Leaving the algorithm behind
Keeping your options open as a creator
I’m old enough to remember when Facebook was an exciting new platform that enabled small companies and individuals to operate on the same level as massive corporations.
ha ha ha ha ha
In the 2000s I worked for a software developer called FXhome which specialised in video products for young and emerging filmmakers, which put them in competition with the likes of Adobe. It wasn’t a marketing equation that the fledgling FXhome could ever win: then Facebook came along and suddenly a company’s Facebook Page was more about community than it was ad spend. That lasted for a couple of years, then Facebook and Zuckerberg remembered that money was more important than society, and they pivoted towards an ads-first model. Small companies were back to square one, always outbid by the mega-corps and left with meaningless ‘follower’ numbers.
It was an example of a 3rd party, private platform shifting beneath the feet of those that were using it. Facebook was not the benevolent, democratic equaliser that it appeared to be in those early years. In retrospect, that was always a ridiculous notion, given the toxic well of despair that it’s become.
This is relevant to writers, so bear with me.
As creators, we’re always looking for ways to connect the dots. How do we get the things we make to the people who would enjoy them? Writers used to have precious few routes to readers: it was traditional publishing or nothing. That’s changed, fortunately, but we’ve been falling into the same traps. Amazon upended the publishing industry, but its intention was never to help writers; it was to make a ton of money. Its self-publishing tools have been a boon for indie writers, but the Amazon ecosystem is also a cage. One which many of us willingly climbed into and locked the door.
How do we get the things we make to the people who would enjoy them?
Filmmakers had the same temptation and subsequent problem with YouTube. Free video hosting? Earn ad revenue from successful videos? Sounds great! And, much like self-publishing on Amazon, it is great in many ways. But it’s also a narrow alley which could be bulldozed at any moment, blocked up entirely or rebuilt as a pit of snakes, or a roundabout.
Beware of tenuous metaphors.
This is why Corridor Digital, a superb channel about indie filmmaking, launched their own subscription service a couple of years ago. They were already phenomenally successful on YouTube, owned multiple studio spaces in downtown LA and employed what looks to be about 20 people. But they became cognisant to the enormous risk they were taking: one change to YouTube’s algorithm, or Google’s overall priorities, and their entire business could falter. That platform that had enabled much of their success was also the biggest risk factor, and an uncontrollable factor between them and their audience.
Social, algorithmically-powered platforms are no foundation for a business strategy.
Feeding the beast
This all popped back into my head last week when Chris at One Further linked me to a fascinating article about the social media treadmill by the Content Technologist.
It’s an essay specific to marketing and social media managers, and how algorithmic changes have resulted in more and more churn work for people working in that area. Meanwhile the original purpose and attraction of engaging with social media has largely gone out the window.
Having worked in the day job in digital marketing for twenty years, I’ve seen that slow shift from social media having the emphasis on the social towards having the emphasis on the media. Specifically, the advertising end of ‘media’.
Writers aren’t immune. Far from it. Many financially successful authors are entirely in thrall to the Amazon model, compelled to release five books per year in order to feed the beast and keep those sales coming in from an established crime or romance series. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that they can make it work. On the other hand, it’d kill me. I’ve heard about others who have to pump out daily chapters via Patreon and Royal Road to keep their paying subscribers happy.
Most of these platforms are reliant on opaque networking, with recommendations and reader/writer connections driven by undisclosed mathematical shennanigans. I’ve published on Wattpad since about 2015 and have had some success there, but it’s as much a consequence of their their behind-the-scenes machine-powered number crunching as it is the quality of my writing.
I have 2.4k followers on Wattpad. That’s a list of interested people I have absolutely no direct control over. Wattpad have been good to me but if they changed their approach - which they’re fully entitled to do - it could wipe out over six years of effort overnight.
Spreading the load across multiple platforms can alleviate the risk, but it also multiplies the admin required just to get the work published.
Controlling your list
There’s a reason writers and publishers have spent years urging others to to start a mailing list. I wrote about it last year in my Writing Serial Fiction guide:
An author’s list is not only a useful marketing tool: it’s also freedom. It’s the way to retake control and put yourself in the driving seat of your own ambitions.
An author’s list is not only a useful marketing tool: it’s also freedom.
I’m using Substack to build my list and send newsletters. I’m in no way tied irrevocably to the platform: at any time I can export my list and go elsewhere. It’s essentially a zero risk investment. I’m not reliant on a monolithic corporate entity - Substack is a useful tool, like a good pen. But I can always get another pen.
From a standing start I’ve built my list up to nearly 700 subscribers in about six months. I’m very happy with that kind of growth, especially because it’s been driven by my efforts. Any success or failure is down to me, which means I understand what is going on and why and can make strategic decisions accordingly.
Where is Substack going?
The best thing about Substack so far is that they can’t really do anything to mess up what I’m doing. As long as the basic feature of ‘sending newsletters’ continues to function, I’m all good. I’m not reliant on Substack’s social features or networking to gain subscribers, which means growth is powered by my own promotional and creative efforts. Even if Substack decided to remove their newsletter functionality, I could go elsewhere - Buttondown, for example.
I don’t want to have a create a sophisticated subscription website like Corridor Digital have built. But having a Substack newsletter with a convenient and optional paid subcription is the next best thing.
That said, Substack is still relatively young. It’s a company with clear ambition. My main concern is that those ambitions will pull them inexorably towards becoming a ‘social media platform’, moving away from the current setup of siloed writer oases and towards the messy network of something like Medium.
In my experience, the writing and reading experience on Medium has diminished in tandem with the platform developing its automated networking features.
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So far so good, though, with Substack. A recent addition was the recommendations feature, whereby Substack writers can recommend other Substack writers. It’s implemented in a way that new and existing subscribers easily encounter and seems to be working for people. It’s networking, but of a more old fashioned and natural form. It’s organised curation, rather than algorithmic automation. It retains each writer’s independence, voice and agency.
It’s organised curation, rather than algorithmic automation.
Another curious development is the introduction of the Substack app. This is only available on iPhones at the moment, so I’ve not been able to use it directly. As a more convenient way to read your Substack newsletters it sounds great, but there are a couple of potential concerns.
For starters, it shifts the focus away from individual writers (who just happen to be using Substack) towards Substack being a centralised, homogenous platform. This is very different to newsletters going into people’s email inboxes, where the mailing platform is largely invisible and irrelevant. If a Substack writer moves to a different service in the future, their readers will no longer receive content in their Substack app. The Substack app starts to put up walls around content and imposes corporate ownership over writers who just happen to be using Substack. Individual writer agency is lessened. Currently it’s still optional, and hopefully will remain so.
The use of an app also opens the door to an influx of algorithmic recommendations. The temptation will surely be for Substack to ‘surface’ other newsletters to readers. If you like this, then you might like this. In theory it’s useful; in practice we’ve seen how such systems can warp and narrow people’s reading habits and skew society’s perception of truth. Hello Facebook, hello Twitter. Hello Brexit, hello Trump.
For now, though, Substack is a good option for writers. It helps us all to jump off the content train. The beast becomes slightly less ravenous.
What do you think?
How important is creative and publishing independence to you? Have you found social platforms to be a help or a hindrance? Where have you found most success as a writer?