Caroline Crampton isn’t lacking for an audience. A longtime political journalist, she’s been a web editor for the New Statesman, the 103-year-old British political and cultural magazine, since 2012. In addition to penning articles for the magazine, she also co-hosts a pop culture podcast with her colleague Anna Leszkiewicz. She has an active Tumblr blog, 4,000 followers on Twitter, and even occasionally appears as a commentator on mainstream news programming. Continue reading
For years now publishers have fretted over Facebook’s increasing emphasis on native content and what it means for the outbound referral traffic they’ve come to rely on. Back in 2012 I noticed that publishers, rather than pasting a link that would auto-generate a headline and thumbnail for their articles, were instead uploading a photo natively to their page and then including a Twitter-like headline and link. Here’s an example of what I mean: Continue reading
A question started bugging Mark Frauenfelder in November of 2014: Could you take marijuana onto a plane in a state where it was legal? Would the TSA let you through? Earlier that month, Alaska had joined three other states and the District of Columbia by voting to legalize marijuana use for citizens over the age of 21, but given that the drug was still banned at the federal level there were all sorts of murky legal questions yet to be answered, this being one of them. So Frauenfelder, a co-editor at Boing Boing, once considered the most popular blog on the internet (by the rankings of blog search engine Technorati), approached Caroline Siede, a frequent freelancer for the site, and asked her to tackle the question. “So she did her usual thing and reported the story out, which involved calling Homeland Security and finding out what the deal was,” he told me.
The outcome of that research, a 1,300-word article preluded with a full-width image of a plane superimposed with a marijuana leaf, reported that whether you can carry legal marijuana onto a plane is often up to the discretion of the TSA agent, but in many cases you’ll be fine. While this information certainly was interesting, what I found more interesting as a media journalist was that a decade ago you wouldn’t have found anything like this article on boingboing.net.
For as long as I’ve been reading it, Boing Boing’s tagline has been “a directory of wonderful things,” and for much of its history it was just that: a directory, one that almost always pointed you away to other websites. A 2005 blog post outlining how to send submissions to the site states, “Don’t send in stuff without links. If you saw something cool on TV or received something interesting in email, you need to either find it on the Web or publish it on the Web before suggesting it. Boing Boing publishes links — so if there’s no link, there’s not much chance we’ll link to it.”
But here was a post that, while containing links, resembled less a blog post and more a feature-length article, one specifically designed for others to link to. And it wasn’t a fluke; Frauenfelder told me he has a steady stable of freelancers he turns to to produce original content. “They’ll hit me up with ideas, and I’ll decide whether we should do it,” he said. “Some of our other editors occasionally introduce me to someone they know who has written a book or something and wants to write an essay for us to help get word out about their book.” Boing Boing, he said, publishes at least one of these original articles per day, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. Though it still publishes plenty of short blog posts meant to draw attention to outside content, Boing Boing certainly can no longer be described as merely a directory.
Boing Boing’s origin story is by now well documented. Frauenfelder and his wife Carla Sinclair launched it as a print zine in 1988, and it eventually reached a peak circulation of 17,500 copies before it was abandoned in the mid-90s in favor of a website. According to an article in Fast Company, it was after Frauenfelder pitched a magazine editor on a story about a then-fledgling company called Blogger that he got the idea for the site’s bloggier iteration, which launched in 2000. During that first year posts were authored almost exclusively by Frauenfelder, but he would soon be joined by a coterie of co-editors who are now all partial owners in the site: Cory Doctorow, a Wired contributor turned novelist and digital rights activist; Xeni Jardin, a journalist and NPR correspondent; and David Pescovitz, a researcher at the Institute for the Future (a fourth editor, Rob Beschizza, joined much later).
Its readership quickly grew. In a 2003 interview, Doctorow bragged that Boing Boing was receiving half a million pageviews a month. That number soon rose to several million. Hosting costs ballooned to about $1,000 a month, all paid out of pocket until the blog started accepting advertising in 2004. Within a few years, it was a seven-figure business.
So why was a blog that merely aggregated links, mostly to content pertaining to non-mainstream geek culture, so popular? To answer this question, one must first consider how the internet operated a decade ago. Back then, if you wanted to regularly read a news website or blog, you had basically two options.
The first was that you could subscribe to its RSS feed. RSS was a great tool (I still remember the epiphany I had when I signed up for Bloglines, an early RSS reader, and immediately grasped its utility). You could subscribe to as many blogs as you wanted, and rather than having to constantly reload each one to see if it had been updated, all new posts were delivered directly to your feed. In many cases, you didn’t even have to click away to read the entire post. But as great as RSS was, it had extremely low adoption rates, so much so that bloggers would hold an annual RSS Day to try to raise awareness that the functionality existed.
The second method, and by far the most common, was to simply bookmark the site in your browser. But this quickly became unwieldy once you bookmarked more than a dozen blogs, which meant that, despite the existence of millions of blogs by the mid-2000s, it was incredibly difficult for most of them to build a consistent readership.
Hence the utility of link blogs like Boing Boing. They became a major mode of discovery for more obscure blogs and content. Nearly all of these curation blogs — from Boing Boing to Slashdot to Laughing Squid — had some sort of submission form for artists and writers to submit their content. The lucky few who would get featured on these sites were rewarded with thousands of new readers (I had a blog back then and I would see between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors after receiving a Boing Boing link). Readers were happy because someone else was doing all the hard work of surfacing the best content.
You know what happened next. Facebook debuted its news feed and began allowing media organizations to launch their own pages. Twitter entered the scene with its own high-metabolism feed. Suddenly you could not only easily subscribe to blogs and news sites, but also to the individual authors who wrote for those sites. Where RSS failed to catch on, social media succeeded. Now, anyone could be a curator of content.
At the same time, mainstream news companies, which were starting to get serious about generating web traffic and wanted to attract shares from all these Twitter and Facebook users, began to ramp up their own aggregation. A journalism grad used to cut their teeth by starting at a weekly newspaper and then working their way up. These days, they’re just as likely to snag an entry level gig at a New York media company and spend their days repackaging GIFs and videos first surfaced on Reddit. This is why you’ll see upwards of 60 news sites posting the latest John Oliver rant every Monday. And these new curators weren’t as scrupulous about giving credit as their blogger ancestors.
“Many 22-year-old interns do not care about attribution,” said Scott Beale, the founder of Laughing Squid. “There’s no repercussion for them either. They’ll be at some media organization for six months, give no attribution, and then move on to the next job.” When they do give attribution, he said, it’s usually just a link to wherever they found the content, which often isn’t its original source. “We’ll actually do the research and track down a video or image to the person who created it and give them credit.”
