decision to ban Parler, the social media app that is said to have been used to coordinate the US Capitol riots, and is generally used by Trump supporters and right-wing conservationists. Firstly, to clarify, I identify as a libertarian. However, this issue has little to do with anyone’s political and social beliefs, and more to do with the separation of powers between the state and big technology firms.

It has everything to do with the question – who decides what is, and is not, acceptable speech?

The ground for all these bans has been unanimous – to prevent Trump’s account or the Parler app from inciting further violence, and to protect the country’s safety. But, since when did big tech get to decide what is acceptable speech? The point is not whether the Capitol riots were actually coordinated on Parler and if it should exist; rather, the point is, who is making that decision? Big tech doesn’t get to decide others’ guilt and punish them – we have democratic institutions for that. Disagreement or generally accepted public opinion, is not grounds for a ban.

This is similar to Trial by media – i.e. the media assuming the role of the judiciary and pronouncing judgements before the actual verdict. This is a dangerous place to be in, for a democracy.

As long as the content is not unlawful (as governed by US law), it has to stay. As Ben Thompson argued last year, the job of social media platforms is not to decide what content gets published, but to distribute the content that’s published. Limiting the spread of information that is legally disputed, seems like a reasonable thing to do. Deleting or banning it outrightly, does not.

There is a thin line between the accuracy of a statement, and deleting it because you disagree or you ‘think’ that it is not acceptable. You are not the law – that is the whole point.

The other problem is competition. Today, blocking the app that helped plan the Capitol riots, seems like a reasonable and safe thing to do. But the thing with such power is, it doesn’t stop there. It becomes the norm rather than the exception. Yuval Noah Harari said the same of state surveillance last year – it’s impossible to go back. Tomorrow, this power could mean banning other operating systems on privacy grounds, cryptocurrency on safety grounds, and any competition on any reasonable-sounding ground. Competition is dead.

But, here is the devil’s advocate argument. Trump not accepting the election results, or his supporters storming the US Capitol is unconstitutional itself; it violates the principles of liberalism and democracy itself. Therefore, given that the President and his supporters have taken matters into their own hands, which has also resulted in loss of life, it makes sense to stem such unconstitutional activities from the root. ‘You are entitled to your political beliefs but not at the cost of anyone else’s safety or life’, is the argument from all tech firms. It sounds right – your beliefs or actions cannot endanger or harm others. That IS correct by all means, the problem is that tech firms cannot be deciding this. It is akin to taking the law in your own hands. If someone steals from you, you do not harm them yourself – you believe in the judiciary to give you justice.

Impeachment exists for presidents, trials exist for rioters. These systems may not be perfect, but they are what we have. And we cannot independently make parallel systems because we don’t like the existing ones.

Of course, there are parts of this that are not black and white – they are grey. Inciting violence, the loss of lives, a breach of safety at the highest levels of the Government – not everyday occurrences. If we know the platforms or people responsible for them, banning them seems like the right thing to do, in the short term. However, it breaks down in the long-term, when this precedence is applied to everything else, at the whims of powerful executives. Ben Thompson has beautifully argued that upholding liberalism is more important than upholding democracy because liberalism is the foundation of democracy. He says liberalism also includes the freedom of tech companies to act for themselves, especially when they feel nobody else will act, particularly to preserve democracy. However, this is a rare occasion where I will have to disagree with him. The absence of the state’s or judiciary’s or Congress’ actions on unconstitutional activities, does not give any company the power to assume that role. We have the next elections or an impeachment to change who we want this power to rest with. Our institutions may not be doing what they should, but that does not mean a handful of individuals do what they should.

Additional reading:

Ed-tech is hot, but 85% of India’s children are feeling the heat of no education

Meet Gudiya. She’s an eighth grade student in a public school in Hisar, a small town in
Haryana, India. The state of her school is dismal (absent or unqualified teachers, no
accountability, no infrastructure), but it’s her best and only choice. Since the
pandemic, her school has been shut. There are no classes – none offline and none
online. The teachers didn’t have the infrastructure to prepare and deliver instruction
online. Independent online education is impractical because Gudiya’s family has no
laptop or desktop and her father is the only one with a smartphone, which her two
elder sisters share for studying. Her education is at a standstill, and she’s being left
behind every single day.

