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Against the Creator Economy

A manifesto for failure

Welcome to The Driftless. If you're reading this, you've likely interacted with my writing at some point in the past. Maybe you read my stuff back when I used to write on Medium. Maybe you found me on Farcaster. Or Instagram.

Regardless of how you came to be here, welcome! 👋

I'm excited to officially launch this newsletter. I chose Paragraph as a platform for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is that this platform feels new. Not shiny-toy new, but fresh in a way that other platforms are not. Because Paragraph is trying to do something novel with the way writing is created, deployed, consumed, and monetized. I won't pretend to understand everything about what's going on under the hood, but I'm curious (and excited) to explore more.

Consider this an experiment.

What I'd like to do in this space is write freely—about a number of topics that interest me. Mostly writing, creativity, and also technology—what it means to write and create in our rapidly changing times. New forms of technology are changing the way humans organize, socialize, create, and make money. Behind these nascent technologies loom significant threats, some new, some old: climate change, political polarization, economic stagnation, crumbling faith in legacy institutions.

I want to write about what it feels like to create within this unfolding environment. Because it feels like an old world is dying, but the next one hasn't been born yet. Maybe it's up to us to be the midwives to that new world—to assist, in whatever way we can, in bringing it forth.

Writing for traditional publications feels increasingly fruitless and unsatisfying. But online writing isn't much better. It's full of grifters and clickbait spiders, masters at luring you into their webs with inflammatory content. Monetization based on attention extraction.

I plan to do none of that here. Instead, I'm going to explore.

Last fall, I came across this post on Farcaster:

and I thought—yes, why not. It would be a helpful exercise, indeed, to clarify a short list of things I believe in. As kepano goes on to say, “a useful manifesto is one that someone should legitimately be able to take the opposite view on each of your principles otherwise it's simply an aspiration that everyone else is also shooting for.”

As you will shortly see, it will be easy for you to take the opposite view of what I believe in.

We’ll start with failure. I believe in failure.

I've been writing online, in some form or another, for over five years. In that time, I have started and quit on many platforms. It seems that every time I start one, I burn out, get discouraged, quit, and move on to somewhere else. For a while, I used to beat myself up about that. If only I could stick with it, I might make something of it. Other people don't seem to have that problem—they make themselves a home somewhere online and they churn out work after work. Why couldn't I do that, I'd ask myself.

But I'm not going to beat myself up anymore. Instead, I'm going to embrace failure as a necessary part of creating—and living.

The necessity of failure

There is a Catch-22 in the “creator economy” and it goes like this: publish consistently at a high velocity (preferably every day) so that you get enough eyeballs so that enough people subscribe so that enough people pay you so that you can create full-time so that you have enough time to publish consistently and at a high velocity (preferably every day).

Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, recommends publishing two feed posts per week and a couple of stories every day. TikTok says you should post between one to four times per day. Back when I wrote for Medium, the top accounts were posting an article virtually every day. Even on Substack, where long-form writing is the name of the game, the powers-that-be recommend posting once per week, as a baseline (hint hint: Substack thinks it should be even more than that).

This is, of course, fine if you’re posting memes or curating content you find elsewhere on the internet, but when it comes to new creative work, it’s absurd. A cursory glance at the output of pre-internet creatives reveals the stark difference. One of the inspirations I cite for my Substack, The Unnerving, is H.P. Lovecraft. Even in the most prolific year of his entire life (1920), Lovecraft wrote 8 stories. That’s one every six-and-a-half weeks—or six times too slow for Substack’s recommended cadence. During Lovecraft’s most creative stretch, 1926-1927, (in which he wrote The Call of Cthulhu, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Colour Out of Space, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), he wrote 10 stories in two years. That’s one story every ten weeks.

Or take the example of Wallace Stevens, who worked most of his life as an insurance executive and wrote poetry on the side. After the birth of his daughter, he found the demands of both full-time work and parenthood a “terrible blow to poor literature.” Stevens quit. He stopped writing for nine years.

What the “creator economy” needs is a deeper understanding of the range of work that falls beneath its wide umbrella and the time demands different types of work require. Otherwise, the “creator economy” feels like little more than a dream peddled by grifters to sensitive artists who don’t know any better. Grind every day producing “content” on six different platforms and one day you too can do this for “a living.”

