The inevitable decline of fully open platforms

The spammers have found Substack.

There’s a long history of useful tools on the internet attracting selfish con men.

Substack is a platform for bloggers who want paying subscribers. They’ve done the technical work and quiet lobbying to get past the promo folder and the spam filters, and as a result, a blog on Substack is going to reach more people and come with a veneer of respectability.

One option a company with a useful network has (whether it’s an email platform or a social network) is to curate what they feature. They’ve built an asset and that asset goes up in value when it attracts thoughtful users.

The other option is to believe that ‘open’ is the answer, the more open the better. As we learned when we launched Squidoo a decade ago, it rarely is. People in disguise don’t make good neighbors. A fully open platform inevitably attracts selfish jerks, who, without curation, begin to degrade the very asset that made the platform appealing in the first place.

Wikipedia used to be fully open, but persistent graffiti on useful articles meant that serious users were spending most of their time fixing what shouldn’t have been broken. Now, you have to earn the right to do certain edits to certain articles.

The tension is simple: If a platform is carefully vetted and well-curated, it meets expectations and creates trust. If it’s too locked down and calcifies, it slows progress and fades away.

Radio, TV and magazines have always been curated. Even the letters to the editor are read by someone before they’re printed. The magazines that went to the web and let just about anyone write on their sites ended up with sites that just about no one trusted.

Too much curation stifles creativity, opposing viewpoints and useful conversation. But no curation inevitably turns a platform over to quacks, denialists, scammers and trolls.

Over time, the value of a uniform, a brand or a platform is defined by the worst people who wear it or use it.

Trust and attention are in a long dance, but only trust wins in the long run.