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Laughing Squid, like Boing Boing, established itself as an early curation blog, focusing largely on art and geek culture. And as the independent blogosphere deteriorated and gave rise to social platforms and VC-funded news startups, Beale has tried to resist adopting traffic-boosting strategies that he feels would cheapen his blog posts. “The basic structure of our blog posts is essentially the same” he said. “If you look back at our oldest posts, you’re going to see the same things. Headlines have never been sensational. We don’t insult our readers’ intelligence. We don’t tell readers how to think or what to do. Take a look at the blog posts out there. How many of them use headlines that tell people that something ‘will restore your faith in humanity’? It’s a trick they use. We don’t do it and we never will. These things come and go — and they do all come and go — while we keep doing our thing.”
Boing Boing wasn’t resting on its laurels as this new internet emerged. As the blog entered the late aughts, it began to test out new offerings. It launched a gadgets vertical headed up by former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson. It debuted Boing Boing TV, a daily video show hosted by Xeni Jardin which did things like interview tech execs at the Consumer Electronics Show about the latest gadgets. The editors hosted a regular podcast, called Boing Boing Boing. Many of these projects were either shuttered or rolled back into the main site. “The videos were incredibly time intensive,” said Frauenfelder. “You get bogged down with post production, editing it, going on location. When you compare the number of views we got for a video to the traffic for blog posts and articles which cost us much less time and money, then it became clear that video wasn’t a good investment.”
The editors applied the same cost-benefit analysis to their podcast. “It was hard for us to actually get enough listeners to make it worth doing,” he said. “For a while our listener numbers weren’t being counted properly. We thought we were getting 50,000 to 100,000 listeners per episode, but really it was closer to 8,000 listeners per episode. Podcasting ads pay about $20 per thousand downloads, so making a couple hundred dollars to do a podcast that takes all together eight hours to create isn’t worth it when we could spend those eight hours doing text-based content.”
In 2014, on Boing Boing’s 25th anniversary, Rob Beschizza published a commemorating post on the site. In addition to promising a “renewed focus on original features,” he announced a new homepage design, one that would steer away from the reverse-chronological presentation that was the hallmark of most blogs and place more focus on featuring original content the editors didn’t want buried in the stream. This new Boing Boing, at least on the homepage, looked more like a magazine than what we would traditionally consider a blog. “We had been doing [curation] for so long,” said Frauenfelder. “It can get a little monotonous to do that nonstop, and original content was something that was personally rewarding for us.”
The blog still devotes significant space to shorter items. While the features and the aggregation posts draw about the same amount of traffic overall, Frauenfelder has given up trying to predict when a particular article or post will do well. “We could put a ton of work into a feature article we love and that we think is important, and it will get like 7,000 views. And then we’ll post something silly that’s a one-line joke and link to someone else’s story, and it’ll get 600,000 pageviews.”
One thing I wondered is why successful blogs like Boing Boing and Laughing Squid chose to stay small. Other early blogs like Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gigaom took on VC investment in their efforts to scale. Even Gawker’s Nick Denton, who long resisted outside investment, recently sold a sizable chunk of equity. “Sure we could get investment if we wanted it,” said Beale. “But we see companies destroyed by it too. You give up a lot of control and then there are demands put on you by people who don’t know anything about your company.” He pointed to Gigaom, a tech site that ran out of money and laid off its entire staff last year, as an example of what happens when a media company can’t scale at a rate that would satisfy investors.
Frauenfelder was similarly disdainful of the idea. “We were just paying bandwidth out of pocket before we started selling ads, and then we became profitable right off the bat in 2004,” he said. “We’ve never been interested in getting funding to grow it in a big way like those sites because it’s just not sustainable. There’s no way they’re making enough money from advertising to pay whatever their burn rate is. There’s an obscene amount of money they have to pay for their office space and salaries. We all work in our home offices and spare bedrooms, and everyone makes a living on the advertising income we bring in. I am just looking at these huge companies that rely on a lot of VC money, and they’re unsustainable, artificial things, and they’re going to die off.”
If they do die off, they’ll end up in a graveyard alongside the millions of tiny blogs that have shut down over the past decade as users migrated to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Sure, some will find homes on Medium or Tumblr, but many bloggers these days don’t feel the need to go beyond the 140 characters afforded to them. As for the remaining holdouts, those writers who continue to pen screeds at their own obscure web domains, bloggers like Frauenfelder and Beale will continue to scroll through their feeds looking for the nuggets worth featuring to a larger audience. “At some point I just really realized there aren’t very many independent blogs left,” said Beale. “The more obscure ones that I subscribe to on RSS, they’ll just suddenly announce that they’re stopping and can’t do it anymore.” Meanwhile, Facebook just announced it’s reached 1.59 billion users. The blogosphere is dead, long live the blogosphere.
Image via Mark Frauenfelder
In May 2003, the legal website The Smoking Gun posted a short item titled “Barbra Sues Over Aerial Photos.” Kenneth Adelman, an environmentalist who takes aerial photographs of California’s coastline for the benefit of scientists and researchers, had inadvertently captured an image of singer and actress Barbra Streisand’s home. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleged that by posting the image to his website, Adelman had provided a “road map into her residence” and “clearly [identified] those routes that could be used to enter her property.” On page 9 of the lawsuit it states that “there is no telling how many people have downloaded the photograph of [Streisand’s] property and residence on their computer.”
In the coming weeks it would emerge that, up until the lawsuit was filed, the image of Streisand’s house had only been accessed six times, two of which were by her lawyers. And because of the engendered press from the lawsuit, it was then visited more than 420,000 times in just the first month after it was filed. Not only did Streisand later lose the lawsuit, but it had produced the very result her lawyers had set out to avoid: drawing attention to her property.
The entire imbroglio, humorous as it was, may have ended up a mostly-forgotten historical footnote if not for a seemingly unrelated incident that occurred two years later. A website called Urinals.net, which posts user-generated photos of urinals, had received a legal complaint from the Marco Beach Ocean Resort claiming that, because Urinals.net had mentioned the resort’s name in one of its photos, it had infringed on the company’s trademark. Mike Masnick, a blogger who covers issues dealing with intellectual property, wrote about the complaint on Techdirt, a website he’s run since the late 90s. At the end of the post, which is only a few hundred words long, Masnick reached this seemingly innocuous conclusion:
How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.
Masnick didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just coined a term that would continue to endure to this day. On the neologism’s 10th anniversary last year, Gizmodo commemorated the event by documenting the most egregious examples of the Streisand Effect in action — examples that included the Church of Scientology trying to suppress an embarrassing video and Beyonce’s attempts to remove unflattering photos of herself from the internet.
Few of us ever get the chance to coin a phrase, much less one that enters the popular lexicon. The reason this one didn’t get lost in the ephemera of the internet is that Masnick by that point had spent more than half a decade establishing himself as a must-read source on all things tech policy. Whether it’s intellectual property, telecom and broadband policy, or digital rights, Techdirt has been at the forefront of these issues, covering them with a brand of fiery opinionated journalism that has made him no shortage of enemies. If there’s a consistent theme to be found in his work, it’s that large technology and media companies often wield their power to benefit themselves at the expense of consumers, and it’s only by shining a light on their abusive behavior that it can be stopped.
In recent years, Masnick has been one of the most prominent figures in a growing activist movement that advocates for digital rights issues ranging from net neutrality to open source technology. Most importantly, he played an instrumental role in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA for short), a bill introduced in 2011 that was broadly supported by the media and entertainment industries. As Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who advocates on internet freedom issues, put it to me, “I’m not sure anyone did more to educate the public about SOPA than Techdirt.”
In its earliest iteration, Techdirt didn’t go by that name, nor was it even a website. In 1996, Masnick enrolled in Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management to obtain an MBA. “I was on the East Coast in the middle of nowhere, not near a major city or anything,” he told me. “I was hoping to get a job in the technology field after graduating, and I thought that actually writing about current events in technology from a business perspective would help me in getting a day job.” At the time, he was a big admirer of an irreverent UK newsletter called Need to Know, and so the newsletter he launched, called Up to Date, adopted a similar approach. “It technically started as the newsletter for the technology management club at the my business school,” he said. “I had been elected the president of that club, so that gave me an audience of 75 business school students. And with the first newsletter I put a little note at the bottom that said, ‘If you’d like to subscribe, send me an email.’”
Within three weeks, Masnick had over a thousand subscribers, and for the first seven or eight months it was simply a newsletter he sent roughly once a week. At some point, he decided it should be a website, so he spent much of his last semester in business school teaching himself how to build one. This is around the same time he became obsessed with Slashdot, the tech forum that is now considered one of the earliest blogs. After settling on the name Techdirt, he and a friend tried to install the open source code that Slashdot’s editors had released, called Slashcode Version 0.3. “It was a mess,” he said. “A friend and I took it and we spent months trying to get it to work, and we finally got it working in early 1999.”
Though not exactly a mirror image of what it is today, the early Techdirt still explored many of the themes that would later form the bedrock of its current worldview. Masnick became close to a grad school professor of his, Alan McAdams, who had served as senior staff economist with President Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers and provided witness testimony for the government in United States v. IBM. “He was ahead of his time,” he recalled. “This was ‘95 or ‘96, and he was really interested in open source and what that meant for the economics of software. He was very focused on broadband implementation and talking about getting fiber to the home applied universally.” Today, we call this broadband universal service, and it’s an achievement for which nearly every developed country strives.
I find it interesting how many of the earliest blogging pioneers, some of whom are now household names, didn’t consider themselves early adopters when they first started writing for the web. John Gruber, the writer behind the tech blog Daring Fireball, said recently that “when I got started in 2002 I had this sinking feeling in my heart that I was just way too late to the game.” Daily Kos, which is known as one of the earliest netroots political blogs, debuted a half decade after the term “weblog” was first coined. Similarly, Masnick thought by the time Techdirt hit the web in 1999 all the important tech policy issues had been dealt with. “The original encryption wars had already happened before we started. The DMCA” — Digital Millennium Copyright Act — “was already in place before we started. The Communications Decency Act was already done before we started. So I felt like I’d missed many of the big important things.”
He was wrong. The early 2000s would see the rise of the Michael Powell administration at the FCC and consumers trading in their phone lines for broadband internet. The internet’s transformation to Web 2.0 — first coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 — produced a Cambrian explosion of new content as millions of internet users suddenly gained access to publishing platforms that required no coding skills and were free to use. Network neutrality. Comcast v. BitTorrent. Viacom v. YouTube. SOPA. Smartphone adoption. CISPA. All had the potential to drastically shape how we use the internet for decades to come and all were aggressively covered by Techdirt.
It was in 2000 that Masnick first tried to turn Techdirt into a sustainable business. After grad school he’d moved out to Silicon Valley, and while there it dawned on him that many of these companies would benefit from the kind of analysis he was performing on his blog. “We called it Techdirt Corporate Intelligence,” he explained. “We helped companies better understand the issues we were covering. We were basically writing mini Techdirts for those companies — just writing a newsletter about different news and events that might impact our clients’ businesses.”
For several years, the corporate intelligence offerings were the only method by which Techdirt made money. In 2005, however, the site experienced a sudden explosion in traffic, and a year later it was able to diversify its revenue with ads. This was around the time Masnick began to revisit the very idea of what it meant to be a blogger. “For the first few years on the blog, I had this really stupid rule that I struck to that every post had to be only a single paragraph,” he said. “I couldn’t really dig in. It was only a few years in when I was like, you know, there’s no reason for this artificial limitation, and I can clearly write more.”
This new Techdirt began to cover issues in more depth, and those alarmed by abuses from ISPs, telecom companies, and patent trolls would turn to the blog as a tool for exposing these abuses, in some ways making Masnick a kind of unofficial spokesman for this burgeoning activist community. In 2009, the U.K. government proposed new legislation that would install a “three strike policy” and restrict repeat offenders of online piracy from accessing the internet. The singer Lily Allen then launched a blog, called It’s Not All Right, in support of the Digital Economy Act, and its chief aim was to shame online pirates. But shortly after the blog went live, Masnick was informed by one of his readers that Allen had reprinted, in full, one of his Techdirt articles without attribution, and he took to the web to point out her seeming hypocrisy. His blog post ricocheted around the internet, forcing Allen to dash off a quick apology. But then, two days later, another Techdirt reader alerted Masnick to a much more explosive example of hypocrisy: For years, Allen had been uploading “mix tapes” full of other artists’ work without their permission. The resultant ridicule was so fierce that Allen quickly deleted all her blog posts and announced she would no longer participate in the debate.
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That same year, Masnick traveled to Cannes, France to speak at a music industry conference about new business models for artists. The 15-minute presentation, the video of which was uploaded to the web, focused on Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor and how he ditched his record label to experiment with several (ultimately successful) methods to get his fans to pay for otherwise free music. Though Masnick wasn’t the first person to highlight business models that rely on distributing free content, the speech struck a nerve and was covered by hundreds or blogs and news publications around the world (later that year, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, a book by then-Wired editor Chris Anderson, debuted on the New York Times despite being distributed for free online).
By the turn of the decade, Techdirt was a central repository for all news relating to tech policy, and Masnick was one of the most prominent figures in a growing but-still-mostly-unorganized movement that cared fervently about issues relating to digital rights. And thus he was perfectly positioned in 2011 when House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar S. Smith, a Republican from Texas, introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act with 12 co-sponsors, four of whom were Democrats. The next day, Masnick published his first post about the bill, titled “E-PARASITE Bill: ‘The End Of The Internet As We Know It’” He would go on to write over 520 more.
For those who opposed SOPA, those early days after the bill was first introduced were grim.
Marvin Ammori served as general counsel for Free Press, an organization that advocates for net neutrality and other open internet issues, from 2007 to 2010 before leaving to teach law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He decided he didn’t enjoy teaching very much, however, and moved back to DC to launch his own law practice focusing on internet freedom. Since then he’s worked with pro-net neutrality coalitions, large tech companies like Google and Apple, and Engine Advocacy, a pro-startup organization. As the SOPA battle began to heat up, Ammori told me, he spoke to one of his contacts who worked in the Judiciary Committee. “They told me point blank that there was no way we were going to win on SOPA,” he recalled. “It’s clearly going to pass. There are 40 co-sponsors in the Senate. At the same time, my friends in Silicon Valley were getting calls from their friends in Hollywood saying you guys have to back off on SOPA, we’re going to win, there’s no way we’re going to lose this one.”
But by this point Techdirt and a growing number of tech blogs, many of which typically didn’t spend much time writing about policy, were providing drumbeat coverage of every new development relating to the bill, and there were signs that a seemingly arcane piece of legislation that wouldn’t normally generate much interest outside of the Beltway was attracting notice from a growing number of Americans. Within weeks, a coalition of major tech companies that included Facebook, Twitter, and eBay had come out against the bill, and soon you began to see political movements ranging from the libertarian Right to the liberal Left announcing their opposition.
Suddenly, anti-SOPA stories were appearing almost daily on the front page of Reddit and as trending topics on Twitter. More often than not, those posts linked back to Techdirt articles. “After SOPA failed, a Harvard Law Professor named Yochai Benkler wrote an analysis of the SOPA fight,” said Ammori. “And it was really the story of Techdirt. Things would pop up in different blogs and Masnick would give it attention and then the eyeballs were moving in whichever direction Techdirt was sending them.”
Ammori argued that Masnick has found success because he managed to run a tech policy blog that didn’t read like a tech policy blog. “Being able to explain arcane legal and technological issues to a blog audience is not easy,” he said. “Doing it day in and day out on lots of different issues is something he’s able to do, and I think no one else has been able to do it quite as well.”
“I read Techdirt every day, sometimes several times a day,” Corynne McSherry told me. “And I think everybody in this space relies on Techdirt regularly.” McSherry is the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, litigating free speech issues against what she refers to as “copyright maximalists.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, is likely the most well-funded and visible organization that fights on digital rights issues, and during her decade there McSherry has watched as the movement has gradually matured into what it is today. “I feel like there’s been a sea change,” she argued. “DC remains difficult to engage with if you’re not inside the beltway, and while it’s still true that lots of negotiations and discussions and horse trading go on behind closed doors, I do think Congress is more aware than they used to be that there could be a massive public outcry that they would have to deal with.”
Case in point: On December 15, 2011, the House held a hearing to address several of the issues raised against SOPA. As recounted in The Fight for the Future: How People Defeated Hollywood and Saved the Internet – For Now, the book by Edward Lee:
Reddit, the news-linking social network, put a link on its home page to the live stream of the markup from the House Judiciary Committee website. Reddit’s link helped to drive a great deal of traffic to the Judiciary Committee website, making the markup one of the most watched in recent memory. It was a spectacle…
…Far from being open to compromise, the sponsors of SOPA appeared to be digging in their heels. They rejected nearly every amendment that was offered to provide more due process to protect against erroneous claims. EFF live-tweeted the entire markup, while Techdirt live-blogged it. The hearings were a complete spectacle, in a frightening way.
The bill didn’t die that day, but it was clear the tides had turned. What may have been the final death blow occurred on January 18, 2012 when Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of other websites participated in an internet “blackout” in which their websites became inaccessible save for anti-SOPA messages:
Two days later, the New York Times reported that Congress was shelving the bill. Congressional leaders vowed to one day return to it, but this was a clear victory for opponents. “The Internet Wins” declared a Techdirt headline. Never one to rest on its laurels, the blog continued to publish six more posts about the bill that very same day.
With the benefit of four years of hindsight, it seems clear that the SOPA victory signaled a legitimate shift in power. In early 2015, after more than a decade of internet advocacy for net neutrality, the FCC classified broadband providers under the same regulations that govern telephone networks, thereby allowing the agency to ban blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. After years of successful lobbying, telecom and cable companies had definitively lost the fight.
That’s not to say Masnick feels his work is done. He still posts about new efforts to resurrect SOPA. Techdirt still covers issues with copyright abuse and defends encryption technology. He now has a team of freelance bloggers who help him produce dozens of posts a day, and, unlike most other news sites on the web that are seeing fewer homepage visits as more and more of their traffic comes from places like Facebook and Twitter, Techdirt saw its ratio of direct traffic rise from 30 percent in 2014 to 38 percent in 2015 (“direct” traffic is usually a sign of a more loyal readership). Yet Masnick still runs his blog with the same mindset as when it was just a newsletter sent to 75 business school students:
“I kind of operate under the assumption that nobody sees what I write,” he said. He recalled his days working at his college radio station. “There’s this interesting thing when you’re on radio and you’re speaking into a microphone out into the world, and you have no idea if anyone is listening. And so I always went under the assumption that nobody was. To some extent my blogging has been sort of the same way. I just assume nobody is reading, and I’m a little surprised when anyone does.”
Image via Dennis Yang
Tim Pratt cut his teeth writing short fiction. The science fiction and fantasy author spends most of his days now working on novels — his website bibliography says he published three in 2015 alone — but a little over a decade ago, when he was still in the early stages of his writing career, he would regularly write short stories for small zines with names like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In 2004, a short story he wrote for a small press anthology was chosen by Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon to be reprinted in the annual Best American Short Stories, which is arguably one of the most prestigious and venerable anthologies for short fiction. This feat was especially impressive when you consider the fact that the anthology series has historically printed very little genre fiction. “I’m a competent novelist,” Pratt told me in a phone interview. “I’m getting better. But I’m a really good short story writer.”
So why did he abandon the format to focus mainly on longform fiction? The answer boils down to economics. There are few publications that publish short fiction and fewer still that pay well. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, a trade organization for genre writers, considers a “professional” rate for short fiction to be 6 cents per word (any freelancer will readily tell you this is nothing close to a living wage). Major New York publishers are reluctant to publish short fiction collections, mostly because they don’t sell very well, so it’s common to see even established authors turn to the small press when they want to publish short stories. “It got to the point where most of my time went toward writing novels,” Pratt said. “I would still occasionally write short stories, but only when I was commissioned by an editor to write for a themed anthology or special issue. That’s cool and I like doing that, and for a while I thought that was a way I could keep my hand in, but the thing is, almost all of those have some sort of restriction; for a themed anthology I might have to write a story that’s Lovecraftian or one that involves robots. I miss that thing I used to do when I first started out where I would just spontaneously generate ideas and try things and see where they’d go.”
