Tech

Substack failed to register a URL. It allowed me to receive their private emails.

The Wall Street Journal. TechCrunch. Vice.

These are just a handful of the media outlets who reached out to me earlier this year for comment in their stories.

However, they weren’t actually looking for me. No. They were trying to contact the online newsletter platform Substack, a company I do not work for.

These outlets were looking for comment from Substack on things like its funding of right-wing writers or wanting to interview its CEO, Chris Best.

So, why were they reaching out to me?

Well, it had to do with my Substack newsletter URL, one that Substack has since taken away without even a heads up: “press.substack.com.”

In June 2020, in the midst of the early days of the global pandemic, I signed up for a few accounts with Substack. “I’m going to launch a newsletter,” I thought while trying to give myself a project or two to work on amid lockdowns and quarantines.

So, I began looking to see what subdomains were available in order to provide some inspiration. I was surprised to see such a generic, one-word dictionary name available: “press.” I ran a media critique series while working for a previous employer and thought this would be a great Substack username to run something similar on. I signed up and became “press.substack.com” on the platform.

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If you’re not familiar with Substack even after all the controversy over its funding program for writers earlier this year, it’s basically a simplified email newsletter platform. You sign up and your newsletter lives online at the URL. Your subscribers will receive each post in their email as its published. And what email address does that newsletter that lands in your inbox come from?

“Your Substack username + @substack.com.”

So when I registered “press.substack.com” for my newsletter, I unintentionally registered the “[email protected]” email address, the type of email address companies commonly use for its media inquiries. (For example, Google’s press contact can be found at [email protected], Twitter’s at [email protected], and on and on.)

I didn’t realize this at the time. I actually had not even noticed the press emails meant for Substack that landed in my inbox until recently. But, Substack should have definitely noticed.

The company uses [email protected] for its press email, which makes it extremely easy for people to mistakenly type the address with the substack.com domain name instead.


Substack took away my URL.

Substack took away my URL.

It’s unclear exactly when Substack reclaimed their URL from me. I received no heads up. Looking through my inbox archives, the last email I received addressed to the press.substack.com subdomain or [email protected] email was in late March 2021.

You may have read a similar story by Claire Carusillo that ran a few weeks back in Gawker titled “The Punk-Ass Bitches at Substack Tried to Take Away My Perfect Url.” Carusillo lost her premium URL “politics.substack.com” when Substack decided it wanted to give this piece of online real estate to another one of its users.

Substack emailed her to say they were taking back the URL and changed Carusillo’s to “politics123.substack.com.” In the end, however, Substack decided it wasn’t such a great move and gave “politics.substack.com” back to Carusillo.

One of the most surprising things about the Gawker piece is that Carusillo had originally emailed the company before they took her URL with her intent to sell “politics.substack.com,” Substack seemingly cheered on the idea in their response to her.

“That’s fascinating! Can’t wait to see how it goes. The good thing here is that you have full ownership of your content, IP, and mailing list, everything,” Lulu Cheng Meservey, VP of communications at Substack told Carusillo.

High-quality social media usernames are in high demand. There are even blackmarket platforms that sell these “OG usernames,” as they are often called, at premium prices. Selling usernames is often frowned upon in online platforms’ terms of service. So, Substack’s positive response to Carusillo’s plan to sell hers stood out.

My case is probably going to go a little bit differently than Carusillo’s.

As I previously mentioned, and unlike Carusillo, I never even received an email letting me know they were taking back the URL. I had to find out the hard way by trying to login over and over before stumbling over the fact that “press.substack.com” no longer goes to a newsletter page. I eventually discovered on my own that Substack changed my URL to “press2.substack.com.”


I’m not going to get my Substack URL back.

I’m not going to get my Substack URL back. Unlike “politics.substack.com” which Substack was going to give to another writer, Substack is using “press.substack.com” for the company’s own purposes. They didn’t even pay me for it, you know, being that I “retain full ownership” of the IP and all.

But, it makes sense. Even though Substack pretended to be different, most online platforms say they can reclaim your username or subdomain at any time being that they own the platform.

The fact that they neglected to grab that email address for themselves in the approximately three year since the company began and I registered it is surprising, but perhaps a lesson to be learned for other tech startups. The implications of someone outside the organization having access to that email address could have been much worse. I could have very well saved them from another user discovering “[email protected]” was open for registration and using it for nefarious purposes.

When I reached out to Substack, things appear to have changed since the Gawker piece.

Lulu Cheng Meservey, the company’s new VP of communications pointed me to a new FAQ page on Substack’s site that was posted after the Gawker article was published: “How long can I keep my subdomain?”

According to Substack, the company has permission to “reassign” your URL to another writer if you don’t update your newsletter for six months. To be clear, I had never published anything on press.substack.com.

Meservey didn’t have much more information to divulge as it appears Substack took the URL back before her time with the company. However, she did say that reassigning a URL without telling a user “shouldn’t be happening.”

So remember next time you’re tweeting, sharing pics on Instagram, or writing your next Substack post: You don’t own that space. At any time, the platform can just take it back.

And, if you run a platform, be sure to grab all the necessary URLs and usernames before opening registration to the public. You never know if one random user will end up receiving your private emails.

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