Matt Gemmell

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Little guys

writing & audience 7 min read

I’ve been asked two questions far more than any others during my career: “What’s wrong with my code?”, and “How did you build your audience?”

The first one is no longer my department, and I’ve never really been able to give a satisfactory answer to the second.

I’m not a big time blogger. I don’t even like the term “blogger”, honestly. I certainly don’t consider myself “internet famous” (which is a bit mean-spirited to my ear, though rarely intentionally), even though I’ve been called all of those things.

What I have is a certain level of readership here and on social media. I’ll briefly quantify that. At the moment I have about 27k followers on Twitter, and about another 13k on other social networks. Somewhere around a million people visit this blog each year. Subscribers are around the 20k mark. These are very modest numbers: there are far, far larger personal online presences out there.

I don’t track those metrics obsessively, but I do closely monitor feedback on social media. It’s purely for vanity; I don’t make decisions on what to write based on anything but my own motivation, as is presumably clear from the eclectic range of topics I cover.

So that’s my online audience, by the numbers. So what?

I read a few articles recently from apparently self-identified “little guy” writers. Three of the pieces are from April this year, and the remaining one is from January. They deal with a couple of issues I’d like to talk about.

Josh Ginter’s piece (@joshuaginter) was the jumping-off point to the other articles. It’s about the support and validation offered by the community of fellow little-guy writers. It’s positive and grateful, to which: fine and fair. Ginter is getting visibly linked more and more often, and is probably a rising star tech-industry online writer. Good for him.

(Feedback, if he’d care to have it: Be less self-consciously “little”. Your prose is lucid and economical, which is rare enough, and your blog’s appearance has design authority, making it seem bigger than it is. It reminds me of Ben Brooks’ site (ADN: @benbrooks). Just be a little less effusively grateful. Nothing breeds respect like self-respect.)

Ginter links to Scotty Loveless’ The Outsider and the Creed (@scottyloveless), which I found interesting. Scotty feels awkward when (as he sees it) intruding on conversations on social media. He talks about a sense of insecurity, and the struggle of balancing fragile ego against the readily-quantifiable metrics of online popularity.

There’s also a great little anecdote about the socio-psychological danger of gamified popularity measures amongst schoolchildren. I found it arresting, and it’s worthy of your attention.

These metrics are a genuine trap. It’s fair to observe that I still have one foot in it, given I already stated my own vital virtual statistics earlier. A need for validation is a hungry thing, never sated. Worse, at some personally-defined tipping point, you realise you’ve fed it after midnight, and it can readily change into egocentrism and arrogance. I have some of each, and I suppress those negative qualities with mixed success.

Scotty goes on to state a creed (somewhat overwrought in execution, but perhaps creeds must be lest they simply be mission statements), essentially resolving to let the work itself be the motivation, and not be a slave to narrow definitions of success. That’s sensible, and it’s my approach. It’s impossible in the absolute sense, of course, but as a steering guide it’s sound.

On to article three: Conor McClure’s follow-up to Ginter (@conorjmcclure). I’m mentioned in this one, and it’s part of my motivation for writing this response.

One of the first things McClure does is quote Sid O’Neill’s Hey, Look At Me, Big Time Bloggers (@sidoneill), the fourth and final article I wanted to mention, and I’m going to grab the same quote:

Have you ever tweeted a link at someone internet-famous and immediately felt like a charlatan, only to be proved right when your tentative offering goes completely ignored?

There’s that “internet famous” phrase again, also used in McClure’s piece - in the latter case with quotation-marks intact, no less. I can’t help but think ouch, but I understand the spirit in which it’s intended.

McClure’s commentary on the O’Neill quote was what grabbed me:

I've had similar thoughts countless times, thoughts that breed endless frustration and bitterness. I can only help but convince myself that this "bigtime blogger" got to his current status by doing the same thing I'm doing, by traversing the "wire-tightrope of self-promotion" and experiencing the same negative thought quoted above, until finally they reach some undefined level of success, of bigtimeness. And once they reach that point, they can finally feel free to ignore the tweets of the next-generation of smalltimers.

He’s speaking generally; those remarks aren’t aimed at me. They do provoke some thought and some guilt, though.

I think there are two misconceptions (or misperceptions, or errors in judgement) in McClure’s words, quoted above. The biggest is the idea that there’s a threshold where you’re liberated from the implied social contract of acknowledging something that’s been shared with you. That’s utterly wrong-headed. There is no point at which you feel free.

