This week, Jenny Bhat tweeted about a NYT piece that was making the rounds, "Food Businesses Lose Faith in Instagram after Algorithm Changes." She pulled out this quote: "Ultimately, the success of small businesses on social media is in the hands of a few corporations. These platforms don’t belong to us, they belong to tech companies"
For years, I've been beating a drum about creative people - writers, artists, musicians, chefs, and more - owning their own communities, for exactly this reason. I tweeted some quick thoughts about it, but I wanted to dig in deeper here and expand on what I've already written.
My absolute best advice for any creative person or small business is to build direct relationships with their community. That means building at least one channel to connect with followers and fans that is owned by you and within your control. Email lists are the best thing I've found so far, even though those come with their own set of challenges. Building your own channel might start slow; it will probably take years of consistent connection and building. But at the end of those years, you will have a reliable way to get in touch with people who want to hear about what you're doing.
In my 8 years in the tech industry, I saw that most tech platforms are avatars of extractive capitalism that use community-centered language to win over creative people and thinkers. Tech platforms such as social media platforms, blogging platforms, and more, are empty shells til people fill them with content and make them delightful, engaging, or (lately) infuriating and addictive places that people return to and give their attention to. Tech platforms NEED writers and other creators.
A century ago, the places where creative people and intellectuals shared their ideas and work looked a lot different: books, magazines, museums and galleries, lecture halls. Most of these places paid creative people for their work (and still do).
25 years ago, as the world began to move more online, a lot of writers and other creatives began experimenting with writing and publishing directly to the internet - on personal websites, online publications, blogs, etc. Publishing online was hard at first! You had to be pretty tech savvy, a skillset that writers haven't generally invested a lot of time in developing. Also, you had to be able to get people to go to your writing, which was another challenge.
The '90s and early 2000s internet was a weird place. People made strange things just because it was cool, or because they wanted to connect or share with a community. It felt in some ways like a digital version of the zine community. People mostly didn't use their real identities, instead using handles. The early internet also wasn't very monetized - a phrase that would have confused me a lot if I'd heard it 15 years ago. People were scared to buy things online because of credit card and identity theft. So people who were making things and sharing them online were doing it mostly for free/love.
And then all these tech platforms popped up and said "Do your cool thing on here, for free, and we'll handle all the hard stuff, and even share it with a wider audience!" And that was a pretty enticing offer. Otherwise, you had to code yourself or pay someone to do it. Platforms like Blogger, LiveJournal, Wordpress, MySpace, Facebook, Tumblr and others made writing online way easier.
The next wave of platforms, led by Facebook but including IG, Twitter, and others, worked so hard to get creative folks to move their audiences to the platforms, promising ease of use and increased reach to new audiences. It seemed like a great deal!
I was running a roller derby website during the heyday of Facebook, and we built a community of around 9,000 people on Facebook between 2011 and 2015. Originally, when we posted a link to our new articles, we could get it in front of a few thousand readers even if we only had 5,000 total followers. A big piece could bring us tens of thousands of readers. But within a few years, Facebook transformed from a great place to build and connect with our community to a place that throttled our reach and demanded we pay to reach our own audience. Our posts went from reaching thousands of readers to hundreds, and even fewer if the post was about fundraising.
By this point, Facebook had trained people to visit FB to interact with their friends and their favorite creative people and website content. So most of our readers weren't visiting our website directly anymore. This made it much harder to sell ads and earn money to pay for our hosting and other costs, to say nothing of being able to pay writers.
It became harder for individual websites to earn ad revenue at all, as it was much simpler and more targeted for advertisers to go straight to Facebook, which knew a LOT about its users.
Then Facebook bought its competitor, Instagram, which had been offering an enticing alternative. If not for that, competition could have made it harder for FB to turn the screws on its creators and users.
I focus on Facebook because they were one of the earliest to do this and I had a front row seat for it, but all the tech platforms do this. If you search "Medium Pivot" you'll find a long list of articles about various Medium pivots.
The prevailing tech definition of a walled garden seems to be an ecosystem that keeps users inside of it. This article describes it more from the user perspective, but I think of it too from a creator's perspective, where you do not have the ability to take your followers away with you if you decide you no longer want to play inside that garden. Sure, you can share a link and say "Join my newsletter" or "follow me to this platform" but if you have decided to leave because the garden in question has changed its algorithm or made it harder to reach your own fans, it's likely that those kinds of messages won't be shown to the majority of your fans. On this kind of site, if you've built a following of 10K followers on a platform over the course of 5 years, there's no way to just download the list or their email addresses and take them somewhere else.
My best advice for creative people: build your own following in a way that you own (ideally, an email list). Use new platforms strategically for visibility or to make your life easier or if they pay you, but always focus on building the channels you really own.
If you're wondering whether to join a new platform, think about how it will benefit you. Look at whether it's a walled garden where the audience you'll build will belong to the platform or if you can take your audience with you elsewhere. It's not an immediate dealbreaker if a platform is a walled garden, but try to build a strategy to bring the most invested followers or fans to your own channels. (Thanks for joining me on this, one, and please feel free to share with anyone else who might be interested!)
I won't go too far into this for now, but it matters how much investment money a platform has taken. If they owe a ton of $$ to VC & investors they'll be forced to monetize the platform, aka change the platform so it is more profitable so they can pay back investors or demonstrate growth so they can pursue an exit (aka selling it to someone else or doing an Initial Public Offering and selling it to everyone). No matter how much a tech platform talks about valuing creators or how great the initial value proposition is for creative people is, if they take a lot of money from investors or VC, that will begin to influence their choices sooner or later (probably sooner).
In a bit of personal news which you might have seen already, a month ago, I joined Feminist Press as the new Executive Director and Publisher. This is a dream job for me. Before joining Kickstarter, I had always dreamed of running my own imprint or an indie press that aligned with my values and literary aesthetics. So to run a 52-year-old mission-driven independent non-profit press, and get to take on and edit books I believe in, is so great I'm still pinching myself.
None of the views I express in this newsletter represent my employer or CUNY, this is all me.
If you have any questions or ideas you'd like me to write about, feel free to drop me a line. And also, if you have feedback about the new platform, let me know as well. Thanks for reading!