Let’s make it clear from the beginning: spamming isn’t the right way to win the online popularity game.1 Even if you throw all ethics and self-respect to the wind, it’s still not the most effective way to promote yourself or your website. It’s probably the easiest way to promote yourself, since it requires very little effort, but the payoff will be really small and likely negative. I can guarantee you none of the popular blogs out there are popular because their authors are good spammers.
A young blogger sent me an online message begging me to promote her blog. A google reveals I wasn’t the only one that got the message. I’m not going to link to it, since I don’t feel like humiliating or giving undue credit to anyone. Instead, I’ll jump on the opportunity to play sage for a moment and tell you what I’ve learned as a moderately successful player in the online popularity contest.2
It’s no use denying it: we all crave attention. You’re more likely to be labeled pathological if you have an undersized ego than if your ego’s too big. But before we even begin playing the popularity game, it behooves us to look at our motivations for doing so. There was a period in my early teens when I didn’t have many real-world friends and became obsessed with the idea that, to prove that I wasn’t worthless, I was going to build a huge webforum. I was going to have thousands of members and millions of posts, and these digital artifacts were going to validate me as a person. Every message would be testatement to my value and further falsification of the hypothesis, chiefly held by myself, that my lack of real-world friends was indicative of my low value as a human being. I started one forum. I started another. I must have started a dozen online forums and none of them went anywhere. I’d usually shut them down after a month or two of disappointingly low membership and posting frequencies. I joined special web forums for web forum administrators, looking for the silver bullet that was going to vault my forum onto the Big-Boards top list in no time. I even considered buying a package from one of the many “paid posters” companies, which rent out people that will post on your forum to give the impression that it’s busy and thus entice real members to join. In the end, I didn’t sink quite that low. I simply gave up.
Fast forward to today. I still don’t run a successful web forum. I do run a couple of moderately successful blogs, and their combined audience would have sounded like a dream to my thirteen-year-old self. Now that I have, to some extent, attained what I sought, I’ve long since lost the illusion that how well you do in the online popularity game is in any way indicative of your worth as a person. That might sound very zen and stupid if you’re currently caught up in the popularity game, but it’s true.
Even if we’ve lost the illusion that we can somehow prove our worth through sheer numbers of tenous online relationships, most of us still desire a platform, a soap box, a loudspeaker from which to broadcast our opinions, air our frustrations, test our assumptions and promote our interests. If we do, we’re going to have to play the popularity game. We have no choice not to. We can pretend the popularity game doesn’t exist, but that’ll only result in our playing the game unconsciously. In terms of ethics, I’m not sure I think either approach is morally superior: on the one hand, the conscious player might employ dubious tactics to gain the upper hand, but on the other, the unconscious player might employ even worse tactics simply because, being unaware they were playing the game at all, the tactic was never subjected to ethical scrutiny. Either way, before we jump into the game, we should be sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.
After we’ve made sure our desire for an audience isn’t fuelled by the false idea that it has something to do with our worth as people, we should make sure our desire is fuelled by actually having something to say rather than simply the illusion that we have something to say. The particular blog I was asked to promote didn’t have anything to say. Every post was a reblog of something that was already popular, with zero added commentary, and each reblogged post was itself some form of vapid-romantic cutesy feelgood picture, often consisting of pretty girls in summer dresses or notebooks with mantras like “there is always somebody that loves you”. I have, not quite contempt, because I don’t feel that strongly about it, but, let’s say, a very elitist attitude towards that kind of cliche-ridden romanticism. I think it’s unoriginal, uninspiring, in poor taste and boring. It’s also really popular. But still, I have a hard time seeing a good reason why anyone would need a platform from which to shout that kind of banality that doesn’t cook down to ego, to the desire for attention. As such, I think anyone who goes down that road is already doing it for the wrong reasons. If it’s simply for you, if you’re genuinely moved by that sort of thing, you don’t need an audience for it. It’s perfectly fine to have your own digital scrapbook and fill it with all the cliche-ridden things people put in scrapbooks, but if that’s the thing, why promote it? Why insist anyone else look at it?
But let’s say that for whatever reason, we’ve decided we want to create an audience for this kind of scrapbook. Should be easy, right? I mean, these things are hugely popular. Every post has thousands of “likes” and reblogs on Tumblr, Wordpress, Facebook, Posterous, Twitter, and every other network. Here’s a secret you’ll learn with experience in the popularity game: it’s easier to be popular if you’re mediocre and original than if you’re stellar but unoriginal. The kind of unoriginal but popular imagery that permeates the internet almost always starts percolating from one of a small set of hubs. There are millions of people in orbit around these hubs, almost all of them hoping to become their own hubs, but all they’re doing is strengthening the existing hubs. It doesn’t take much creativity to become a hub from which unoriginal mass-produced cliches spread, but it does take a lot of luck, and/or genius in marketing and networking. Unless you’re in the right place at the right time, or happen to come into contact with the right people at the exact right moment, you’re probably never going to become a hub of unoriginality. I don’t understand why you’d want to, but chances are you aren’t going to be one no matter how hard you try.
If you’re original, you don’t even need to be good to advance in the popularity game. Simply by virtue of producing something yourself, of broadcasting an opinion in a slightly different form than anyone else, by expressing your interests and feelings through original creations rather than through recycled garbage, you suddenly become that much more interesting. A bad but original drawing is more likely to net you exposure than the perfectly drawn and colored one that you became the 2487th person to reblog. A misspelt but original diatribe against something you genuinely loathe, or an original but ultimately poorly-written paean to something you really like, will net you more attention than either of those forms perfected but repeated from someone else.
That sounds rather rosy coming from a cynic, but it’s been my experience. Even when I think I’ve really added something to a quote, a picture or a link that’s been making the rounds, even when I’ve spent a long time and a lot of effort trying to say something that hasn’t been said before about something that everyone’s seen, I’ve found that in terms of attention, it’s ineffective. I could spend ten hours writing a long, well-researched essay on the link that’s been making the rounds and chances are the original text I wrote in fifteen minutes is going to be more popular. That ain’t rosy but it is the truth.
My secret for achieving at least moderate success in the online popularity game is that there is no secret. I have spent zero money and very little attention on promotion. I never spammed. My main virtues, aside from whatever intrinsic value my posts may have, are patience and originality. I don’t claim to be particularly original in the grand scheme of things, but most of what I publish is something that went through my brain and emerged slightly distorted by it before it was re-broadcast to you, the audience. I couldn’t tell you how to start a hugely successful blog like BoingBoing or The Awl or any of the Gawker Media sites, because I’ve never done it (nor have I attempted to), but I can tell you what I’ve done to become moderately popular on Tumblr. And there’s really no trick. Honestly.