One Fifth Famous, Four Fifths Broken

The art, science and sickness of building one’s audience online

They say you should write when you’re fired up. When you’ve got a bee in your bonnet as we Brits say. Well. I’ve never owned a bonnet nor ever found a bee inside one, but I’ve got a metaphorical one in mine today.

I haven’t written anything for a week or two on here. It was intentional. After writing things about numbers, likes and popcorn I’ve been feeling a little burned out on the topics. As if The Matrix was revealed to me and I don’t know what to do about it next. I frequently feel like the person telling the truth who everyone else just thinks is mad.

I sit amongst two strange worlds. I’m a designer and marketer and running a digital agency by day, and a digital cynic and an analogue enthusiast by night. I find the two roles combine quite well. I get to soak up and partake in the digital world during the day as research then sing about my hatred of it by night.

Today—if you would allow me to1—I would like to return to the topic of audiences. Audience-building2 if you like. The art, science and sickness of building one’s audience online and becoming One Fifth Famous.

The audience as an escape

I get it. You want to build an audience. You want to become a Thought Leader3, turn your knowledge into profit, turn your hard-won career into something more rewarding than trading your time for your services. Your expertise is more valuable in many other ways than just selling it for an hourly rate.

I get it. I understand. I’m there myself, right now. The majority of the money I make is from an hourly rate. I charge my marketing and design services out through my agency. I sell my time. We sell time as a business. There isn’t much of it. It’s hard. It’s tiring. It’s a grind.

It’s become better now we’ve been at it for 11 years. I dare say we’re now pretty good at it. We make a decent profit and we all live decent lives.

But.

The day resets at zero. Every day we must work the hours to earn the money.

And here my friend is why we usually want to build audiences. To escape.

The audience paradox

But4 that escape mindset, that survival mindset, will lead to desperation. That desperation will lead to strange choices. Those strange choices lead us to pursue audience games and engagement games and buy Twitter growth guides and get involved in Money Twitter and become convinced that we can make a living from tweeting fortune cookies.

Inevitably our desperation to build an audience will lead us to Audience Building—writing and making things that will just lead to more Audience Members, not people. Not humans. Not people who want to connect with you. Not people who want to talk to you or work with you or have a chat with you.

Just people who will want to take from you. People who will want to leave smart replies on your tweets in the vague hope they’ll get you to share it to boost their own following.

It’s lonely at the top, and the top is much closer than you think.

One Fifth Famous

The top started looming for me around 2-3,000 followers. I was playing all the games I described above. I was writing fortune cookie tweets, the platitudes, the feel good hits of the Summer. Keep going, I’d say. Failure is part of the process. Stay consistent, I’d write. The same five things in 500 different ways. I’d like to say that writing tweets like this wasn’t a large part of my initial growth on Twitter, but it was.

Feeding the algorithm with endless feel good nonsense that nobody could disagree with got me the likes and follows. I was doing other things too: I was building genuine connections with some I’m lucky to call friends these days. I was chatting to people, having fun. Writing the tweets was the boring bit, if I’m honest. Chatting to people was the fun bit.

But The Top was looming. As I said, 2-3,000 followers. Suddenly most people stopped treating me the same way. People weren’t writing meaningful or funny replies to my tweets anymore, they were writing things that sounded like a robot had taken my first tweet, reworded it and spat it back out at me. It was like reading my own tweets, over and over, and I didn’t like my tweets that much already.

I was growing though. I was Audience Building. It was working. I think.

Wasn’t it?

It was working, wasn’t it?

Four Fifths Broken

Certainly the numbers told me it was working. I was picking up a couple of followers every day. All of my Twitter stats were green. People were replying (even if the majority of the replies were nonsense).

Occasionally I’d write a good tweet.

Sometimes they’d pop.

But they were just all wrong.

Often, really wrong.

And not wrong as in giving the wrong answer in a pub quiz. Not wrong as in the wrong answer to a maths question. Wrong as in you shouldn’t eat toast cold. Wrong as in walking down stairs backwards is wrong.

In retrospect, they feel wrong. And you’ll notice some of these I wrote very recently.

I was writing about doing the work rather than just doing the work.

The Pseudo-Content.

I’ve shamlessly taken the idea of pseudo-content from The Image by Daniel Boorstin, where he discusses pseudo-events.

Pseudo-events are events about the event. It’s the instagram post that shows you’re having fun at the beach. It’s the tweet that talks about writing the tweet.

It’s the selfie at the gym, instead of just being at the gym.

Pseudo-content is the most prevalent type of content on Twitter at the moment. It’s the writing about writing. It’s the building a following by writing about building a following. It’s this weird infinite loop of building for building’s sake. ‘Audience Building’, as I mentioned earlier.

As I said in my latest Wednesday Audio, it’s dead behind the eyes. It’s stripped of artistry. Pure Tesco Value Popcorn. It feels like you’re experiencing something but really you’re just getting your dopamine fix.

And when I saw all this and worked all this out I realised I was wrong. I was tweeting wrong, making things wrong, lacking artistry or nuance. I was four fifths broken, not one fifth famous.

The illusion of an audience

The biggest tragedy of all this I’ve come to realise is this idea of an audience. They’re illusory. The whole Audience with a captial A is fickle. It’s not something you build because you choose now is the right time, it’s something you get because you’re doing something interesting. The audience is a by-product, not the endgame.

When you hungrily hunt for The Audience like your life depends on it, when you desperately need one, you find one. If you’re willing to be four fifths broken for long enough, willing to bite your tounge on the Reply Guys and willing to not destroy your audience, willing to pretend to like everybody, willing to pretend to be perfect, willing to feed the algorithm, willing to avoid artistry, willing to be hopelessly addicted to Twitter but willing to convince yourself otherwise, willing to gaslight everyone, willing to be needlessly binary…

…then you’ll build an audience.

But that audience will expect things from you. They’ll expect you to be there everyday, giving them more popcorn. They’ll expect everything in return for nothing.

Then when you decide you want to be yourself, when you finally want to break the mould and talk about things that truly matter to you they won’t want to hear it. They’ll drop you as quickly as they idolised you.

Because to The Audience, the audience of Audience Building, you aren’t a person. You’re another tweet on the infinite firehose of the internet. You’re a temporary distraction. The shrug emoji, if you’re lucky.

And when you stop being engaging, they stop engaging with you.

Unfollowed.

1

You have no choice, sorry.

2

Surely a word for the Banned Words Bin if I ever experienced one.

3

This is like Banned Words Bingo.

4

Just like a teenager’s Instagram, this article will be full of buts. Yes I know I’ve used this joke before.