Are You Begging for Eyes in the Attention Economy?
This Week In Writing, we explore the internet's move away from the attention economy and how writers can make the web more personal
I’m old enough to remember the internet’s first blogs. They were personal websites built with creativity and lots of really bad “under construction” gifs. Each site was a place of personal expression, and we formed little communities through our web rings and blogrolls (lists of links to our blogging friends, for any of you who don’t know what this gibberish means).
Enter Facebook and Twitter.
Most of us quickly moved our online presence to the walled gardens. Gone were the days of unique pages and creativity. Instead, we had uniformity. In the early days of both platforms, things were exciting. The lack of originality didn’t matter because everyone we knew was there.
Then came the algorithm and ad revenue. It no longer mattered who we followed; our ideas and thoughts were carved up and fed to a fraction of our communities and intermixed with ads and targeted “viral” content.
For the last decade, we’ve been driven by the attention economy. Commercial platforms trained us to chase digital affirmation and, in exchange, allowed our ideas to be seen by more eyeballs.
From a writing perspective, the attention economy forced a lot of good writers to create uninteresting content. Writing for SEO became a goal. Not telling a story or inspiring or educating, just tricking the feeds into thinking the words were valuable.
As a result, most web searches are basically useless. Samir Talwar explains that “Google broke the web,” and I agree. But so did Twitter, Facebook, and any other company that figured out how to keep us in their walled gardens while making crazy ad revenue off of our attention.
And, you know what? We allowed it to happen. Sure, we might not have realized it was happening until it was too late. But we were complicit nonetheless.
I’ve written my share of SEO-focused content for a few different clients. I know most writers have. That content, unfortunately, drives attention and builds audiences. Again, not because it’s of any quality, but because it’s what the ad-based feeds crave.
While feeding the SEO machine, we also gave up parts of ourselves. Not only were our identities and creative websites lost to uniform profiles, but our voices were also lost. Blog became a four-letter-word and looked down upon. We all accepted that people no longer wanted to read our mundane thoughts. But where did that idea originate?
Twitter’s implosion and Mastodon’s rise have shown that it didn’t have to be this way. We lost a decade of creativity and blogging in exchange for making a handful of companies more wealthy than most countries. Yet, an ad- and algorithm-free world is possible.
Mastodon is open-source and ad-free. People are kind, and conversations are exciting. It’s a place where people share their mundane thoughts and others actually respond.
I posted about accidentally forgetting my groceries in the car overnight, and people chimed in with concern. Frankly, I was shocked by the response. It’s not something I’ve experienced on ad-driven sites. That type of post would never make it through the feeds and would have been driven into obscurity.
We writers can help breed this resurgence of the community-driven internet or continue to fuel the attention economy. I choose the former. Not only is it more fun, but it connects us through ideas and reflects that we’re all individuals, not some polished brand.
To stop acting like a brand, I’ve restyled my website to highlight my personality. I’m using Mastodon to microblog the mundane and ordinary, which I find extremely interesting. I’m also rebuilding my writing community, which you’ll learn about next week.
Writers can lead the way to a community-led internet resurgence. Our words are powerful, and so are the audiences that read them. Let’s invest in spaces that build us up, not profit from molding us into their image.
How are you escaping the attention economy?
Speaking of Comments…
Last week’s discussion about harmful words seemed to incite some readers. Disagreeing with a point is one thing — you’re welcome to your opinion. However, a few people went out of their way to cram responses with as many potentially harmful words as possible. One comment was even flagged as obscene and removed, the first time that’s happened in over a year of writing this newsletter.
I love when readers respond, and I welcome your opinions on everything I write. However, I will not tolerate statements that are harmful to others. This newsletter is intended as a place to grow and learn together. We can only do that with the understanding that the comments are a place for respect for each other. I will maintain a healthy and safe comment section and moderate comments when necessary.
One Quick Thing About Mastodon
A few of you wrote in confused about Mastodon. I’m not an expert, but I am enjoying learning as I go. Here’s some of the advice I shared with fellow writers this week that you may find helpful:
Mastodon differs from other social media networks because it’s more a protocol than a specific platform. Tony Subblebine explains that Mastodon is like email — it doesn’t matter what email provider you sign up with because you can communicate with anyone.
As such, each Mastodon server (each domain) is run independently. Since the Mastodon software is open-source, there is no ad revenue to keep the servers running. Individuals or nonprofit organizations run most servers and accept donations. Medium’s Mastodon service is one of a tiny number of commercial servers. Because servers can be expensive, many limit the number of signups to ensure they can handle the server costs. That’s why some people run into trouble with the signup process and find closed servers.
I’m on the mastodon.online server, which the main Mastodon nonprofit organization runs. While signups are closed, I can generate an invite link that allows you to sign up. Once you’re on a server, everything else is very familiar — you search for people, follow them, and interact.
One of the really fun things about Mastodon is the Federated timeline — basically a live feed of all the domains connected to yours. It’s exciting seeing a real-time worldwide conversation and being able to interact accordingly.
Hashtags are essential on Mastodon. There’s no platform-wide search and no algorithm. So, to find people interested in things you are, you’ve got to use hashtags. It’s helpful. Many folks use the #introduction hashtag to talk about themselves and pepper it with hashtags that align with their interests. It’s a great way to connect with people.
Use my invite link and join the Mastodon party. It’s a lot of fun!
Speaking of a Lot of Fun…
I have a huge announcement next week. Make sure you’re subscribed to This Week In Writing so you don’t miss it.
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Speaking of Not Missing Out…
Sinem Günel’s free Medium Writing Masterclass is tomorrow. Her courses are by far the most informative I’ve ever seen. Plus, Sinem is all about building community, too. Check out her class to learn more about upping your writing game.
I'm not abandoning the attention economy, I'm revolutionizing it with spectacular story telling that weaves in a natural flow of search engine based writing. This is a skill that not many have but any writer can obtain with enough practice.
The fact that SEO broke the web is a testimony to the fact that people keyword stuff their fluff, and that good writers abandon SEO, leaving nothing but crap. Food for thought Justin, you're an amazing writer and IF you choose to incorporate SEO into your blog without selling out to writing garbage, then you too can revolutionize the writing world.
That said I'm all about writing that honors thought sharing and the mundane. These are my favorite things to read, so I'll be checking out Mastodon. While I'm throwing my two cents in there, can I just say that I hope other writers will learn to use AI to create new ideas, incorporate information they didn't previously have, all while altering the AI generated writing into fresh human insights through merciless editing. Please note I'm advocating for adding AI to your toolbox, not mindlessly generating content and then posing it as your own work. PS I have a you can't make a hater out of me and I don't respond to haters policy.
Endless love to you writers; keep them keys clicking.
This insight, carried around, early on ... by me. Now: Masses turn to the same Insight. I write because I love to create. And, gone are the days when actually The Numbers En Masse of Attention Givers meant something - to me. I care about Loveful Conversations. Period.