But then several months ago Pratt noticed that more and more artists he knew of were signing up for a site called Patreon. The platform was co-founded in 2013 by Jack Conte, a well-known YouTube musician who struggled to make a living on YouTube ads and wanted to develop a way for an artist to leverage their fan base for financial support. Unlike Kickstarter, which is geared primarily toward raising a lump sum of money for one-off projects, Patreon allows fans to provide ongoing support for creators who regularly produce new work. There are two forms of “patronage” on Patreon: a fan can either pay a certain amount per month or per artistic creation. The site simply charges the agreed-upon amount to the person’s credit card. Many YouTubers, for instance, configure it so their fans pay a set amount per new video.
Though it has nowhere near the scale of larger crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Patreon has seen growing adoption among indie artists and creators; it’s particularly popular with YouTubers and podcasters who use it to supplement their advertising income. One of its most high profile users, the singer and artist Amanda Palmer, launched a campaign in 2015 and today generates over $31,000 per “thing” from 6,300 patrons. In a 2014 blog post, Patreon announced that its patrons were paying out over $1 million a month to creators, and that figure has likely grown significantly since then.
Pratt had already seen some success funding his novels on Kickstarter (I wrote about his efforts back in 2011), so he figured Patreon might provide an opportunity to create short fiction regularly and fund it with a steady stream of income. “I tried to consider how much time I could devote and I figured I could probably write a story every month,” he said. “I could find a weekend or take a break from other projects.” So he launched his Patreon account and blasted it out to his email list and social media followers. Right now, he has 121 patrons who pay roughly $536 per story, which is about what he would be paid from an anthology or magazine. “Now, I’m once again carrying around a notebook and jotting down ideas that occur to me,” he said. “And now I have enough short story ideas to last me for a couple more years.”
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If this model becomes more widespread, then it could significantly alter the cost-benefit analysis that any author applies to writing short fiction. Kameron Hurley, a speculative fiction writer who has published five novels and won two Hugo awards, is constantly inundated with requests from her fans for new short stories. “There is no money in short fiction,” she told me in a phone interview. “You’ll spend 30 or 40 hours on a short story, and you’ll get paid $200. It’s just not worth your while. People would ask me, ‘Hey Kameron, why don’t you write more short fiction?’ Well, short stories were a nice way to get my name out there in the early 2000s, but then I realized I’m getting $200 for an incredible amount of work. I started doing a lot of copywriting work, and I charge $90 an hour for copywriting. If you look at the costs and benefits, you realize writing short stories doesn’t have any financial benefit and it doesn’t make sense.”
So when Hurley launched her Patreon page in 2015, she had one goal: “My bare minimum was $500,” she said. “If I could get that much for a story, and if I could resell it as a reprint or as an original to the short fiction markets, you’re starting to make something that resembles a fair wage.” One reason she found Patreon to be particularly appealing was that the reward fulfillment is easy; you simply provide the piece of short fiction your subscribers are paying for (it’s become quite common for those who have completed successful Kickstarter campaigns to complain that they underestimated the time and money that would go into fulfilling all the reward tiers they set). Whenever Hurley is ready to publish a new story, she simply uploads multiple versions — PDF, EPUB, and MOBI — to Patreon, and it alerts her subscribers so they can download it. While there are more involved rewards if you pay more (for $25 per short story you get one printed chapbook mailed to you per year), she doesn’t anticipate the fulfilment to be too onerous.
Before launching her campaign, Hurley polled her fans (she calls her followers “Hurley’s Heroes”) to ask whether they’d rather pay a certain amount per month or per new piece of work; they chose the latter. So she put together a short PowerPoint video explaining the project and then began promoting it on her social channels. Though she generated a few subscribers from Facebook, Tumblr, and her website, Hurley got most of her traction from Twitter, where she has over 6,000 followers; whenever someone new would subscribe they’d often announce it to their own Twitter following, and it snowballed from there. “We hit $500 within a week, and $800 within three weeks,” she said. “After the first story dropped it jumped up to $1,200, and it’s now up to $1,600.” About half of the 340 subscribers pay the bare minimum of $1 a month. The rest pay $3 or higher, with over 60 patrons paying more than $10 a story.
What does this mean in practical (read: monetary) terms? “It’s meant I can turn down some freelance copywriting jobs,” she explained. “Instead of writing marketing emails or website copy, I just spend my time writing stories, which is what i really want to do. So that’s how it changed my day-to-day life.”
One question that has yet to be definitively answered is whether a short story uploaded to Patreon should be considered “published.” Though the $500 Pratt receives every time he uploads a short story is comparable to what he’d get from a magazine or anthology, the story is only seen by the 120 patrons who subscribe, and he’d ideally like it to reach a larger audience. But not all short fiction publications take reprints, and even those that do often pay significantly less for them. “Some are a little more open to it, saying if it’s a sufficiently small audience, we’ll still pay for it,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t worry about it that much, because I’m getting $500 for the story anyway at this point, so if I’m going to get paid less, that’s fine.” In 2014, a writer named Andrea Phillips polled several magazine editors as to whether a Patreon story would be considered published, and most said that it would. At the time we spoke, Pratt said a magazine editor was considering publishing one of his Patreon stories as a reprint
Before you set out to launch your own short fiction Patreon campaign, first take note that the two writers I profiled here were already established prior to setting up their own. “It is certainly easier to attract a crowd if you already have a crowd,” said Pratt. “Even when people already know who you are, crowdfunding is still tricky. This is probably not a great way to build an audience.” Hurley agreed: “The people who do the best do tend to be the folks who have some sort of following,” she said. “They’re a blogger, a writer, a musician. They already have a core audience who they can go to and who will help socialize it for them.”
And though Patreon has had a not insignificant impact on their incomes, both Pratt and Hurley agreed that it should remain just one of many irons to have in the fire. “Whenever I talk to people who ask about freelance writing, the first thing I tell them is to have multiple revenue streams,” said Pratt. “Do not have just one editor who likes you. Don’t just write for one magazine or one company. Because things are going to go away. So for me, [Patreon] is just one more thing. When you combine this, novel sales, editing gigs, and freelance work, all these little trickles add up to helping me keep a roof over my head and food on my family’s table.” But even if the pay is supplemental, it’s brought these writers one step closer to a career many aspire to but never achieve: making up stories for money.