But what a content creator produces, what they “do for a living,” and how all the pieces fit together, is usually hidden from their audience under a cloak of sprezzatura. Content creators pretend the work they do is spontaneous, easy, flowing, when it is often meticulously planned, difficult, and expensive (many content creators employs teams and have employees who work for them, but you’ll rarely see that behind the mask they put out to the world).

What matters is what you are creating, and what time and resources you have at your disposal. Only then can you produce an output that isn’t a guaranteed road to burnout. These constraints matter a lot.

What’s frustrating is that all these distinctions are rarely clarified, and never assessed independently. All content, whether it’s a cat video, a sonnet, a trailer for the next Marvel movie, a makeup tutorial, or a six-thousand word chapter in a fantasy trilogy—all of it is thrown together in the same feed-mediated soup, competing against each other for a finite number of eyeballs and clicks. The platform demands a particular cadence, regardless of output, and gives attention accordingly.

Of course, this relentless pace benefits the platforms, above all else. It certainly doesn’t benefit the creators, and I’m not sure it does much for consumers, either. I subscribe to a handful of newsletters, and aside from maybe one or two that I follow closely, the vast majority of the posts I receive in my inbox go unread. And I consider myself someone who reads a lot.

It’s no wonder most posts publish into the void. There is simply too much stuff for people to consume.

Last fall, I published thirteen stories to my Substack at an (almost) weekly cadence. By week three, it was obvious this was not a sustainable pace—even though I already had fifty stories “in the bank” and was spending each week editing and polishing them. By the time I reached December, I was burned out and needed a break. My plan then was to take two to three months off, write more stories, and come back fresh in the spring where I would post another batch. The goal was to settle into 26 stories in the first year—about one every other week. Still half of what Substack recommends.

But it quickly became obvious that even that was unsustainable. By year two, I would extinguish my bank of stories, and the time it took to edit each story made it difficult to write new ones. It also meant one-hundred percent of my creative time and energy would go toward The Unnerving. There would be no extra stories to publish elsewhere, and no time to explore other mediums like poetry or novels. There are also other publication strategies I want to explore for my stack, like podcasts (audio versions of my stories) and video.

It was also discouraging to see how fiction performs on Substack. Read: extremely poorly. The platform rounds up the top publications by category, and the fiction category is … completely devoid of fiction. Yes, the top five publications in “fiction” are nonfiction publications about fiction. Apparently, no one on Substack is reading fiction.

But that makes sense. Substack is a newsletter platform, and the newsletter is a completely different medium from fiction. I realized I was burning myself out because I had made a category error. My publishing cadence, while suited to the newsletter format, was unrealistic for the demands of fiction writing.

I also realized I was comparing myself to other Substack writers whose life situations were completely different from my own. It was an illuminating moment when I realized all of my favorite Substack writers had the following in common: they all worked full-time as creators, academics, or freelancers (no traditional salary jobs) and none of them had children (as far as I could tell). Even still, most of them found the burdens of Substack publishing difficult to bear. There was simply no way that I, with a full-time salaried job and a small child, could hope to match their output; I would only kill myself trying to do so.

Instead, I want to take a relaxed pace. I have no particular publishing goals or cadence to hit with this newsletter. I don't know when you will receive the next newsletter (maybe even never).

But I’m going to continue at a pace that is sustainable. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I do know it will be slow.

It may not be better for my metrics, but I think it will be better for everything else.

I named this newsletter after the small region in the midwest where I grew up. The Driftless is a unique ecological region that was spared by the glaciers of the last ice age which rendered most of the midwest flat and featureless. The Driftless, however, retained its original character, its “steep hills, forested ridges, deeply carved river valleys, and karst geology with spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams.”

I want this newsletter to be a small, bizarre, idiosyncratic corner of the internet. Where much of the online discourse has been flattened by relentless quantity over quality, ideological head-nodding, and shameless self-promotion, The Driftless seeks to retain the “steep hills and forested ridges” of a pre-always-online literary world.

Here we believe in:

  • Slowness over speed

  • Rest over hustle

  • Exploration over goals

  • Obscurity over fame

  • Difficulty over ease

  • Failure over success

  • Silence over noise

If you agree with this approach, I want you here. Comment, introduce yourself. Tell me what you like. Tell me what you want to see.

I’ll tell you what I want to see: the strange, the bizarre, the hard-to-categorize, the heart-felt, the cringe, the rough and messy edges, the failures. I can do my part by offering some of that here.

Welcome to The Driftless.

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