Author’s Note: I’m currently in the process of migrating old blog posts to this new system. That may mean some links, syntax highlighting, and other details are broken or missing temporarily. Sorry for the inconvenience!
The only winning move is not to play. —WarGames
The internet is powered by clicks. On the majority of sites you visit, each page you view is generating a small amount of revenue for the content provider. The more clicks you make, the more money that site is going to reel in. As a content farm, a site like YouTube has every incentive to keep you watching videos as long as humanly possible.
Do Things. Tell People.
Back in 2012, I read a blog post by Carl Lange (@csl_) called Do things, tell people. His audience may have been software folks, but I think the message really applies to anyone who aspires to create, to innovate, and to be successful. First, make something you’re excited about. Then, share it with the world. Make people sit up and take notice!
One of the consequences of a click-based internet marketplace is that the priority gets shifted. The idea isn’t “tell people because you made things,” but rather “make things so you can tell people!”
When the priority is clicks, the goal is to make something barely good enough to get attention. Any effort beyond that is wasteful — you could be using it to create another piece of content!
The Big Dick Joke
The most successful video I ever made was a song about dicks. Seth MacFarlane performed a comedy bit about female nudity in films. I made a parody of it within twelve hours, and it blew up. It popped up on digital news media, television, even (curiously) a newspaper.
I consider the video to be an embarassment. Not because it was crude; not because it was a stupidly obvious idea; not even because my mother had people approaching her in church to let her know they’d seen the video.
I made the video so I could tell people. It wasn’t well-produced, it was a rush job. That video got a lot of clicks because it was designed to get a lot of clicks. It wasn’t designed to be good.
YouTube has a Creator Playbook designed to advise videomakers. You’ll find advice on how to organize your videos into playlists. They’ll tell you about the importance of uploading on a regular schedule. You know how folks are always asking you to subscribe? That’s in the Playbook too.
What isn’t in the Playbook — quite conspicuously absent — is how to make good videos.
Redefining Good Enough
A consequency of “making things to tell people”, is that we have to redefine “good enough.” When writing a novel, or a screenplay, the time it takes varies wildly. You can work on something for a month, several years, or even discard it and start over. The pressure of click-based media is constant. Even if you don’t have a fixed schedule, there’s pressure. People will ask “When’s your next video?” And if it takes too long, your numbers will start to plummet.
“Good enough” in the world of online video doesn’t mean “I’m comfortable with where this is, and I’m ready to move on to the next thing.” It means “I can’t afford to put this off any longer. It’ll have to do.”
Even after unmonetizing all my content, the social pressure that comes along with an online audience — a group of people who are ready at an instant to consume content — put me in a place where I wasn’t doing my best work. My lighting, cameras, editing, effects, they had all improved. But taking the time to think through an idea was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
I want to stop briefly and point out that I know that this is a personal failing. There are plenty of people who are able to subject their art to scruitiny, deadlines, and financial repercussions, without it seeming to affect the quality of their work. Social media may incentivize getting as much out as quickly as possible — but it doesn’t mean we have to listen.
There are many people who I look up to who avoid compromising their work.
I wasn’t able to.
Cashing in my Chips
I posted my last video for a while, on my own terms. I don’t know what’s next for me. I had honestly hoped that creating YouTube videos would help me access more of my creative side, rather than inhibit it. I was a bit foolish in that respect.
What I’m focusing on now is writing. It feels like a good idea to refocus some of that energy previously spent on thumbnail optimization and rapid editing, and instead: simply learn how to write an idea down. Maybe a screenplay. Maybe a book. Maybe nothing more than a bunch of rambly blog posts. And maybe if I make something that translates to video, it might pop up on YouTube one of these days.
But for now, I’m happy to stop chasing clicks, and try to rediscover my own good enough.