Is popularity even desirable?

Looking at my Medium front page, I see endless articles promising me tips (as a writer of Medium posts) for how to gain more views. Nevermind the content of these articles, or whether or not the tips are effective: why do these exist? Obviously, for some people, the easiest way to gain more views is to promise to tell people how to gain more views — and as far as I can tell, this seems to be working.

Because I’m not terribly concerned with maximizing views at the cost of writing content that I personally find interesting, I’m not going to tell you how to maximize views. Instead, I’m going to step back and try to figure out under what circumstances (and to what degree) popularity is even valuable.

Most authors on Medium are not writing primarily for paid publications or for subscription users. Most authors are, in fact, readers whose posts are mostly comments. Medium made an excellent design decision when it eliminated the distinction between a top-level post and a comment: the result is that comments look more like top-level posts (i.e., thoughtful, carefully structured, and often longer than a few sentences), and therefore, comment threads aren’t the kind of low-effort purgatory they are on Youtube (or even Reddit). Authors on Medium therefore inhabit this middle realm, writing something that hovers between article, essay, and comment, and doing so with a competence level in that no-man’s-land between talented amateur and budding professional.

Even people who write for money often write for free on Medium. (I have written paid Medium pieces but nearly all of my pieces are not commissioned; professional journalists like Sonya Mann write stuff like the excellent Exolymph here — and while that has a Patreon, I don’t think the primary goal is profit — and professional authors like Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mitch Horowitz write new stuff for Medium, often not behind a paywall. Hell, Doc Searls writes new stuff and reposts older articles here all the time.) It’s my suspicion (and if any of those tagged deign to respond, you can correct me on this) that any potential profit made directly from Medium posts is incidental, even to many professional authors and journalists, and that even when one of the purposes of one’s online presence is marketing-related, this kind of writing is substantially different in intent from book tours, resume-padding freelance articles for well-known print-publications, and other kinds of more widely visible or explicitly self-promotional work. As an example of this kind of thing outside of Medium, Charlie Stross and Peter Watts both keep personal blogs full of interesting tangents, and while these blogs occasionally make announcements, they seem to primarily serve as a way to record passing interesting thoughts by the author and engage feedback from fans. This serves a certain kind of marketing purpose: reminding people who are already likely to buy these guys’ books that the authors are thoughtful people with interesting ideas even when new publications are nearly a year away, and maintaining engagement, while also giving fans a sense of personal connection and skin in the game, even if that sense is going to be mostly illusory except for extremely dedicated commenters. But, it also provides other functions: even professional authors benefit from daily practice, and the work done for seemingly off-topic posts (such as Peter Watts covering the occasional neuroscience paper, or Charlie Stross making near- or far-future predictions based on current political and economic trends) adds material to the mental compost heap that may fertilize later novels.

To what degree does wide popularity of their individual posts benefit these people? Stross and Watts are mid-list SF authors: while they’d benefit materially from suddenly graduating to the big leagues and selling as many copies as Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, their blogs really aren’t structured around cultivating that kind of growth (and probably couldn’t be); instead, they cater specifically to the kinds of fans who are interested in these authors’ niche side interests. Were their blogs’ popularity to suddenly skyrocket permanently, rather than being a positive, it would actually probably be a net negative for the authors in several ways: where the comment sections had previously been mostly full of dedicated core fans, many of whom recognize each other and have years-long relationships with each other and with the authors, after the explosion of new users the culture would change because the vast majority of users would be unfamiliar with most of the author’s work and have no prior connection to the community; furthermore, server costs and the time and difficulty related to (currently volunteer-based) moderation would skyrocket, and any corresponding book sales that might occur are unlikely to translate into paychecks for months. In other words, there’s a pretty narrow target range for the popularity of these blogs: median traffic for a 3-month period probably shouldn’t grow by more than a third between two consecutive three-month windows, or else the culture of the comment threads is liable to be destroyed.