From time to time I’ll be speaking to someone I’ve never met before, and the “What do you?” question comes up. I’ve always struggled to answer. If I tell the person I’m a journalist, then invariably the next question is, “What publication do you work for?” Simply telling people I work in marketing could mean a variety of things depending on how familiar the person is with that industry. Well, though I haven’t thought up a more concise way to sum up my career, I now at least have an article I can point them to that discusses it at length. MediaShift asked me to write a first-person essay on how I leveraged my journalism skills for a career in content marketing. Here is the end result:
By the time news outlets began reporting that Apple is actively negotiating with Hollywood executives to produce exclusive programming for its fledgling television platform, none of us seemed surprised that a major tech company would invest so much money in original content.
If anything, Apple is late to the party. In 2011, Netflix, which until then had been just a tech platform that allowed one to stream already-released movies and old seasons of television shows, plopped hundreds of millions of dollars into the creation of premium shows, greenlighting them before even seeing a pilot. Amazon wasn’t far behind, launching a bevy of shows to mixed reviews. In 2012, YouTube shelled out $100 million to both lure established media companies onto its platform and allow its already-existing stars to up their games. These days, not a week goes by without a major tech company announcing a major content play, whether it’s Yahoo’s resurrection of the show Community or Facebook’s offering of huge advances to YouTube stars in order to entice them onto its native video platform. Twitter recently attempted to purchase the millennial news site Mic, and prominent venture capitalists have bought huge stakes in companies like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox, valuing these news outlets in the billions of dollars.
Viewing all this activity, it’s hard to believe that, a mere decade ago, the tech sector considered original content anathema to everything it stood for, a vestigial hangover from the days when the barrier to entry for content production and distribution was relatively high and therefore lucrative.
Circa 2007 – 2008, the practice of creating original content seemed to be a dying profession. The music industry had been completely eviscerated in the wake of Napster and other file-sharing programs. Newspapers were well into their decline, already kneecapped by Craigslist and facing a print advertising exodus. Magazines weren’t far behind them. The book industry, while not exactly suffering, wasn’t thriving either, with most sales coalescing into a handful of conglomerates who were already bracing themselves to have their asses handed to them by Amazon. The television industry seemed relatively sturdy but most assumed its day of reckoning would eventually come.
This is when we saw the rise of platforms that were fueled primarily by user generated content. First Myspace, and then later Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Media companies that were suffering looked at Keyboard Cat and assumed that this was the future of content, and Silicon Valley didn’t seem to disagree. Original content was expensive and difficult to scale effectively; why hire 60 journalists to create content when you could spend that money on 30 engineers who would then build a platform on which millions of users would generate content for free?
So what changed? Why are we seeing the sudden emphasis on premium programming in a world where everyone with a GoPro seems willing to upload their videos for no payment?
Well, it turns out that original content actually is scalable, particularly when it’s hosted on the right tech platform. Netflix just announced in July that it had reached 65 million subscribers, a number that would have been difficult to attain when it was merely licensing reruns, especially as other low-cost streaming services have entered the market. And sure, it’s possible that your amateur video of cat could hit the viral stratosphere, but most don’t, whereas YouTube stars can guarantee millions of views for each video posted. The majority of BuzzFeed listicles reach at least a million views, which means that your average BuzzFeed staffer can reach an audience that’s similar in size to The Daily Show’s.
And though viewers have flocked to user-generated content, advertisers still prefer premium programming, especially if it attracts hard-to-reach demographics. The critically-acclaimed USA Network show Mr. Robot only attracts about 3 million viewers per episode, a mediocre turnout when compared to the network’s other hit shows, but it’s having to beat away advertisers with a stick. “It’s a hot property right now,” network president Chris McCumber told New York Magazine. “We have more demand than we can handle for Mr. Robot, and it’s bringing in new advertisers.” And with brands increasingly shifting budgets toward native advertising and away from display, it suddenly behooves tech platforms to have in-house content expertise.
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Finally, tech companies have discovered that exclusive content is a great way to lock users into a platform. A decade ago, there were only a handful of social networks that had the millions of users needed to effectively scale user generated content. Now let’s consider the number of platforms today that have at least 50 million active users: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Foursquare, YouTube, Flipboard. I’m likely just scratching the surface.
We now have dozens of networks competing for our attention, and our loyalty to any one platform is tenuous at best. Exclusive content, even if it makes up a relatively small percentage of the content posted to the platform, gives us that much more incentive to choose one platform over the other. Medium, the blogging platform launched by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, employed this strategy well when it hired top-tier freelance journalists to write on its network before opening it up to the masses (I and call this the “mullet strategy”). Of course, nobody has capitalized on this approach better than Netflix, which is now spending north of $700 million on content you can’t watch without a Netflix subscription.
The question now is how traditional media companies, many of which have been producing original content for decades, will respond. Already we’re starting to seeing seismic shifts in the media landscape, whether it’s HBO launching a standalone app or magazines like Forbes transforming themselves into platforms. News companies are also inking content distribution deals on platforms like Facebook and Flipboard with promises of revenue sharing.
Perhaps the late David Carr was right when he said, in 2012, that “big news is still the killer app,” by which he meant original content. Given how much we keep hearing about the current “golden age of television” and the rise of millennial-focused news companies that are reaching billion dollar valuations, I can’t help but agree. A new dawn is upon us, and if you’re a content producer like myself, then take a few moments to rejoice.
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If you have a profile on LinkedIn and have taken the time to upload your résumé and list all your technical skillsets, then chances are you receive somewhat regular inquiries from recruiters who have leveraged the social network’s premium services to seek out possible job candidates. What makes LinkedIn such a revolutionary platform is that it gives you access to millions of working professionals who might not be actively seeking new employment but are still open to new opportunities. Prior to LinkedIn’s launch, a recruiter needed to rely purely on word-of-mouth to locate these kinds of candidates, but now it’s a simple matter of typing in a few keywords and a geographic location.
I’m one of those people who isn’t actively seeking new employment — I’m a self-employed consultant — but I’m always open to hearing about new positions as you never know when a potential dream job could land in your lap. And so that’s why I’m generally warm to recruiters who show up in my inbox, even if the job for which they’re approaching me isn’t a good fit. I’ve even taken the time to connect a recruiter to someone I think would be a better candidate.
What I have less and less patience for are the growing number of recruiters who have flooded LinkedIn and cast wide nets without conducting the preliminary research needed to determine whether the person they’re reaching out to would be even remotely interested — or qualified — for a position. These recruiters simply type keywords into LinkedIn’s search field and will contact dozens of users at a time, often without taking more than a cursory look at those users’ resumes.
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So if you’re a recruiter who wants to leverage LinkedIn to flesh out your list of candidates, here’s what you should avoid doing:
Requesting a résumé
I often have recruiters reach out to me and then, after I’ve expressed interest in hearing more about a position, ask me to send them my résumé. To which my incredulous response is always: “But you found me through my résumé. Why am I sending you a document you’ve presumably already looked at?” I understand that once you’re ready to introduce me to a client then you’ll want a better-formatted version that you can hand over, but there’s no reason I should have to spend an hour updating my résumé before I can even learn about the position.