Ed-tech’s 2020 promise has evaded her. Venture money has not put a tablet or phone in
her hand, there are no regular Zoom classes to attend, and personalized, gamified
learning is a wishful dream of the distant future. She does not lack ambition, a desire
to learn or hustle; she lacks access.

Gudiya’s story is one of over 225 million students in India who attend public schools
and low-fee private schools
. Not only has ed-tech not improved education outcomes
for them, it has widened the gap between them and the 25 million others, fortunate to
have access to virtual education. Ed-tech startups are catering to the small population
of middle to high income students only (i.e. 10% of India’s school-going children), and
with good reason. Gudiya’s family does not have INR 25,000 (US $350) to spare every
year. They don’t even have INR 2,500 (US $35).

THIS is the dichotomy facing India’s ed-tech. It’s sobering to imagine >85% of India’s
students being left behind with no virtual (or offline) education today. However, to
merely lament on how poor the situation is, would be a dis-service. Institutional,
structural change of the public system is long and hard, but in the meantime, there IS
something we can do.

Bring ed-tech innovation to the public school system, i.e. the Government could give
grants to startups, for them to provide their infrastructure and solution to public
school students (~40% of India’s 250 million students). Imagine every such student
having a Byju’s or a Vedantu subscription and infrastructure. It would cost
approximately INR 100,000 Crore (US $13.5 billion) to provide every public school
student a Byju’s or Vedantu subscription for a year. This represents 16% of the yearly
education spend by the Indian Government.

Startups will have to customize their content and pedagogy to suit the context and
learning levels of public school students, and the Government’s funding will help spur
this innovation. The public system gains by enabling access to cutting-edge content for
its students, and startups gain because they now count millions and millions of new
students as customers, customers they could have never been able to acquire
otherwise. This further strengthens their product through more and wide-ranging data,
and improves efficiency and outcomes of the entire system.

It all sounds fairly straightforward and logical, but let’s go one level deeper and think
through the challenges.

  1. The first fairly obvious one would be – why can’t the Government system develop
    its own content and infrastructure to educate its students? The answer lies in the
    public system’s DNA. It’s not built to innovate and ship rapidly, and every day counts. Developing content, training teachers, procuring and distributing infrastructure, and instituting accountability is all possible – but not in the time frame we’re thinking about. It’s long term change, often affected across decades. Further, for every state Government to initiate its own such process will be overwhelming and time-consuming (since education is a concurrent subject i.e. one governed by both the Central and State governments).
  1. Second, where will the Government get these funds from? An outlay of INR
    100,000 Crore (US$ 13.5 billion) represents 16% of India’s yearly education
    budget. Even though there are some operating expense savings as schools are shut,
    nearly 80% of the Government’s budget actually goes towards teacher salaries,
    which are still being paid. There are two funding ideas here: i) Leverage and
    incentivize the private sector’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) spend and
    private foundations’ existing spend on education, towards this large-scale
    initiative, or ii) Increase the Government’s education budget for this year. It
    sounds like a tough sell, but here are some fun facts. India’s national education
    spend is a dismal 3% of the GDP, and has, in fact reduced as a percentage of the
    GDP in the last few years. Compare this with a global average of 4.7%. In fact, India
    ranks 144 among 191 countries in education spend as a percentage of GDP. India’s
    National Education Commission recommended a spend of 6%, which has never
    been achieved. If the Government did in fact increase budget to accommodate this
    proposed solution, education spend would increase by 0.5% of GDP, to 3.5% of the
    GDP, still well below targets.

  2. Third, securing buy-in from the public school teachers and staff i.e. will their jobs be obsolete? Change in public education systems has been held back traditionally due to unaligned incentives within the system – teachers often don’t have an incentive to support change, and have traditionally viewed technology as an enemy seeking to replace them. Teacher pay, retention or promotions are not linked to outcomes or even performance, and they’ve usually shown the highest resistance to change. This resistance has also usually politicized any large-scale overhaul of the teacher recruitment process. Under the proposed model, Government school teachers could still: a) Focus on the long-term roadmap of developing infrastructure, resource and content capability within the public system; b) Partner with startups to develop contextualized content and assessments for their students’ learning needs; c) Some teachers could also teach on live-class platforms like Vedantu, thereby helping these startups scale their capacity; d) Enable and support their students to adopt and understand this new way of learning, example via assessments and extra classes.
  1. Fourth, a working capital challenge for startups. Indian startups have always
    struggled to receive revenue from the Government on time, resulting in a risky
    working capital situation, even resulting in a few startups being shut down. This
    problem is, however, relatively easier to mitigate and will require accountability
    measures at every level of the Government’s payment machinery, along with
    creative structuring of contracts for upfront payment to cover the startups’ content
    development costs (capital expenses).