Likewise, while I am familiar with Sonya from Exolymph, most people are probably only familiar with her work for Inc — and don’t even know about her newsletter or her blog posts. In other words, she’s attached to an infrastructure that, by itself, provides far more promotion for her professional work than the stuff she does here. The same is true of Klint Finley— I’m familiar with him from Technoccult and Infictive (and through mutual friends in the PDX occult community) but most people only know him from his work for Wired; his posts here are mostly about tabletop RPG design, and so almost definitely don’t cater to the Wired audience. This goes double for Doc Searles (since Dr. Dobbs’ Journal is a major institution) and for popular published non-fiction authors like Horowitz and Taleb: none of these people need to self-promote, and the likelihood that their work on Medium is producing a significant direct increase in sales is extremely low. (In the case of those writing books, maintaining an audience that will buy these books consistently is something that blogging can do, but the majority of even consistent buyers probably are unaware of the author’s blog or uninterested in it, particularly when the subject matter differs substantially from the author’s books, as it does with Taleb’s blog.)

Presumably, the non-fiction authors on here are getting something out of Medium much like the SF authors mentioned above get out of their personal blogs: a limited-audience space in which to experiment with new ideas, where the audience is primarily composed of the most dedicated subset of repeat readers. For journalists & authors who work in several genres, this audience is even more rarefied: Sonya & Klint’s audience of tech-industry-gossip readers are unlikely to want to follow their blogs here, whereas people who are interested in several of the subjects they write about will follow them to see that intersection. While Medium has no author-level server costs associated with it, the other negative effects of a massive audience increase are still going to be present.

If people who get paid to write don’t benefit from maximizing their audience on Medium, why should someone who doesn’t get paid to write benefit?

There are a couple possible reasons, but I think all of them are somewhat limited in scope.

One reason is that authors who are looking to become professionals can build up a portfolio of high-quality work, and having some of that work become very popular means that the likelihood that an editor will stumble upon some work and invite the author to submit pitches is somewhat increased. However, an author’s most popular work is often not their best: what an editor would like to pay for is not the same as what a casual reader is willing to click a little heart button on. (For instance, with the exception of a paid piece written for a marketing agency associated with a popular book and TV show, my most successful post on Medium in terms of both read count and like count is three lines of snark about Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer.) Furthermore, editors already publicly post calls for pitches, and responding to one of these calls for pitches with a good pitch and a link to previous work is far more likely to result in a commission than blind luck and an audience in the thousands.

Another reason is that writing for a large audience means needing to write a little outside your comfort zone, adding information that your core audience would normally know but that a general audience would need explanations for (while carefully avoiding insulting the intelligence of either) and avoiding constructions that are too heavily tied to particular subcultures. However, while this can be a useful skill, successful authors often write for a specific niche. Furthermore, the kinds of tips presented in these tricks-for-maximizing-audience articles often depend upon the assumption that you don’t already have a niche core audience to expand from, or that you are willing to cater to a wider audience at the cost of your niche. In other words, if the goal of getting a larger audience is to get experience in appealing to two groups at once, then these tips articles are completely useless.

The third reason — and the one I find most convincing — is that having a large audience is a personal ego boost. When people click that little heart, the author feels like their value has been confirmed. That said, if your popularity comes entirely from a bullet point list of SEO tricks, isn’t that popularity completely disconnected from your actual value as a writer? If you have sacrificed your ability to write something meaningful in exchange for clicks, haven’t those clicks entirely ceased to indicate the importance of your ideas?

This kind of ‘marketing of marketing’ mindset isn’t limited to writing. Most forms of creative work are subject to it — particularly musical acts and open source projects. Much like novelists, most people who start a band or write an open source project will never get paid for it. This is fine: these are things that don’t come with the expectation of profit — our culture has made it clear that when you do these things, you are sacrificing your time and energy for passion. The ‘marketing of marketing’ mindset, however, suggests that thinking in terms of cost and benefit is sufficient (if supplemented by SEO tips) for slowly transforming a hobby into a business. Some people — if they are both skilled and lucky, or if they are unskilled but very lucky — manage to do this, and working very hard slightly increases the chances of success. However, no matter how hard you work or what your innate skill level is, the odds of success are so low that you should not make decisions with the expectation of profit in these fields unless you have already been consistently profiting for an extended period of time. Furthermore, nothing is more effective at killing your love for a hobby than the stress created by a persistent false expectation of profit. Expecting to turn your hobby into your career is a dangerous path, and should be tread very carefully.