Reaching out to candidates before reading their résumés
There’s a lot more to a job candidate than just his résumé; otherwise why would you even bother with the job interview process? But the résumé is a good starting document for determining whether someone is a potential good fit. So why do I find myself getting on the phone with recruiters only to learn the position they’re recruiting for is aimed at someone with only two or three years experience when it’s quite clear from my LinkedIn résumé that I’ve been out of college for a decade?
Being vague about a position
I understand you want to protect your commission and avoid anyone going around you to get the job for which you’re recruiting, but being all cloak and dagger about who the employer is just ends up wasting my time and yours.
It’s not just for dating. Apparently recruiters love to reach out to a person, ask them for a good time and phone number to discuss a position, and then never reply again once the person offers up his availability. I can’t think of anything more unprofessional than proactively emailing someone about a job and then never bothering to reply when that person is kind enough to email you back.
This isn’t just about common professional courtesy. Just because a candidate isn’t a good fit for a particular position doesn’t mean she won’t be interested in future jobs for which you’re recruiting. So if you send a person an email and show not even a modicum of professionalism, how likely is it that that candidate will respond to your future inquiries? Not likely at all.
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July 31, 2014. That’s the day I walked away from my PR and marketing job with a steady paycheck and into a life of self-employment and uncertainty. It wasn’t that I disliked the people with whom I worked; I still remain good friends with many of them today, and there are times when I see their office Instagram photos and miss the daily camaraderie that was always a cubicle away.
But the truth is that I was bored, and by being the middle cog in a small bureaucracy I knew I wasn’t stretching myself to my full potential. My background is in journalism, and even though I now made my living in marketing, I wanted the greater freedom to write more regularly and then leverage my journalistic brand to advance my career.
I was also in a unique position that allowed me to capitalize on my content marketing background. I’ve spent roughly half my career in journalism and the other half in marketing, so I’ve watched firsthand as brands have grown hungrier and hungrier for high-quality storytelling and thought leadership. With display advertising becoming increasingly ineffective, companies and executives are desperate to find journalists who know how to leverage their reporting skills to reach and inform the core demographics a brand wants to influence, whether it’s on a company blog, through social media, or via an established media brand that publishes guest columns.
Well, it’s been a year. And during that time I’ve managed to 1) generate a steady stream of clients, many of whom pay me to ghostwrite thought leadership articles for their executives, and, more important, 2) make enough money so that I’m not currently in danger of eviction.
I also learned a few lessons about self-employment, many of which I hadn’t anticipated when I put in my notice a year ago. So I thought I’d collect a few of them here in case a person reading this is thinking about striking out alone and could use a good reality check:
Self-employment is incredibly lonely
There’s a reason why many self-employed people try to create a facsimile of office life by joining a coworking space, and that’s because rolling out of bed every morning and walking the 10 feet to a desk in your apartment gets old pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much client work lined up when I quit my job and didn’t feel comfortable shelling out an additional $500 a month for a coworking desk when I was living entirely off savings. So instead I endured entire workdays in which I didn’t come into contact with a single human being. This was only exacerbated when winter set in and I had even less incentive to leave my home.
Eventually, I started making more of an effort to get out, whether that meant going to a coffee shop twice a week or meeting colleagues for lunch. But both of these options have downsides. It can be incredibly difficult to be productive in a coffee shop; it only takes one screaming toddler to ruin your concentration, and it turns out moms really love taking their screaming toddlers to coffee shops. Meeting colleagues for lunch is great because you get to squeeze both networking and socializing into one meeting, but the time it takes up during your work day, including traveling both to and from the lunch spot, often makes it difficult to get much else done on those days.
You don’t get paid for a lot of the work you do
I charge many of my clients by the hour, and when I started out I assumed I would eventually reach a point where I was logging nearly 40 hours a week in client work. In reality, even on a busy week, I’m lucky if I can fit in 20 to 25 hours of actual client work on top of everything else I have to do as part of my job.
It turns out that self-employed people have to put up with a lot of bullshit they don’t get paid for. For instance, in the month of July I spent hours and hours talking on the phone or meeting with potential clients, and then many more hours crafting proposals for them. But only a small number of those phone calls and proposals convert into actual client work, meaning much of that time was completely wasted.
I also try to squeeze in as much time as possible for my own writing, but many of these articles (like the one you’re reading now) I don’t get paid for. So why spend so much time on them? Well, for one, I love writing, and one of the reasons I quit my job was so that I’d have more time to do it. But also my writing serves as a form of marketing; many of my clients have come in after reading articles like this one.
Then there’s the administrative stuff that doesn’t count as client work. Think invoicing, visiting the bank to deposit checks, going to Kinkos to print and scan contracts. That adds up to a lot of busy work.
Finally, you have your general “screwing around” time you always take for granted at a salaried position. You know, that half hour you spend every day surfing Facebook and Reddit? Turns out you still want to do that stuff when you’re self-employed, only you feel a lot more guilty doing it because it’s detracting from the time spent doing things you actually get paid for.
You have to take on every facet of the business
You know the administrative stuff I mentioned above? The nice thing about working at a firm with dozens of employees is that different people handle different parts of the business so you can focus more on your actual core job. For instance, whenever a client didn’t pay the firm we had a team of accountants and lawyers who would hound the company or person until they paid up.
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Working for myself, I have to take on this ugly work myself. At one point, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur hired me to do some marketing work for his mobile app, but when I billed him and then later sent him reminder emails about payment, he always had an excuse. It became clockwork; I’d email him a reminder gently asking him about payment, he’d offer up an excuse about cash burn-rates and then promise to send a check. Flash forward a month later, then repeat. Eventually he stopped even bothering to answer my emails, so I had to figure out how to file a small claims lawsuit, print up all the documents, and then travel down to the courthouse to hand them to the clerk. But then, a few days before a judge was set to hear the case, I learned the court date was canceled because they hadn’t been able to find the guy and serve him the papers. Finally, I just sent the guy an email threatening to contact ValleyWag and convince the publication to do a story on how the startup guy and his investors were screwing employees. Lo and behold, the money was wired to my bank account within 24 hours, but of course I didn’t get paid for all the additional time I’d spent trying to collect the money I was owed.
Self-employment is an emotional rollercoaster
Friends and family who have known me for a long time would never describe me as an optimist, but for the most part I’ve managed to maintain a healthy outlook on life. But for the past several months, I’ve rapidly vacillated through an entire kaleidoscope of emotions, including confidence, doubt, depression, stress, relief, anger, and despair. There are times in which I experience all these feelings in a single day. For the most part, these emotions have been completely irrational, seeing as how I’ve been able to make ends meet without too much trouble, but they still plague me anyway. I have a feeling this situation will become more subdued as time goes on, but I doubt it’ll ever completely go away.
