How To Identify An Online Writing Pyramid Scheme

It’s Really Not That Hard To Figure Out

Jonathan Greene
Jul 25, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Imagine that there was a website where you, someone who likes to write, can get paid for your writing. You didn't even realize it at first and you really just wanted to diarize your mind slaw, but then someone told you (or reminded you with helpful hints on the site) that there was a paywall you could safely place your words behind.

This is a creative’s very definition of a win-win proposition. Spit words onto the screen. Receive money back. Pop. Champagne. But then people started trying to explain to you how you actually paid and you got confused. You read the “rules” and asked questions, but were still left with the Standard Model Lagrangian to deal with.

You tried to Google it, but when you did all you came up with was 11 Ways To Make Money Writing Online and This is How I Made $3.72 My First Month Writing Online. So, then you got intrigued. Maybe there was a formula to this. Maybe there was a way to hack the system.

Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes illegality is the bastion of growth.

It’s not really hard to figure out how an Online Writing Pyramid Scheme works because thanks to social media, it’s been going on for a long time. It involves multi-level marketing, spamming, building a pyramid, and gaming the system. Or as some call it — aggressive marketing.

The first thing that you look for is circular motion. Do you understand what I mean? A wind tunnel that leads back to itself and then it, in turn, leads back to itself — over and over again. Like a recycled air mass blowing in on itself all day long.

In the context of online writing that might look like a publication having its publisher and writers start writing stories, behind the paywall, about the publication. Like a lot. No, seriously. Like a lot. Like five or more times a day. Do you see the circle? The circle is the beginning of the Pyramid scheme.

This main “writer” brings other people into the wafts of air with a promise of fairness and inclusiveness and then features everyone, every day, multiple times. If you’ve been on Medium long enough you might stop and ask, “Aren’t there Newsletters for that?”

Yes, yes there are. But newsletters can’t go behind the paywall so if you want to create a Pyramid scheme, you would write summary “stories” every day with more than 100 links in each one, no new words, and regurgitated headlines and lead-ins, and put that behind the paywall. Every day. Over and over.

You know, something like Amway Published 100 Very Great Stories Yesterday, and then your whole story would just be links to all of the stories. You might think, no big deal, this is helping writers. You would be wrong.

When a “writer” creates a story and puts 100 links in it, it gets long. If that same “writer” has developed a cult-like following of number hounds and desperados looking to ride off into the sunset with their new blog and bag full of gold coins, they may know that all of the underlings will read the story each day, frantically searching for their link.

That means scroll time and more time on a “story”. Are you starting to see the scheme? If not, please take off your sunglasses because it’s staring you right in the face. All of the money flows upward to the top of the pyramid while the underlings are all using their time to build the lowest rung.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

If a publication spams its way to a plethora of followers and an overload of writers (a feat no real editor could ever imagine without wanting to hurl themselves off the nearest bridge) and then places the same story in front of them every single day, swapping out the links, it is a gigantic money play for the “writer” of that daily story.

But what if that same “writer” then encouraged other writers to do the same thing, under the umbrella of the publication, encouraging them to write tips for the publication or more highlights or interviews or to form smaller groups, but then reminded them to put all of that behind the paywall also. Are you with me?

Stories or essays about how to apply to a publication, how to use a publication, or wrap-ups about the publication are supposed to go out in newsletters and surely should not be behind the same paywall as those writing real stuff, even if it is listicle content and look-at-me pieces. At least not just a pile of links of publication fluffing.

Because as more of that goes behind the paywall, it takes money from the real writers trying to scratch it out for their $13.71 on a single story. The more “writing” that is just circular marketing, the less money there is for the actual writing on the site.

It’s as much a pyramid as it is a Ponzi at this point. How? Because as each “writer” brings on more “writers”, it enables those circular stories about the publication itself and the share stories to get more scroll time.

Let me stop for a second and ask you this: when the publisher of a magazine is not a writer themselves, you would surmise that their interest in the business is either a) money or b) the craft. But if it was b) the craft, why would the “publisher” put all of their “stories” at the front of the magazine (and behind a paywall) day after day? Hmm.

Why would writers write for a magazine that featured the publisher’s stories about the publication at the top of the magazine every day if they weren’t in on the pyramid scheme? A magazine focused on inclusion and support wouldn’t have the same cover every month.

Another way to make a Pyramid scheme work is to create channels or workflows or Facebook groups where the “company” works together to “lift each other up”. And when I say lift each other up, I really mean conspire to “read”, clap, scroll, like, and share each other’s creative output regardless of the quality.

One might even create an offsite group with a channel called # spam-our-own-posts. In a completely fictional, unrealistic, not-at-all-based-on-reality situation, that channel might look like this:

# spam-our-own-posts

I mean, not that anyone would ever openly do that, but if they did, it would probably look like that and it would also probably encourage newer “writers” to think that the act of getting “support” from your “community” (cult) was just part of the way it should be done. This is how you build a pyramid.

Just in case this was to happen on Medium at some point in the very distant future, I would refer to Medium’s rules which state, as things they will not allow in regard to Spam:

Repeatedly using responses or other interactions as a method of promotion

Use or re-use of content templates with slight modifications across multiple posts

Or things they will not allow in regard to paid, automatic, bulk, or non-genuine interactions:

Buying, selling, or trading in accounts or account interactions — including follows, claps, highlights, responses, or other traffic.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It makes you wonder if the clan even understands how they are being used to build the pyramid and if they do, if they really open their eyes, what they will think? What is the true goal of the original “writer”? If it was to promote all of the new writers every day in this fictional publication, wouldn't that be done with non-paywall promotion and not contained inside a story behind the paywall every single day when that story is made up of all links of those new writers’ words?

Wouldn’t other writers, at some point, become concerned when they saw colleagues in their clan write things inside a private communication like:

“I need to spam this post. I don’t like to tag 20 people just to be noticed.”

“Where can I spam stories not published in Amway?”

“For your stats to increase, you must actively participate and interact with others.”

Like, why aren’t the bells ringing? I’ll tell you why.

Because the ends to some justify the means and many are ok with this as just the normal course of navigating the Internet and trying to get seen. But real writers don’t have to clamor to be seen. They just write the f*ck out of their day and leave the words wherever they fall. And when the time comes, people come for them.

No true writer needs a pyramid scheme to succeed. But we all know that the words “writer” and “success” have become so whitewashed that it’s not surprising that people are confused about what they really mean. Or at least that’s what they tell themselves as they add another level to the pyramid.

If you liked (or hated) this, you might like (or hate) this:

The Death of Online Writing

A personal collection of essays on modern internet writing by Jonathan Greene.

Jonathan Greene

Written by

Father, poet, writer, real estate investor/team leader, certified life coach, sociable introvert. Curating a meaningful life. IG: trustgreene |

The Death of Online Writing

A collection of essays about how online writing has died amongst us from Jonathan Greene.

Jonathan Greene

Written by

Father, poet, writer, real estate investor/team leader, certified life coach, sociable introvert. Curating a meaningful life. IG: trustgreene |

The Death of Online Writing

A collection of essays about how online writing has died amongst us from Jonathan Greene.

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