In fact, the more stuff that gets shared with you in the hope that you’ll amplify it, the more crappy you tend to feel - because you can’t share it all. There’s an inherent tension between respecting the reader, and your own time constraints. I vet all the stuff I link to, or retweet. Getting an article fired at you is a tough proposition: you have to go and read it, work out if it’s something you want to share, then make a decision about what to do. It’s a bit like “can you take a look over my manuscript”. Or “what do you think of my app”.

We all have our own work to do, and our own leisure time to enjoy. What happens once you start getting a certain number of readers (and especially once your email address has ever been in print - terrible mistake, by the way), is that you get unsolicited requests for feedback or promotion. The most common phrase used is “I thought this might be of interest to your readers”. What it really means is “I’d like you to put this in front of your audience, for my benefit”.

You also get even more approaches from individuals and small businesses, some of whom are looking for promotion, and some of whom do just genuinely want your input. There’s just not enough time in the day to go and give an article a proper reading, or spend a while playing with an app, or whatever else. I get many of these approaches per week, almost exclusively via email but occasionally via social media too. And every time I ignore one, I feel like a complete dick.

But what’s the alternative? Share something I haven’t duly checked out first? I think that’s an abuse of your audience. There’s also my own personal interest to be considered, because there’s also no threshold at which I stop being just an individual, and instead turn into a PR outlet or a service. Sometimes, I’m just not interested - for example if it’s anything to do with sports, or Pokémon, or playing the cello. Those aren’t my things, and ultimately I have to still be me. The same goes for anyone regardless of their readership, and anybody who tries to dilute themselves based on perceived audience expectations is going to start producing crappy, forgettable work.

The other misconception I want to touch on is the “wire-tightrope of self-promotion” (O’Neill’s phrase, referenced by McClure with quotation-marks intact).

There are two points of vulnerability here: the slimy feeling of asking for a link, and yearning for readers (and thus validation).

It feels cruddy to share your work. It feels like you’re asking for a pat on the back, like the person who posts a selfie remarking on how ugly they are. It feels adolescent and needy, coupled with being exhibitionist and opening you up to ego-shattering pushback. It gets very slightly easier over time, but (in my experience), never really easy per se.

I’m at the point where I feel that my work is validated: by feedback, by readership, and by my own perception of whether or not I’m satisfied that I’ve made it as good as I can. However, the act of sharing it still makes me uncomfortable. Not the work itself, and not “putting it out there”, and not the fact that it is out there. Just the specific, actual act of telling people.

It’s so damned presumptuous. Publishing a piece is fine; let people find it via their feed-readers or by visiting a bookmark. But the tweet (or Facebook post) has a strong whiff of arrogance. I always tweet a link to my pieces - you may even have arrived here via one - and I cringe every time.

Here’s the only piece of advice I can give: you just have to push past it. Ultimately, you have to write for yourself, not anyone else. What I mean is that you have to feel good about the work itself. Can I stand behind this? Am I glad to put my name to this? If you can answer “yes” to those questions, all the other things at least have a chance of following afterwards naturally.

I also know all about yearning for readership. For responses, and for validation. Writers need to be read. It’s a very frustrating journey trying to build an audience; no question about it. Your mood and self-worth get dragged along behind you.

Again, the only advice that turned out to be useful is the tough, unhelpful-sounding cliché: I genuinely believe that if the work is true (resonant), readers will come. You may - and will - have to produce a lot of it, over a long time, but sooner or later the network effect will kick in if your output is consistent. There aren’t any shortcuts, so you’d better enjoy the process.

Just remember to do it for the work, not for the response. Respect your readers as you would a dear friend - they’re giving you the most valuable gift: attention - but don’t invite another cook into the kitchen.

I’ve always thought the best measure of a piece of writing was that you’d still write it even if no-one else would ever read it.

One last thing, and it’s a related matter. Is there a responsibility to respond to social mentions and emails? Not to promote or share, but just to respond in general - particularly when there hasn’t been any request for amplification.

I’ve not thought about it too much before (I’ve just let myself be guided by pragmatically-constrained courtesy, as with anything in life). Now that I do think about it: yes, I think there’s some degree of responsibility.

I check my favourites on twitter regularly (which of my tweets have been favourited by others), and I constantly find that people favourite my replies to them, even if those replies don’t have content that’s of objective or intrinsic value.

I see it all the time, and it implies a certain power relationship - reader versus writer - that always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I think that it also, at least emotionally, creates a responsibility to be respectful of people’s attention. Consequently, I’m making more of an effort to reply to my mentions.

My writing is supported by readers like you. Any contribution helps enormously.