Remember when the internet was all full of hope, sunshine, and promise? When little ole’ Facebook was a place to hang out with friends? When Google proudly said ‘do no evil’? When the future looked bright for creatives? All of a sudden, no matter which creative industry you wanted to be in, the gatekeepers were being removed, and nobody was in between you and your audience. You just had to find them.
Want to be an author? No problem, self-publish and build up your audience. In a band? Put your albums up on Bandcamp, go on Spotify and start building an audience. Illustrator? There are a million places you can build up an audience online without having to be ‘discovered’ by someone who’s really only interested in the commerciality of your ‘content.’ Have an idea for scarves that you can print a book onto for some reason? There’s actually an audience for you. Hell, if you want to make custom Twilight-themed sex toys in your basement, you’ll probably be able to sell them.
The problem, then, is to stand out. Stand above the hundreds, nay, thousands of other creatives who are trying to find their audience. Not the easiest of tasks, but one made possible by the equality and egalitarian nature of the internet. It’s a long, hard slog, but you find your platform, and you build it. It’s not quite Field of Dreams, but it’s possible.
This year, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Big Internet, those companies that less than a decade ago were trying desperately to find their own audience, are losing patience with the little guy, the struggling artist, the haberdasher, the local band. It’s hard work, monetising this crowd, especially when there are all these big brands who’ve finally woken up to the internet being a thing, and have the marketing muscle to bring to bear.
Here are some things that have all happened in the last few weeks, all of which speak to a wider trend.
- Facebook’s algorithm change: If you run a Facebook page for your ‘small-level interest’ you already know that reaching people who have liked your page is nigh on impossible and has been for a while. Well, unless you hit that ‘boost post’ option and pay Zuck the mighty dollar. Well, the Zuckster recently announced another major change, in which he really wants to focus on letting people see what their family and friends are posting about. That’s all well and good, but one suspects what he really means is that pages are dead. No matter whether people actually might want to see content from the bands, authors and haberdashers whose pages they went out of the way to click like on. Pretty soon the only way to promote yourself on what is arguably the best ad platform in the world will be to pay a LOT of money to do so. Fewer ads mean more ads by the brands who can pay the big money, fewer by small creators trying to find their audience.
- YouTube’s new rules for ‘content partners’: We’ve all heard tales of the YouTube gazillionaires with a quadrillion pre-pubescent followers, who, as it turns out, invariably tend to be sociopaths of some kind. In the wake of scandals with Logan ‘I monetize dead people’ Paul, something called a Pew De Pie, and others, YouTube has implemented a radical overhaul of their ‘Partner Programme.’ The only problem is, it won’t hit any of these big accounts, but it will make it harder to join their ranks. Worse still, it punishes video creators that tend to be more niche, or who are using their channels to supplement their other enterprises (authors with book trailers, for instance, who want to be able to embed a link to their book on the video and then share that to other social media).
- Amazon’s rank stripping of authors: The world’s longest river has a problem with scammers exploiting their Kindle Unlimited program. This subscription model rewards authors based on page reads, rather than sales, and is only available to authors who go directly to them. A bunch of enterprising scammers realised a good way to game the system is to put a single book in the program, which is actually stuffed with dozens of books, then linking from the end of the first book to ‘bonus content’ at the very end, bypassing hundreds of pages and making it look to Amazon’s system like the reader has read 1000+ pages, instead of a few hundred. Now, this might seem like harmless gaming of a system, until you realise that this inflates the rank of the scammer’s book, bringing in more readers, pushing legitimate books down the chart. Also, authors are paid based on a single pot of money each month that Amazon deigns to pay its authors, so these scammers are actually stealing from other authors. Clearly, this is an issue. So, does Amazon try and fix the algorithm that has this huge loophole, or do they just randomly hack away at a few suspects? You guessed it, it’s the latter, meaning a bunch of very innocent authors have the added indignity of having their legitimate page reads and rank stripped away from them whenever they run a promotion, costing a lot of authors an absolute fortune. At the same time, go look at the charts on Amazon and you’ll see, the scammers haven’t even been dented. Quite frankly, Amazon doesn’t give a shit.
- Patreon trying to kill off its small payment patrons: This was one of the most egregious examples of the art. Patreon, a place where creators can build support slowly, with monetisation, randomly imposes a rule change with zero consultation, screwing over both patrons and creatives (an impressive feat). It scaled back the changes and stated that it wasn't about trying to jack up the fees they received, but this was a pretty clear attempt to change from a sub $5 donation model, the model which most benefits the smallest creators. They want fewer patrons paying more money.
As I say, this is all in the last few weeks. Individually each of these stories has caused panic in certain quarters of the internet (every author group I am in has at least one VERY CONCERNED discussion about Facebook ads going on right now), but taken together, these stories all point to a wider trend: Big Internet doesn’t care about your book. Or your album. Or your sex toys. So, what do we, as a creative community, do about it?
Well, I have one suggestion: Not to give a shit.
Being a creative in 2018 is tough work, but it’s still probably the best time in history to do it. Sure, it’s going to get harder to find an audience, but it doesn’t change the fact that your audience is out there, waiting for you. Seriously, there are nearly eight billion people out there, so the chances that you can find enough of an audience out there willing to pay enough money for you to keep doing what you’re doing. Hell, you might even be able to make a living at it. There’s even an outside chance that you’ll make good money.
They’re out there, and if you can’t use Facebook Ads to find them, find another way. It’s going to be tough, and it might cost money to get there. You know, in that way that starting a business usually requires investment. Use Big Internet. Use small internet. Finding that Twitter’s full of Nazis and trolls and authors tweeting book links a gazillion times a day? Try Mastodon. Sure, there’s not many people there, but there might just be a few of your people there. But you can find them. Facebook ads too expensive? Amazon's ad platform is pretty decent, too.
If this is where you start to fret about being 100% reliant on one source of income, then fret you should. What the above tales show is that putting all your eggs in one basket is a pretty good way to make sure that you're going to end up with your career as some kind of avant-garde floor omelette. Diversify. It's the only way to be sure.
Build your platform, as robustly as you can. Make the best art you can. If you're lucky, they might come.