When I started blogging in 2007, I had ambitions of being popular blogger with a certain amount of authority. Those ambitions burnt out within a year or two, as I realized I did not actually want to be a famous blogger, and would rather satisfy my own preferences in blogging. Why did I have such ambitions, and why did they burn out? More broadly, how do other creators experience ambition, and are there differences from my own experience?
Okay, so 2007. Towards the end of the Bush administration, when Bush reached peak disapproval. New atheism was just getting rolling, and blogs held a particularly important place in the conversation, much like lefttube or twitter hold an important place today. I was an undergrad, and had been reading blogs myself, starting with Phil Plait, Hemant Mehta, PZ Myers, and branching off into many smaller ones.
My ambition was to become as well-known as the big names, or perhaps at least one of the smaller ones. It’s hard to remember why I had this mentality, especially since I now see it as irrational. I suppose I had a lot of opinions to share, and believed my opinions were the Good Ones that would transform how we thought about stuff and resolve all the issues that bloggers argued about. I have always been very modest, and though nobody throughout my education would ever let me forget that I am “smart”, I have never felt that my opinions are super valuable just because they are my opinions. Nonetheless, in my experience reading blogs, there were countless places where I thought bloggers and other readers were missing something important, and I felt I could supply that something if only people would hear me.
These ambitions were dashed quickly, as I started blogging and received total silence. When you read blogs, you disproportionately read the kind of blogs that have readers, and when you write a blog, you disproportionately write the kind of blog that doesn’t. I knew that, but I still felt disappointed, and felt a bit silly for ever expecting anything different. I also realized that there was barely any way to dig out of the hole of obscurity. In the blogosphere, there are two major mechanisms to be “discovered”–either you get the attention of a more influential blogger, or you spend years leaving lots of insightful comments everywhere, with links back to your blog.
I eventually achieve success, to some degree. According to statistics that I compiled in 2015, my page views grew to 7k a month over the course of two years–which can be a lot or a little depending on your expectations. It translates to 1-2 comments on an average day. My readership never grew past that point, and is now a smidge smaller.
The growth was so gradual and slow that my ambitions had time to shrink down to size, as I gained self-knowledge about what I actually wanted from blogging. I like that my writing is providing value to someone other than myself, and I like that there are enough people around to keep me honest. But I also look at big name bloggers, and I realize how much work they must put into it, to blog several times a day. I realize that the things they write about are mostly not things I want to write about. I see that they bear a great responsibility to avoid mistakes because of the sheer number of people who would be misinformed. I see that they are subject to harassment. I don’t want any of that for myself.
Creators can experience ambition in a variety of ways, and I don’t wish to overgeneralize. However, I observe that the environment for creators is significantly different today, in two major ways.
First, you can actually make money as a creator–if not as a blogger, then as a vlogger or influencer of some sort. When I started blogging, even the most influential bloggers could only make a pittance in ad money. Thus, making money was simply never part of my ambitions. In fact, blogging is very “expensive” in terms of the time spent. It’s even worse for analytical blogging, which is often founded on an education that few people are privileged enough to have. So in my experience, it’s a hobby most popular among college students and grad students.
I believe that the potential to monetize content makes it accessible to a more diverse group of people. This is well and good, but just as I had inflated expectations about how popular I could become, many creators may now have inflated expectations about how much money they could make. While the most popular creators can make a living off of their work, most creators do not even come close. So content creation might be accessible to more people, but I worry that for many people it may be a trap.
The second difference today, is the mechanism of discovery. Most modern platforms have more effective mechanisms of discovery, often in the form of going “viral”. That is, creators may receive runaway attention through the word-of-mouth snowball, or by the whims of the algorithm.
Virality can be a very tempting possibility, if you are the kind of creator with big ambitions. And for some creators, virality indeed grants their wish of fame and popularity. But other creators may learn that their wish was foolish. Or perhaps they never wished for fame in the first place, and received it anyway. Still others may toil for a long time thinking that fame was just around the corner, when it never was. The extremely gradual growth of my own audience was painful, but I’m not sure I would trade it for what creators have today.