Why you’re not a digital superstar

Adam Westbrook
Jul 24, 2013 · 4 min read

There’s no shortage of books, blogs and courses out there teaching you how to become a better writer, photographer, filmmaker, designer. I’ve read them all — and I’ve even written a few.

But I feel like a lot of them are missing an important chapter. And it’s the chapter that explains how you jump from an average Joe who uploads things on Vimeo, to someone with an actual audience and all the opportunities that come with that.

And here’s what I’ve learned: that success lies in what you say, not how you say it.

Let’s look at some examples. Randall Munroe’s XKCD is one of the most successful web comics on the planet, with a significant dedicated following.

But we can be sure of one thing: his success is not because of his ability to draw. I’m not saying he’s not a good artist (maybe he paints Turners in his spare time), but let’s be honest, anyone can draw 2D stick figures.

You can draw stick figures and upload them onto the internet. How come you’re not Randall Munroe?

YouTube is full of similar examples. Let’s take the most famous YouTuber of them all, Jenna Marbles.

She’s clocked up a little over 10 million subscribers and each video gets nearly 2 million views each. One thing is clear: the quality of her videos is not a factor in why people watch them.

I’m not going to make the mistake of suggesting her videos should be a better quality — that misunderstands YouTube and its audience.

But, many tens of thousands of people possess the equipment and the ability to make short quick-cut films about how they get dressed. There’s a good chance you do. How come you’re not Jenna Marbles?

A friend of mine in Paris is the writer Chelsea Fagan. She started out blogging in high school and moved here a few years ago determined to make it as a writer.

She’s since hustled her way to become an editor on ThoughtCatalog and her debut book I’m Only Here for the Wifi is out in a couple of weeks.

Chelsea’s worked really hard and she’s a very good writer. But so are lots of people. How come she’s the one with the book deal?

The answer for all three of these web success stories lies in what they say, and not how they say it.

Ryan Holiday, in a recent post on Thought Catalog put it this way, on the subject of writers:

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

What Randall, Jenna and Chelsea have in common is that they’ve achieved something very difficult — they have become voices for a generation.

Not only that, they speak to Generations Y & Z, the ones companies, advertisers and the mainstream media are desperately trying (and failing) to understand.

Drawing, podcasting, filmmaking, writing, motion graphics animation, whatever — they are not valuable activities on their own. They are means to an end.

If you’re trying to “do” one of these things or to “be” an artist, podcaster, filmmaker, writer, designer and you’re not succeeding, chances are it’s not because of your technical ability or your craftsmanship.

It’s because you have nothing to say just yet.

Without step 1, steps 2-6 don’t mean anything. (Scott McCloud Understanding Comics)

And what is the solution? It’s simple but not easy. It’s to put down the pen, camera, microphone for a while and to go out and live a little.

You’ll have nothing to say about life until you’ve almost pissed yours away; nothing to say about love until your heart’s been broken. Sadly, this inspiration does not lie on Twitter, Facebook (or even Medium!), so get off the internet.

It goes against other advice which encourages daily, regular, creation — but I think these two things can go hand in hand.

The other smart thing about Randall, Jenna and Chelsea is that they could change mediums as they please. Jenna Marbles could (and probably will) write a book, and Randall could turn the cartoons into films. Their message, their voice, their ability to capture a generation is not connected to their form or medium.

There really are too many people telling us how to become a better writer or a better filmmaker or a better business-person, focusing on the form, the platform or the technique; and not enough people reminding us that none of that really matters unless you have something to say.

And going out and living a life worth talking about requires more bravery than perfecting your video editing skills.

    Adam Westbrook

    Written by

    Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/

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