Make no mistake, these challenges and potential mitigants are also theoretical in
nature, and the biggest issue at the heart of this debate, is the Government’s incentive
and willingness to change, and startups’ willingness to build for real India’s ed-tech.
Traditionally, education has been the one sector where public system change has been
the slowest and most difficult. This is because any changes in QUALITY (not access) of
education take a significant time to reap results, and most Governments in power have
to focus on quick wins and optimize for the next elections. This is why India has nearly
achieved universal primary education for several years now, because access is easier to
improve and measure in a short time period. Quality, however, is not. If investments
are made in grades VI through VIII today, you have to wait for at least 7 years when a
VI grader takes her grade XII exams (school passing-out exams), to measure any real
progress. Private-public partnerships have moved education outcomes further in the
last several years, but a more concerted effort is required, particularly during the
pandemic.

While 2020 was the year of ed-tech for both entrepreneurs and investors, it wasn’t the
year of education for an overwhelming majority of children in India, who were left
behind, more than ever before. We must constantly think how we can flatten the
pyramid further – we don’t need to start a social enterprise or a non-profit or an impact
investing fund. Arguably, Google (and YouTube) did more to democratize education
than any ed-tech startup or social enterprise or non-profit. It’s clear that massive
commercial upside awaits those who can flatten the education inequality pyramid –
and as entrepreneurs, operators and investors in ed-tech, while we celebrate our recent
wins and covid tailwinds, we must constantly remind ourselves of this.

In upcoming pieces, I will cover:

  • A thesis on Indian ed-tech: from Byju’s to Studyroom, and everything in between
  • How ed-tech in India and China fundamentally differs from that in the US, and
    why
  • My favourite ed-tech startups globally, and recommended reading

Why feminism is for you, me, and everyone else

“Ah Kalki is back with one of her videos”
“Oh is she? All these girls will share it and give her, her two minutes of fame”
“Haan, acting nahi hui toh ab yehi karti hai”
“What’s wrong with Emma Watson man? Why can’t she just concentrate on looking hot?”
“Yeah what’s with all her namesake (read fake) feminism? All the UN Women shit. Nothing really comes out of it, does it?”

And there they were, at it again
Lunch table conversations, dinner too
What’s wrong, you might say
All in good humour, another would pitch in
Learn to take a joke, they’d all say in unison

And yet, we never joked about men making rotis all day
Even in jest, “how did you step out of the kitchen?” to a man, no one would ever say
What could be a better reflection of our mindset than a light-hearted joke
Of stereotypes, the fire you stoke

The stay-at-home dad is laughed upon
The working mother, chided
‘Don’t raise your voice to your husband” the daughter indoctrinated

“I allowed my wife to work after marriage” he proclaims
Expects the society to hold him in high regard for the same
Excuse me, you ‘allowed’ her, you say?
Like your parents allowed you to live and get married?
Like your dog allowed you to go to work every morning?
You own your wife much like your parents and your dog own you
Hold them in high regard for letting you live, won’t you?

You think a woman is your property, like clay is to a potter
To suit your every need, she can be shaped and even slaughtered
What do we do with technological progress
when our women still live in duress?

You say “India raped Pakistan in the match yesterday”
I retort, you just glorified rape as a victory and filled the rapist with pride
“It’s a joke, can you chill”, I get in reply
But how do I take it easy, I ask
How can I expect an uneducated farmer to send his daughter to school
when my educated friends think that cracking rape jokes is cool?

What was she doing out so late at night?
Why didn’t she put up a fight?
As the public, to judge her character, you think is your birth right
On your own moral standards, why don’t you try shining a light?

