Forget The Fickle

A blog post is a search query. Or, to give Henrik Karlsson’s post its full name: A blog post is a very long and complex search query to find fascinating people and make them route interesting stuff to your inbox. I read this last year and I’ve seen a few people come back to it recently—it’s worth reading, and it connects with many similar thoughts I’ve had.

Karlsson spends the post unpacking two key areas. One is about how information flows through the (human-powered, not algorithmic) internet from the periphery to the centre. It’s about the mechanics and process of virality, which no doubt fascinates many, but that sort of distribution is something that I’m not terribly interested in, lest it stain my soul in some way. It’s more outbound, if it’s easier to think in those terms.

Audience attraction

The other area, of more immediate interest to me, is about inbound. It’s about how what you write and who it organically attracts. Karlsson:

I didn’t want a general public. I wanted a specific set of people, the people who could help me along as a human being obsessed with certain intellectual problems. I didn’t know who these people were. I only knew that they existed. Hence my writing was a search query. It needed to be phrased in such a way that it found these people and, if necessary, filtered others.

He talks in the round about long-tail search traffic as a result of publishing comprehensive posts:

To make it interesting for myself, I made it longish and detailed. I like it when people don’t just talk in the abstract but show you with examples, preferably many examples, and preferably taken from the real world so they are messy. Some people find this excess annoying. I don’t. Rich data lets me develop a tacit understanding of the domain. […] And because the internet is big, there were a few thousand people who felt the same way—and I felt really deeply for these people.

So far, so if you build it they will come. I’m reminded here of Tom Critchlow’s post about ‘small b’ blogging:

Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network. Small b blogging is writing content designed for small deliberate audiences and showing it to them. Small b blogging is deliberately chasing interesting ideas over pageviews and scale. An attempt at genuine connection vs the gloss and polish and mass market of most “content marketing”.

And of course Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans theory:

A thousand customers is a whole lot more feasible to aim for than a million fans. Millions of paying fans is not a realistic goal to shoot for, especially when you are starting out. But a thousand fans is doable. You might even be able to remember a thousand names. If you added one new true fan per day, it’d only take a few years to gain a thousand.

Homogeneity as a service

This will only become more important: as generative AI tools proliferate, and more people use them to churn out low-effort, low-quality content, everything will become more like itself. More homogenous, more repetitive, less interesting, less fulfilling. This accelerates a flattening of culture, where ideas and aesthetics are optimised for engagement and to be acceptable to as many people as possible.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but this ought to create opportunities for unique voices to stand out against the backdrop of mediocrity. Think the polar opposite of those awful LinkedIn people who I’m trying very hard not to sound like right now.

Bigger platforms

Karlsson, Critchlow and Kelly are talking about building attention on one’s own platform. Putting aside Karlsson’s virality hacks, this is a slow and steady process, so it’s interesting to compare it with the multiplicative factor of huge platforms. For example, how contributing to Wikipedia articles can generate an audience for the content that is far beyond what most authors could otherwise achieve on their own domains:

I remember clearly the day I first found out that you could see page view statistics for Wikipedia articles. I came into class and asked the students if they had any idea how many people were reading their work. Instead of the usual assignment of an exam or term paper read by exactly one person, their professor, they were now writing for a real public.  

They were shocked to find out (for example), that the Gabriel García Márquez article that they were rewriting was read by something like 1,500 people a day: 62,000 a month, or close to three-quarters of a million people a year. That really gave them a sense that what they were doing mattered in some way.

Back in 2008, the Vargas Llosa article was getting close to 500 hits a day: over 11,000 a month or around 140,000 a year. Not shabby, and several orders of magnitude more of a readership than any academic article will ever get; better indeed than most best-selling novelists.

This article is from 2010—a cursory glance shows the figures quoted are now far higher. Of course the nature of Wikipedia means that the audience ‘belongs’, if it even can, to the content, not to the author. It would be unusual if anyone visited a Wikipedia article and fell in love with the writing style. But it is relevant in terms of providing detailed, in-depth information and letting the audience come to it.

Audience retention

For people who write on the web, the objective is to attract but then also retain a loyal audience, equally as interested in the topic as the author. Quality trumps quantity. This holds as we scale. Picture any sort of publishing business, from an individual running small newsletter through to a media conglomerate: passing traffic is increasingly worthless. Growth for growth’s sake looks great but makes the platform more precarious.

When I talk to clients in my day job I often focus on the question: how do we get your audience to keep coming back for more?

Because bigger isn’t always better. Instead of chasing single vanity metrics like pageviews, I try to help people think about journeys through content. Useful metrics for analysing this may or may not be things like the percentage of engaged sessions, session length, pages per session and so on. Everyone, from a small-b blogger to an enterprise business, has a reason for their website’s existence. Social traffic is all but gone, so loyalty and retention are increasing in priority for anyone with a website. This could mean embracing a paid audience through subscription or membership programmes. But it could also mean focusing on habit-forming products like podcasts and newsletters. It’s no wonder that some of the most successful people are combining both.

The value of genuine connections

We live in a disgusting time of corroded social media platforms run and populated by imbeciles who pursue virality and mass popularity like dogs chasing cars. (Except you, you’re nice.) More sunnily, the value of building a dedicated, niche audience should not be underestimated. In the final analysis, it’s not just the number of readers or followers, but the quality of the connections and the depth of the impact that matters.

As Karlsson, Critchlow, and Kelly show, there’s merit in creating content that appeals to a select group of individuals who share the same passions and interests. Ignore the imbeciles, forget the fickle. This approach allows for a more genuine and meaningful engagement with the audience, fostering a sense of community and belonging. By focusing on quality over quantity, the author or webmaster (remember them? I too lived in the ‘1900s’) can develop a loyal following of true fans who are more likely to share and engage with their content in a meaningful way.

Moreover, this targeted approach to content creation can lead to a more fulfilling and sustainable creative journey for the author. Which has to be better than hammering out lowest common denominator, mass-appeal garbage to get fleeting attention from halfwits. As Karlsson puts it, writing becomes a search query designed to find like-minded individuals, leading to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and more authentic connections with the audience. Rather than chasing the ephemeral satisfaction of going viral, this approach offers a more enduring sense of accomplishment.

Furthermore, by contributing to the larger, nicer platforms like Wikipedia, people can can tap into a wider audience without compromising the integrity of their work. This allows for a more balanced approach, where authors can still enjoy the benefits of increased visibility without succumbing to the dreaded pressures of mass appeal. It also highlights the importance of collaboration and community-building, as people contribute to a shared knowledge base that benefits all.

While the allure of virality and mass-market appeal might be tempting, no-one benefits from being today’s main character or any platform’s model of a ‘respected poster’. Instead, look to the value of genuine connections and a focused, dedicated audience.

I’m working hard here to avoid using the dreaded phrase ‘content creator’, but by writing and publishing things that resonate deeply with a select group of individuals, authors can foster a more meaningful relationship with their audience, enjoy a more satisfying creative journey, and ultimately, make a more lasting impact. Embracing this mindset and finding the balance between personal platforms and collaborative efforts can help content creators (fuck, I did it) navigate the complex landscape of the modern internet, enabling them to thrive in a truly connected world AH FUCK THAT DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING I’M TURNING INTO ONE OF THOSE LINKEDIN PEOPLE I NEED TO START THIS WHOLE THING AGAIN



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