A couple years ago, Substack, the writing platform that allows writers to build a subscriber base and earn money for their work, was obscure. Only a few seemed to understand what it was or why it was. When I signed up for it, it seemed like a “newsletter” service, but soon I realized that it was basically a really nice blogging platform. Anyone could make their own Substack account, write what they wanted to, and build an audience, however broad or niche.
Eventually, whole publications like The Dispatch and The Free Press started to capitalize on the convenience of building their sites via Substack. In the last year especially, Substack has exploded, with many writerly types now preferring it as a platform to X (formerly known as Twitter). Substack has developed its own “social media” feature where writers can “chat” directly with subscribers or share work in a “thread-like” forum. While Elon Musk discouraged people moving to Substack by making it hard to share links to X, it’s clear that the new writing space is serving as a haven to people eager to share their words with the world.
Culture-Making in the Age of AI
But what about AI? Is there a place for AI-generated Substack accounts? According to a new article, sent by Substack, the answer is “no.” Writing needs to stay human. Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of Substack, reminds us in the article that however advanced AI might get in the future, and while it will surely be making “creating content” all the easier, content isn’t “culture.” The need for human beings to connect in meaningful ways isn’t going away. In addition, writing is a powerful method of culture-making, of connecting with others about what it means to be a person. He writes,
AI will never be able to replace the dynamic that is most central to Substack: human-to-human relationships. New robots may rise and try to claim the mantles of writers and other culture makers, but none can seriously lay claim to what is most important about these people and groups — the human connections they are built on. That’s why we are making Substack the place for trusted, valuable relationships between thinking, breathing, feeling people.-Hamish McKenzie, The AI revolution is an opportunity for writers (the human kind) (substack.com)
It was encouraging to see the up-and-coming writing platform boldly herald the uniqueness of human creativity. This is what I’ve tried to argue regarding storytelling and AI. Because AI can’t “intend” meaning, it can’t be a genuine author the way, say, Charles Dickens was when he wrote A Christmas Carol. (Merry Christmas to all who might be reading, by the way!) Substack, then, is answering a vital need in a fast-paced, AI-generated environment: the centrality of human conversation and connection. So long as there are human beings around, there will always be a need for human writers.