She was raped; her body violated, honour lost
She was left there to die in the frost
I thought honour was about being respectable and holding one’s head high
Oh girl, they’d rather see you rot and die, than hold your head up and fly high

Who is to blame for all of this? Society, we all say

But, who is society and what is it?
Is it not you and me and others living in mediocrity?
We couldn’t set our daughters free
So we judge others who let their daughters dream
Society thrives on conformance
The judgemental aunty is scared
Your daughter refused to settle, she dared
 The neighbourhood uncle disapproves
‘Patriarchy is for my benefit’, his mind rues

We all want to help and change the way ‘society’ treats women
But what do we do?
We wait around for an epiphany to strike us like a flash of light?
To show us the way and tell us what’s right?
Or we wait for the government to launch a grand scheme?
A country for women, we all like to dream
But we?
We sit and wait
While we wait, we crack a joke or two about rape
While we wait, 9 on 10 that girl we rate
While we wait, a jibe or two at feminism we take
But we?
We like to think we believe in equality at heart
We tell ourselves a joke can cause no harm
We laugh that feminism is just another storm that’ll soon be calm
But we will still think we believe in equality at heart
We teach our daughters to be submissive and ‘sanskari’
To cook, clean and become an ideal ‘bhaartiya naari’
We tell them rape is a result of their ‘skin show’
If raped, we tell them to protect their honour and lie low
But we still think we believe in equality at heart

We forget equality is not a privilege, it is a right
We think feminism is a fight for the feminists to fight
We think we’re too small a fish in the pond, to exert any might
But we forget, all we need to change is ourselves and what’s in our sight
We don’t need to launch protests and take on the law
We don’t need to sign petitions and highlight the system’s flaws
If we could make feminism our own fight,
support a rape victim to walk with her head held high
If we could raise our daughters and sons right,
not joke about feminism and the fight for equality in everyday life
If we could each do this every day of our lives,
We could probably show the path of equality, a ray of light.

Winter

Hello, winter
Sun’s rays through the haze like shards and splinter
Night stretching taut,
Below the flyover, the skinny girl with blue toes does rot

Cosmic ocean, an infinite sky
As they converge, an amber horizon lies
Night is witness as benevolence stands guard
The chill leaves her soul untouched, body marred

Dew greets the petal as dawn breaks,
Numb from the cold, every muscle in her body aches
Thin shawl, a rich inheritance, wrapped around,
Scrounges the bin without a sound

Billowing winds, a deafening silence,
The poor are winter’s special clients
Welcome to lives riddled with misery,
where food and warmth are a luxury

Snow capped mountains in their pristine glory,
the hills hide in them many a story
One of them, a girl’s skeleton as white as snow,
A beautiful soul, life leaves her without a woe

Oh winter, you break their slumber
Put them out of their misery, their lives just a number
Oh winter, faithful winter, you do your job well,
Every year, we hear the toll of the death knell

Lost Summer

Innocence lost in servitude,
childhood lost in a struggle for survival
Luxuries of a toddler lost in compromise,
comfort of a meal lost in sacrifice
Pens in hands, lost in chemicals crude,
Toys in hands, lost in making food
Education lost in dowry,
Equality lost in conforming to society
Makes fire crackers by the day,
watches them being set ablaze by night
Soon his eyes cannot see,
Neither the crackers he makes, nor the fireworks in the sky at night
Sees her brother go to school,
Sets off to wash clothes, longing to go the other way too
Cleans tables and serves food while his hungry stomach growls,
Picks up the plates, steals a bite,
the best meals are found in what they call ‘trash’
Scrubs the floors of others’ houses before she knows to write the alphabet,
her own filth repels her as she cleans the others’
Summers spent under the flyover, winters there too
The sun eating them whole
the winter leaving them cold
The youngest sibling, an infant,
The oldest member, the grandfather
Every season takes one, leaving them to lament,
As they wait for the next to go
She wants to be clean and dignified like that madame whose house she cleans
He wants to work in a hotel,
there’s enough food for everyone there, he’s heard
As winter comes, she falls sick
There is something not right, they know
In the way her thin face looks paler,
in the way her bones are too weak to support her,
in the way her pupils dilate,
in the way she writhes in pain
He wants to help her, ‘there is a doctor’ he tells his mother
Pays no heed, ‘go to work’, she says
The winter will do its job anyway,
one less stomach to feed
The winter does come, does its job faithfully
Innocence lost in servitude,
childhood lost in a struggle for survival
Life lost in poverty,
But, one less stomach for the family to feed.