I started blogging in 1997.
The point, back then, at least for myself and the bloggers I enjoyed, was to write for an existing audience. The sole metric was simple: did the piece resonate with the people already reading? If it did, then things are were good: we were making the people already paying attention happy and they’d sometimes tell others, increasing the number of people paying attention. Thoughtfulness, insight and empathy were rewarded. Growth as a byproduct, not a focus.
Today, the state of blogging is that it’s no longer blogging, it’s “content-ing”. Content marketing, A/B testing, search engine optimization, getting more posts published as quickly as possible, sensational clickbait titles and what can be viral asap. Rewards come from vapid metrics like clicks or advertising views or trickery to get someone onto a page, because YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT MEGHAN MARKLE WORE LAST NIGHT AT THE POLO CLUB.
None of those things are necessarily wrong or bad either (well, articles that bash someone for wearing something are probably bad… that just seems superficial). And this isn’t a stroll down memory lane or a raised fist shaking at “the good old days” of the internet either. I just think one of the main reasons that the internet took off like it did from the late–90s onward was that people could finally have a voice, regardless of whether or not that voice drove clicks and views. No need to go through gatekeepers like print publications, book publishers, etc… we could just write something and hit publish. Now our voices are collectively passed through the values of content marketing and growth-hacking.
While doing research last year I got to talk to one of my favourite early bloggers, Alex the Girl (Alex Beauchamp). She now consults and works with the biggest companies in the world, helping them tell their stories through content. When we talked, “going viral” came up, and what she said really resonated: she’d never want anything she did to go viral. First, she’d be on the hook to make “viral” happen (which is hard to do, even for someone as smart as Alex), but second, it’d mean she didn’t actually know her audience very well, because viral-ness means you want everyone to see something. And creating for everyone means you aren’t creating for anyone specifically. And this the state of content online currently: for it to matter or be valued, it has be seen by as many people as possible and creators will do almost anything to make that happen.
Content on the internet currently is designed for scale, for sharing, for the masses. This runs counter to blogging, which is for a specific niche, a specific group, a specific interest a few people might have.
By chasing the current state of content we can lose what made the internet awesome in the first place: unique voices, sharing specific ideas, for a tiny subset of folks interested in them, clicks and viral-ness be damned. Writing for everyone really means writing for no one. It means using shock and outrage, changing every few minutes, to create share-worthy rage but nothing else. It means clicking through 19 slides to realize the information presented was designed more to get you to see an advertisement than to share something useful with you.
Content is rewarded now through the act of getting someone to a website. Who cares if they read something, who cares if something was written well, who cares if there’s even content. Content now needs likes, shares, outrage, promotion, and to rank high in Google. Content online has gone from acting like an e-zine to being what it started out counter to, and that’s mass, mainstream media.
I’m the first to admit that I lost my way in all of this too. A few years back I realized that that was exactly how I was operating. I started out many years ago sharing personal stories (i.e. mostly rants, I’m angry like that) and working to connect with the folks who were paying attention. Then I started learning about marketing and how content worked, and getting guest columns in bigger publications, and beta access to write on new platforms, and I realized how easy it was to game the system if you understood the system. I learned how to write to get clicks and how to write to see audience growth. I was no longer blogging, I was creating content as a Content Marketer (title case, for importance!).
Once I realized what was happening, I made a conscious decision to stop. There’s nothing wrong with content marketing either, it’s super useful if you’re a business or if you require growth and acquisition to reach enough. That just didn’t align with how I wanted to show up in the world and online (same thing, I guess). I also wasn’t getting paid to be a content marketer as a job either.
So I went back to being a blogger (lowercase - which Tom Critchlow talks about here). I went back to focusing entirely on what is best for my small audience. I went back to sharing my personal and unique take on ideas, instead of what would get the most clicks from Twitter. I stopped writing for major publications and I even nuked my Medium account with 22k followers and millions of page views. I adopted a new mental model for content creation that focused entirely on what is best for my audience (if you’re reading this, that’s you!) and sharing with them.
I now deliberately think about and write for a small network of loosely connected people who are paying attention. They aren’t even “my” audience, because they’re just interesting people who pay attention to a lot more than just myself. I share what matters, not what brings in the traffic. I rarely remember to publish my newsletter articles to my website, because the reason I write these articles is for my newsletter. I couldn't care less about being at the top of Reddit or Hacker News (I’d rather not be at the top of those two sites, I have been and the amount of trolling is supremely detrimental to my own mental health). I don’t have any social media accounts to amplify my content, other than Twitter (which I rarely use, and even then, mostly just to tweet sarcasm and snark). I’d rather that my blogging exist in a small and focused network.
Content marketing and blogging may be diametrically opposed to each other, but one isn’t bad and the other good. There’s just what’s right for how you want to operate and what you need your content to do for you or your audience. It’s just something to consider – does the intent of how you want to exist as a content creator online actually line up with how you’re operating? If it doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to change.
Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: