Though I am not nearly so skilled at dancing through life as Fiyero in Wicked, I must confess that there are many times when I am “deeply shallow.” Every single time I get a Medium notification, for instance. That little rush of dopamine after discovering a new comment or a series of claps is wonderfully mood-boosting. (I could do without the news that someone else highlighted the same line I did, though. That’s nice. Go away.)
I used to feel a thrill right down to the tips of my toes, a la Anne Shirley, every time I was informed that I had a new follower. At least, I did a year ago when I joined Medium and the world was a song and the song was exciting.
These days, I’m a bit more cynical and a whole lot more skeptical. You could say reality — and the algorithm — have killed the dream I dreamed.
Okay, that’s a little extreme.
But before I completely lose your attention with musical theatre references, let me be blunt: I lost my delight over new followers when I realized how many of them were just in it for a reciprocal back scratch.
As of this writing, I’m approaching 650 followers. And I’ll be blunt again: most of them do not read my work. Out of those 600-odd people, a really well-performing story will clock perhaps 100 reads.
Back when I was naïve (and innocent as a rose), I joined a few Medium Facebook groups. I’m still there, mostly lurking these days, and rolling my eyes every time a new variant on “Five Surefire Ways To Perfect Your Existence And Earn $1000 Every Month” appears in my timeline. My eye-roll gives way to the mute button when this scintillating article is accompanied by the droning message, “Read, comment, clap, and follow, and I will do the same.”
Coerced engagement with your work is not engagement with your work.
If you have to beg people to read, comment, and clap with an empty promise to do the same for them, your articles will pile up with high clap numbers and your actual engagement — that is, people who are reading thoughtfully and saying “please, ma’am, I want some more” — will be next to nothing.
Let me tell you what I wish I knew when I was young and dreamed of writing glory. You have no control over who clicks that follow button. But you can figure out pretty quickly that when people follow you without ever applauding or commenting on your work — and then you never hear from them again — they are probably just hoping you’ll reciprocate. Gotta boost those numbers. Gotta sell those papes.
It’s meaningless if it’s just passing relay batons in some sort of look-at-me-and-I’ll-look-at-you rat race. That is not the circle of life. We all get paid through the partner program based on percentage of our readers’ time, right? Well, if you’re spending your month speed-reading other writers’ articles that you couldn’t care less about and won’t remember when you’re through, and they’re doing the same for you, then congratulations — you’ve each gained maybe a penny after this satisfying transaction, and the money will not keep rolling in.
Are you here to learn, to get better at writing, to enjoy yourself, and — maybe — to earn some money, too? Then focus on the readers who really matter: the ones who are here to read your best work. Spend your time writing for them, not wasting time clicking “follow” and clicking “clap,” and wearing out your index finger swiping to the bottom of a story you barely registered, just so you can say you did.
That’s what I’m trying to do these days, anyway. You can take me or leave me.
So when someone new follows me, I often will take a quick glance at their profile. If they’ve written a headline that catches my eye — yes, in this case headlines do sell — I’ll save it in my reading list. I follow a lot of people who do not follow me back, and I’m cool with that. I’d rather follow people who don’t know I’m alive, but are consistently producing content I enjoy. Why else would I want to see them at the top of my landing page every day?
If you feel you’d be better served going into the fire after every single person who chooses to follow you, like a falcon in the dive, then no one is stopping you. I will be over here enjoying my sweet liberty at last, reading what I want to read and clapping for whom I wish to clap.
Oh, yes, clapping — I could go into a great deal of detail about why you shouldn’t clap after zooming through an article you don’t care about. But that would be somewhat redundant if you have actually been reading everything I’ve been saying heretofore (and not just zooming through in the hopes that I’ll feel obligated to read something of yours).
Thank you for reading all the way to the end, and for enduring my references to Wicked, Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Hamilton, Newsies, The Lion King, Evita, Rent, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and in a moment, Guys and Dolls.
And as for all of you who keep circulating on Facebook begging for claps, reads, shares, and follows? Sit down. You’re rockin’ the boat.