If you’re thinking that today’s the day to start making a name for yourself online, think again. You’ll probably just be wasting your time.
The appeal of the web was once that it gave voice to the voiceless. But after twenty five years, the big dinosaur media brands finally have things figured out, and even thriving new media companies have been here for a while. If you’re the little guy— outside of that system and just looking to get your feet wet— that doesn’t bode well. It’s proving more and more difficult to make waves.
Take YouTube, for example. It used to be a platform for amateur filmmakers, amateur musicians, amateur whatevers. And arguably it still is. But these days it it’s practically impossible to cut through the noise there without some sort of assistance. Without the great big YouTube wizard in the sky lending you a helping hand. You can pull all the analytics and SEO tricks in the world and they won’t help.
Maybe that was always the case. But things didn’t seem so darn bleak. You didn’t feel like you were just uploading your stuff into the ether, hopelessly praying more than six people look at it. You thought maybe there was a chance that your material might be discovered… somehow. Now, when you’re competing with millions of other people, not to mention Hollywood and the record labels for a limited number of eyeballs, why even bother?
But let’s take ourselves out of the video realm. I’m not an amateur filmmaker. I’m writer. So let’s say you’re a small publisher, and you have a blog. I love blogs. Blogs are the lifeblood of the internet. They power it, they make it go. That said, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that blogs aren’t what they used to be.
As a result of Google’s Panda update and now Facebook’s update to their news feed algorithm— both of which give priority to ‘high quality’ content, which basically means stuff from big media brands, who are also advertisers and pay for engagement— your chances of having your little blog seen without first having some other highly-trafficked website refer to you are almost slim to none. That means that in 2014 it’s harder than ever to get discovered. This might as well be 1986, and you’re publishing a small zine about goth rock in South Florida. Because that’s what web publishing is right now.
And why would anyone discover you anyway? At this point, something like ninety-five percent of the content powering these smaller sites is coming from mainstream media outlets, television networks, movie studios and radio. Big media is supplying the content, while everyone else is just having a conversation around it. Some sites— the obvious ones, they don’t really need to be named— have built businesses around that sort of thing. Good for them.
But if you’re a small publisher just starting out today, and you can’t create something original and clickworthy, you’re useless. It sucks to hear that, but that’s reality. The barrier for entry online used to be so low. Now it’s insanely high. Not to get in, but to stay in. And the bean counters behind the scenes, they don’t give a shit about what’s cool or what’s interesting, they just care about what scales. The Internet has become a giant scoreboard. You need to be winning to really matter.
That isn’t to say there isn’t room for great storytelling on the web, and that great content won’t pop. It will. Everywhere you look, that’s happening (it’s happening on this very platform). It’s amazing. Perhaps because the old guard finally realized they had to reinvent themselves or die, there’s been a true renaissance online in recent years. Good work is finally winning and at least on the surface level, this is a good time to be in the content business. Well, that is if you’ve been in the content business for a while.
But if you’re new, good work just isn’t going to cut it. And producing good work takes time and money. You also need a system in place to distribute it, to get it out there. And you’re not doing that with some minor operation anymore. Not in any meaningful way. Or consistent way. Or some type of way that is actually sustainable. Sure, you can make one blog post that pops. Can you do that ten times a week? Probably not. You have to be big to matter now.
Think I’m making this up? Perez Hilton became a millionaire while sitting in a coffee shop drawing dicks on the faces of celebrities’ faces and uploading them onto a Wordpress site with two sentences underneath. What would your reaction be if you saw that today? You’d probably have no reaction. You wouldn’t even care. And that’s okay, it’s not interesting in 2014.
But even that sort of aimless blogging arguably had some appeal, and that’s why it caught on when it did. The celebrity industrial complex needed to be brought back down to earth, and Hilton’s extremism, along with hundreds of other blogs of that era, re-calibrated the landscape. In retrospect, those voices, as inane and snarky as they were, were needed.
Look around the web now and it’s tough to find that stuff. The web has been cleaned up. Sanitized. It’s much more politically correct. Because when the spotlight finally landed on those sites, writers put on their pathetic pale of positivity so advertisers and other people holding the purse strings wouldn’t go running. Because, ya’know, dissenting opinions are bad for business.
That was fine, for a while. Money was flowing and countless bloggers turned their websites into businesses that ran themselves. It was aggregation time and bloggers were on autopilot. They scrubbed their websites of opinion writing and put it on social networks instead. Now it wasn’t on their sites but on their Twitter feeds. It was cool. We didn’t even have to check their websites anymore.
But have you looked at Twitter lately? Sure, it’s more mature, but it’s also a shell of itself. Just a big dumping ground for websites promoting their content, people retweeting every single reply they get, live-tweeting of TV shows and brands trying to have skin in the game during live events. Ironically, when everyone is listening, nobody wants to say anything.
So the chips are really stacked against you here. Search engine optimization is still a thing, and obviously it can help you get some traffic, but it’s really not very effective anymore. It seems like Google has wilted under the pressure of big media, the record companies and Hollywood. Facebook is doing the same, prioritizing content in its shareable space that it deems to be of high quality, whatever the hell that means. And Twitter, Twitter is just nonsense.
That leaves something like Tumblr, which is a great platform. But the fact that it’s an ecosystem unto itself makes it hard to really engage with, despite the fact that people have obviously had success there. Still, Tumblr feels complementary, almost like it has to work alongside a bigger platform to make much sense. The ideas that work there, too, feel smaller, more niche and ultimately much less relevant to creating a larger conversation.
Is Instagram where it’s at? Maybe. I notice more and more people writing novel-like captions beneath photos in Instagram, and it’s safe to say people would rather look at images than read a whole bunch of text. But again, this is a small platform with limited capabilities. You’re not cutting your way through the thicket of the web with an Instagram account. You’re merely going to use it as a complementary piece.
Certainly there are other platforms, and now with sites like Medium offering people an opportunity to write whatever they’d like, there is a lane opening back up. The lane still feels terribly clogged, though. Like you’re fighting every which way you can just to be heard.
You’re fighting against clickbait and quizzes. Fighting against twenty-thousand word narrative features on Grantland and Buzzfeed. Fighting against blogs who make their money summarizing what happened on television last night. Fighting against other writers who’ve been propped up by the institutions they work for.
It wasn’t always this hard. It felt like there was more of an upside. Having something go viral didn’t always seem like the only option. It felt you could show up every day, put your work in and eventually your website, your brand, your whatever, could grow into something sustainable. It was the American Dream personified. Work hard, and good things will happen. In a land of frontiers, it was the last one. Now, it just feels like somewhere to go and something to do.
This is what happens when you arrive late to the party.
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