In early 2018 I earned more than $1,000 in one week on the Steem blockchain. By June 2018, I’d decided to leave the blockchain entirely.
Earning up to thousands of dollars a week for a personal blog sounds like the ultimate social media dream come true. But if it’s only possible within an unsustainable system of blockchain hype, how much of a dream can it be?
I learned the hard way that there’s more to building a monetization stream than hype and good ideas. You need the best execution and the best people. Steem, though it has some great people, has failed to attract the best members of the blockchain community. Instead they have cultivated a loud and non-representative group of get-rich-quick schemers, idealistic anarchists, and true scammers.
And as a person who believes in rational thinking and making a genuine impact, I couldn’t abide. Here is the story of how I gained 3,000 organic followers on Steem, and then left it all behind.
1: A Great Concept
Steem came into my life at a time of transition. In early 2017, I was “crashing” in Connecticut at a house my brother had been renting. We paid a dirt cheap rent and got by on shitty jobs, or in my case at that point, no job.
After leaving New York City and a just-enough-to-survive gig at $2000/month, I’d lived briefly in North Carolina before landing back in my hometown in Connecticut. At 25 years old, a musician and writer with no band, no blog, and no car, I wasn’t sure what to do.
That’s when I found Steemit.
It looked a lot like reddit back then — there’s still a resemblance — except the posts had dollar signs underneath them. At this point the Steem coin was worth a mere $0.07, so the best posts only earned $20 or $30.
I didn’t care. If I could get $20 for a blog post I’d at least get some groceries out of it. This was not my proudest time in life, so any income seemed good.
What came next was magic… over the first few weeks, posting a dozen different posts, I earned payouts ranging from $0 to $20. One post went “viral” and reached the top of the music page. At the time seeing hundreds of votes gave me goosebumps — I didn’t realize it was a “voting trail,” and that few people if any actually watched the video.
What I did know was that I was WINNING, a feeling Steem’s community cultivates within all newbies. You haven’t drank the kool-aid until you get a big vote on a post out of nowhere. Once it happens once, you think it can happen again.
In this way Steem is a lot like gambling. You roll the dice and see what you can get. Some posts earned less than a dollar, but others earned a few bucks, and Steem’s value kept growing.
What I loved about Steem at this time was that it rewarded creative work. While Facebook and Instagram seemed to value selfies and lame content, Steem rewarded philosophical essays. I was entranced (and still am) by the mind-bending futurology of Kevin Wong, one of Steem’s most accomplished authors, and I enjoyed the Dilbert-esque comedy posts from user Meesterboom.
Posting drum clips, essays about bitcoin, ramblings on the creative life, and earning money for it? After my first burrito that I paid for with Steem earnings, I was feeling this thing.
As the months grew, I applied myself and obsessed over many Gary Vaynerchuk social media lessons… creating post after post after post. Posts every day. I wasn’t just on Steem, I was actually documenting my quest for other writing gigs THROUGH steem, and now I was writing for a few cents per word on textbroker.com and constantcontent.com.
My earnings grew from $100 per week to $400 per week. I felt like this could be my future — a steem author, and through steem, a freelance writer for other sites.
Soon after this, despite some price dips, I saved up just enough money to leave Connecticut. I headed down to Raleigh, where I had some friends and it seemed like a good place for a young guy with no car to try and set up a life.
I’ll leave my Raleigh experience for another day, but soon after arriving there, I got invited to join a Steem “Incubator.” All I had to do was send them some of my Steem tokens each month and I’d receive valuable guidance, mentorship, etc, and of course some guaranteed upvotes.
Is this vote buying? Obviously it is… but at the time, I believed the company line. “It’s an incubator, where the votes facilitate community activities…”
2: Positive Thinking Gone Too Far
Thus began the most profitable time in my Steem career. All of my content was honest and organic — and I began to build a real audience, crossing the 1,000 followers threshold followed soon thereafter by reaching 2k followers. I was earning great payouts, including votes from many different users.
But I didn’t realize, or want to realize, that the majority of my earnings came from the incubator’s own votes.
After a major market pump in January and February 2018 led to massive prices across the Steem (STEEM) and Steem Blockchain Dollar (SBD) tokens, I had about a month where I earned $1,000 per week. The funds earned around this time were enough to fund a trip to NYC, where I rented a room via AirBNB and met up with some of my favorite friends in the world. I was on top of that world…. but was it real?