When music is in that intermediate zone of semi-professionalism, strange exploitative business structures take the reigns. (This is not unique to music: ask any waiter in Hollywood what their real job is; take a look at what vanity publishing houses sometimes promise to aspiring novelists. However, the music industry’s particular genre of exploitation is both widespread and wide-reaching, and it tends to directly affect even people who go on to become successful, while both the music industry and the publishing industry have more direct routes for people who have a leg up.) If you are making music because you love to make music*, why spend a bunch of money touring and playing at dive bars (which won’t get you exposure and won’t pay for equipment costs) when you can just record your material and release it free online (which will get you only slightly more exposure and won’t pay for equipment costs but at least doesn’t waste gas money that could instead be used on rent)? If you’re making music for the love of it, why try to get signed to a record company (who will give you an advance that they don’t expect you to recoup and then keep you on the hook for the difference) when you can stick your material on bandcamp or soundcloud (and avoid going into debt with an organization whose practices border on qualifying as a crime syndicate)? If you’re making music for the love of it, isn’t having twenty people who buy every album you put out enough to make you feel justified in trying to balance a day job and a recording schedule?

Open source software has a similar, yet even stranger, situation going on. Most pieces of open source software are small and have extremely few users. They are open source because turning them into products would be pointless and a waste of effort. They are the best kind of software: small, clean, suited to a very specific task, easily understood, and easily maintained. When a talented software engineer writes a very small shell script to solve a niggling problem that seems to bother only him, this is the end result. There are so many of these because this kind of thing happens several times a week for many software engineers, and because a simple and carefully written script can avoid becoming obsolete or requiring maintenance for years or even decades by sticking to standard features. However, if you weigh open source software projects by number of users, the distribution changes substantially: projects with large numbers of users tend to be large, complex, difficult to maintain, and full of technical and social challenges.

When a post on Medium promises tips to get your open source project a larger number of users, it mystifies me. Increasing the number of users for your open source project is an even worse idea than increasing the number of commenters on your blog. A small project with a handful of highly-technically-skilled users and a single maintainer requires approximately zero marginal effort: it can be written, dumped into the public domain, and forgotten; anyone who uses it can also fork it and make any modifications they like; it is easy enough to maintain a fork that there’s no point in migrating changes upstream. But, add a single non-technical user to the user base for such a project and suddenly you get bug reports (for non-bugs or low-priority bugs or things that the other users performed a one-line change to fix) and feature requests (for features that are completely out of scope, only marginally related, mathematically impossible, or would by themselves require several times more code to implement than the entire existing project). Grow to fifty or one hundred users and some of them will inevitably be non-technical — and just to separate the wheat from the chaff you will probably need to bring on a couple trusted people to be maintainers or administrators. Grow to one thousand users and your project now has a “community” that is more complex and drama-filled than many small towns. Yet, one thousand users isn’t remotely enough for somebody to start paying you to work on the project. By the time an open source project has the capacity to start making the maintainers money, it has already been a nightmare timesink for years.

Having something you created become popular can be a great ego boost: it cements a feeling of connection between you and the rest of the world that can often otherwise be quite tenuous. But, it’s not always — or even typically — logistically desirable. Before giving into the instinct to increase the popularity of something you are working on, step back and ask yourself whether or not the benefits are worth what you give up.

*Note: I’m not criticizing side hustles here. A side hustle, however, needs to have a high profit-to-effort ratio to be worthwhile (even if that profit is inconsistent, and even if that effort it tempered by joy). Instead, I’m criticizing the idea that a creative side hustle should aspire to become a consistent source of income and a full time career. Side hustles, particularly creative ones done partly or mostly out of passion, benefit greatly from the kind of scheduling flexibility that can only come from not being the primary source of income upon which one’s life and livelihood depends: if you’re tired you can avoid taking another commission rather than tainting your hobby by hate-working through a burnout period. Your creative side hustle probably benefits a little bit from exposure, but not only is exposure not necessarily worth doing for free what you would normally charge for, but it also is not necessarily worth doing at all what you would normally avoid.

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.