You don’t have as much freedom as you’d think
Quitting my day job wasn’t just about improving my career, I also envisioned it improving all other aspects of my life. Because I’d be mostly working from home I could fix my own food and therefore eat healthier (and lose weight in the process). I’d set my own schedule, meaning I could take time during the day to clean my apartment, go grocery shopping, do laundry, or the dozens of other things we always have to put off until the weekend. In all, I planned to become a more well-rounded adult.
Flash forward to 12 months later. It turns out that all that stuff I’d had to put off until nights and weekends still didn’t get done until nights and weekends. I still only clean my apartment about once a week, usually on Saturdays, and because I spend more time in it now it actually gets dirtier. I’ve somehow managed to gain weight despite eating from home more often and getting plenty of exercise.
Basically, even though you can technically set your own schedule, you still end up working normal business hours. That’s because most of your clients work during those hours and friends and loved ones want to hang out at night. Usually if I end up working at night, it’s only because I spent too much time during the day screwing around on Facebook, not because I took the opportunity to tackle chores.
You’ve probably noticed all the “lessons” I listed above are mostly negative. Well, I think that’s because most people are overly optimistic about what it would be like to work for themselves, and it’s better to understand all the downsides before taking the plunge. Would I still have gone the self-employment route if I knew everything I know today? Definitely; I still maintain that I had stagnated at my old job and was in need of a good jolt. I also would have done a lot of things differently, like focusing on securing clients earlier instead of spending so much time (and savings) building up my journalistic brand.
Overall, I think I’m lucky in that I’m self-motivated enough to force myself out of bed every morning and I have a good support system of friends and family to help me get through the more difficult parts. I can’t say whether a year from now I’ll still be self-employed, but I do know that if I take a salaried position it’ll be from a better vantage point, one that will allow me to utilize my entire skillset, including the learnings I’ve picked up while fending for myself. I’ll always be glad I took the opportunity to wander off into the wilderness, even though I got snagged in a few thorn bushes along the way.
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Earlier this month, I completed a 1,500 word feature story on why the scholarly publisher PLOS is teaming up with Reddit on an ongoing science interview series. I had put a good deal of work into the piece, interviewing editors at PLOS, scientists who had been published in its journals, and moderators at Reddit. If I had written this article a year ago I would have simply published it to my blog and then devoted all my energy toward directing my social media followers to the piece. If I was lucky, a tweet of mine would float across the screen of someone influential on Twitter who had thousands of followers, and his or her retweet would direct a flood of readers to the article. But just as often as not, my article wouldn’t attract much notice and it’d lay stagnant on my blog, boasting only a handful of tweets and likes.
But my philosophy on web publishing has changed drastically in recent months, so in addition to publishing the story to my blog, I also uploaded it to LinkedIn’s publishing platform and to Medium. The version on my blog did rack up a few influential shares, including a retweet from Gawker founder Nick Denton, but it ultimately attracted only about 100 views, which by itself would have rendered the piece a failure.
But on LinkedIn and Medium, the results were much more encouraging. A few hours after I uploaded it, an editor at LinkedIn plugged my piece into its Pulse channel on education, which currently boasts hundreds of thousands of followers. Within moments, my LinkedIn app on my phone began pinging me with updates as the story racked up comments and likes. Overall, it generated 106 likes, five comments, and 1,075 views.
While most the activity on LinkedIn occurred within the first 24 hours after posting, Medium was more of a slow burn. For the first day the article slowly collected recommends (Medium’s internal share function), and then began picking up traction on the second day after I submitted it to the influential Thoughts on Journalism publication. Ultimately, the article attracted 12 recommends, but because Medium is an influencer platform, it led to shares from outside networks. Of the 1,500 views of my article, 500 came from Facebook, 400 from email, and nearly 300 from Twitter.
All together, the piece attracted over 2,600 views, and that was before it went on to be reprinted by MediaShift and the Daily Dot. If you work at a major publication like BuzzFeed or the New York Times, 2,600 views might not seem like a lot, but for an independent writer who has no institutional backing, it’s a respectable audience (some of my articles on Medium have gone as high as 5,000 views and one article of mine on LinkedIn received over 50,000).
Increasingly, I’m seeing more and more writers follow this strategy — continuing to publish posts to their own websites but then crossposting to LinkedIn, Medium, or both. For years, we’ve been warned away from such tactics. You may have heard the term “digital sharecropping,” which Copyblogger once called “the most dangerous threat to your content marketing strategy.” Put simply, digital sharecropping is when you place too many resources into growing your following on outside platforms you don’t completely own rather than focusing on your own website, of which you have complete control. And this makes some sense; in a world in which Facebook regularly changes its algorithm and Twitter can revoke API access, placing all your eggs in another company’s basket exposes you to a certain amount of risk.
But at the same time, anyone who has had any experience in publishing knows how difficult it is to drive traffic to a standalone website, especially if that website isn’t updated 20 times a day. The harsh reality is that only a tiny fraction of your social media followers will click on a link to an outside website, and most prefer to interact and consume content that’s native to the platform they’re browsing. So if you’re only publishing, at most, a few articles per week and don’t have an enormous social following, chances are your content is getting lost in the noise.
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The opportunity that platforms like LinkedIn and Medium offer is they have an already existing audience and they allow you to amass a following that will increase your content’s likelihood of discovery. Millions of people visit the home pages of LinkedIn and Medium each day, and their publishing tools provide you the opportunity to place your content in front of those readers and generate real engagement when they click into your article.
There’s another argument typically made against digital sharecropping: that it hurts your SEO. The thinking goes that if you post the same content across multiple sites, Google will penalize your personal website and only index the content that you crossposted on more authoritative sites. This argument was recently boosted when Google changed its algorithm to punish aggressive guest posting.
But it turns out many of these concerns were overblown. Google engineers have repeatedly said the search engine only aims to punish spammy guest posting that exists to build backlinks. Blogger Ryan Battles recently conducted an experiment in which he consistently crossposted his content to both LinkedIn and Medium and found that all versions of the article continued to be indexed.
Of course, if your create content in order to sell advertising against it, publishing to Medium and LinkedIn will do nothing to generate new revenue and may even decrease traffic to the website where you’re selling said advertising. But the vast majority of people who create content on the internet do so either to elevate their own personal brands or to market a product or service. For those content producers, the goal is to expand their audience, regardless of where that audience consumes the content. If you fit into this latter category, then by ignoring Medium and LinkedIn you’re potentially turning away thousands of readers for each article you write. You should go to where the readers are, not assume they’ll come flocking to you.
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