This was pure fun and joy — a freelance writer, traveling to New York, having meetings with people, blogging about it, and all funded by my personal blog. It felt amazing — a little too good to be true, to be honest — and this was when I realized that I was living WAY above my means.
After all, I could only do stuff like this — visit NYC, see friends, pay my rent back home, spend money every day at coffeeshops, etc — if the Steem token remained insanely valuable.
And in the months between March and June 2018, I became increasingly concerned about the Steem ecosystem. Vote bots had long been acknowledged as a problem, and I had kept out of the debate in the hopes that Steem’s largest stakeholders would find an agreement to end the vote bot issue. At this point I should explain vote bots.
Vote Bots are automated Steem accounts that have a ton of tokens invested as “Steem Power,” which takes 13 weeks to withdraw. Users can send them money in exchange for Steem upvotes, which allocate large steem rewards to their posts.
In other words, when you use a vote bot, you spend money to receive an upvote that (in theory) is worth more than you spend. It’s a scam, plain and simple. Send money, receive more money, no effort required. As they say, if it smells like a scam, looks like a scam, acts like a scam…
And the Steem community did not put an end to vote bots.
In fact, in 2018 vote bots have become the main way that rewards are allocated on the steem blockchain.
And I realized that many of my colleagues, both within and outside of the incubator, were developing NO skills or plans beyond that of buying votes and creating content according to the vote bot guidelines…
This is when I realized that Steem’s ecosystem is completely fucked up. I have very low hope for the blockchain surviving or ever achieving a significantly larger audience. In fact, I think that Steem’s genuine popularity has peaked. The only thing that could drive more attention and money than its peak in early 2018 would be a huge and false market manipulation by whales… There is no inherent value here.
Steem’s theoretical ideal — to become the non-censorable monetization layer of digital content — is excellent. However the blockchain is overrun by trolls, get-rich-quick hypers, and a lack of high quality content.
And so I’ve mostly powered down my tokens. I will retain about 100 steem tokens as “Steem Power” so my account remains functional — you need tokens for “bandwidth” — but no more. I do not plan on making any more posts on Steem.
3: Alternatives to Steem
There are some awesome places to monetize your content online. The key is to find the perfect thing for you. There are tons of niche platforms that generate a few million dollars per month of revenue — and if you can become a “B-List Influencer” of that platform, like I was on Steem, that’s often enough to earn meaningful income for an individual creator.
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Patreon — The stats are impressive — more than $12 million per month is pledged to creators via Patreon.
YouTube — 3 Billion Views Per Day = a lot of attention, and payouts, if you can get a big audience. However many YouTubers in recent years have had nothing but complaints about the service. There are stories about censorship and de-monetization of entire channels for no clear reason. Be careful.
Medium is one of the most focused and seemingly ambitious projects in the space of paying freelance writers. Ev Williams offers excellent updates that explain the purpose and goal of the site, and they have a history of sticking to their core principles even during tough times. However they clearly have a HUGE clickbait problem, it is honestly horrible to log in there right now. So I’m not sure. At least the data it gives you is good.
Bandcamp — Many musicians have found Bandcamp to be the best way to earn money by selling their recordings. Bandcamp appeals to the same kind of fan that buys vinyl. With 6.5$ million per month in revenue, they are a great option for smaller acts.
Moving Forward With Cautious Optimism
I’m still optimistic about blockchain and social media monetization for artists, but now I’m cautiously optimistic.
I believe that blockchain technology can create new opportunities that did not previously exist for artists, and in so-doing may “unlock” funds from elsewhere in the market to go towards content creators. People would give more to their favorite artists, and less to middlemen, if they were easily able to do so.
But right now there’s some major hype on some shitty projects. Steem is now a failed experiment in my mind, although I remain open to being proven wrong. EOS is another related project, also founded by Dan Larimer, which is receiving some major criticism lately. Time will tell how the EOS-based social media platform ONO fares.
I’ll participate in ONO if it seems reasonable (but it looks bad right now to be honest), and I eagerly await other platforms that combine social features with content monetization. Once somebody gets this right, I will generate a lot of revenue for them and myself both. And I’ll keep you updated.
Buckle your seat belt and grab a good book — this could be a long ride. Will we see a great option via blockchain to monetize content by, say, 2020? I hope so.