On being the last real word-wrangler in a sea of growth-hackers with newsletters.
I almost titled this essay, “How to Be An Influencer Without Selling Your Soul.” Almost. Yet that felt too sleazy. I thought better to steal the title of an obscure essay by one of my favorite writers, because the sentiment of what I’m about to tell you is the same. I’m here to poke the untouchable bear — the dudes who write like chat-bots. The ones who tell you to optimize your headlines and content for maximum views. The ones with newsletters and online courses and webinars. The ones with no soul.
(If you would like to skip the raging inferno right down to key tips on how to be an influencer without selling your soul, I’ve labeled that section below, about 16 paragraphs down.)
I am, unwantedly and unwittingly, considered an “influencer.” 50,000+ followers on the Internet between Medium, Instagram and my epic ADHD-on-mushrooms shit-show of a Twitter account. It is a bullshit label. It just means I have an audience, which I choose — with great intention — to satisfy by writing stories of overcoming mental health challenges, empowering others to fight for social justice, educating people on how systems inside systems work, and waxing poetic about culture, anti-intellectualism, love and loss. Above all, I have but one rule: Never waste someone’s time. That’s all. Against all odds, it’s the only north-star I’ve ever needed.
Here we are, now, in a very different place than when we launched the pirate ship just a shade over two years ago. People think I am important. I hate to break it to you, but I am every bit as painfully ordinary as I was when I started this journey. Still living in the same one-bedroom condo. Still writing on the same computer. Still haven’t done my laundry.
Because of this singularly bizarre brand of quasi-celebrity, brands — generally blockchain or software or other late-capitalist circle-jerk drivel — reach out to me on a weekly basis for “mutually beneficial marketing collaboration opportunities,” which is code for, “No one knows who we are. Please write about us. We can’t promise payment at this time.”
Real estate agents I’ve never met, nor would ever down a beer with, also make it a point to slide into my DMs. Multiple psychics and “healers” have done the same. I have no interest in serving these masters. I’ve listened to enough elevator pitches to know that I should always take the stairs. But this isn’t about those people, necessarily.
This is about the growth-hackers. This is about the “morning routine” coaches and spiritual gurus. This is about the cat who bootstrapped and scrapped his way from a trust fund and a semester abroad into a startup, and now he’s sipping Soylent in his Silicon Valley starter castle with his smoking hot significant other, or he’s a digital nomad wandering Peru or the Philippines curiously studying the culture like Christopher Columbus as re-imagined by Frank Capra, a Peter Pan-ass man-child with a GoPro, a laptop, and a plastered-on smile that screams, “but I’m so well-intentioned!” while he playfully indulges in his fetish for “exotic-looking” women.
Maybe he wakes at 5 a.m, and makes time out for “mindfulness.” He’s 10x’d his income, 100x’d his engagement, 1000x’d his productivity with 10,000 hacks they never taught you in school. And he has a fucking newsletter. (They all have newsletters!) Clickbait headlines like “9 Ways to Deal With Crippling Self-Doubt” and bold recommendations like “go for a run”, or “get in touch with your spiritual side.”
He thinks he’s figured out the keys to success — the only keys to success … his keys of success — without recognizing the amount of luck and advantages he had on his way to wherever it was he got to, and he’s therefore extrapolating this path toward his narrow definition of achievement into a universal tautology, for everyone who wants to achieve anything. He prays at the altar of Sweat Equity, while instructing his audience to “work smarter, not harder.” He’s poisoning you. He’s making you dumber. He’s setting you up for failure. And he’ll do so for the low low price of $297 — a $5,000 value if you take his eight-week program. (Apologies: That’s Rex-Kwon-Do.)
This is what happens when the Internet isn’t a true meritocracy. (Medium, with rare notable exception, is close.) Common sense shit you learned in fourth grade, written at a fourth-grade level, gets elevated to the same level as elegiac dispatches about immigrant babies being held in cages without pillows, soap or toothbrushes. Quality is, apparently, in the algorithm of the beholder.
We now have pretend influencers who write like influencers about places and products they’re not sponsored by. We have opulent surprise wedding proposals that were actually pitched, branded and planned months in advance. We’ve commodified ourselves into lifestyle brands, auctioned off to the highest bidder — or any bidder, really, so long as we can hashtag live our best life.
No, I didn’t ask about your skin care routine. No, I don’t want to make money in the real estate market. No, I don’t want to find my tribe. I take a shower every day. I have a day job with great health benefits. And “find your tribe” is some Caucasian-ass appropriation SoulCycle euphemism for “in lieu of doing things that make people want to talk to you, here’s how to take a good guess on where to find people worth talking to.”
Speaking of caucasity, some of the first-world problems detailed by the Influencer Industrial Complex are the biggest crock of crocodile tears since pre-guillotine French Aristocracy.
- “I can’t reply to all my messages or comments and some people get mad!”
- “Some people lash out at me for just being myself!”
- “People only want me for my Internet presence!”
- “I don’t know who I am anymore!”
- “I don’t know if I’ve monetized enough!”
Let them eat cake. First of all, if you are public on the Internet, you are going to make people mad. I have trolls, haters and harassers coming out of my damn eyeballs. And I’m a white guy. (Public-facing women and people of color have it far worse — as if systemic oppression wasn’t bad enough.) You cannot develop a seven-figure audience and expect none of them to hate-read, or hate-watch. That’s not how notoriety works. Mariano Rivera was unanimously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The rest of us have to put up with fuckery, and none of the rest of us are the Mariano Rivera of anything.
Second: People are going to use you. The more you have to offer — good words, an effective go-to-market strategy, charisma, a staggeringly high follower count — the more you’ll be asked to give. I know how hard it is to say no to things you really want. I know how hard it is not to indulge in your every whim at every thing that’s handed to you that you may or may not deserve. The line between who you are, what you do, and where you’re asked to go will blur, merge, fold in upon itself. It’s all part of the ride. Let yourself be used by the people you want to be used by. No, that’s not innuendo. Though it’s also innuendo.
Being an influencer is hard. You know what’s harder? Slaving away at a job you don’t want, doing things you don’t like, working with people you hate, for a boss you’re afraid of, making things no one needs, to pay off debts to schools that didn’t teach you anything, afraid of being replaced at any given moment, while the sand in the hourglass irreversibly drips into the lower vase.
You know what’s easy? The way I sleep knowing my current day job is probably the last real day job I will ever have. And I love that day job, but if I was fired tomorrow, I’d either be unemployed for five minutes, or I’d run for office, or I would travel the world, freelancing, writing only what I wanted. God that feels fucking good to say. Yes, I know how privileged that makes me. Yes, I also know how privileged that makes you, too, fellow influencer. I didn’t earn this position. The algorithms blessed me. I lucked into it … and so did you.
And yet, even more than the clickbait and blockchain and growth-hacks and mind-fucks and crock-tears and man-children and digital wandering and Soylent and solopreneurship and below-the-surface fetishization of Asian women, militant adherence to metrics and KPIs, blatant plagiarism of prominent writers (including me, for like the 794th time), the seething sexism of the fellas and the “sex sells” vapidity of the women, and the impossible standards and lifestyles and squishy spirituality that gets preached to high heaven and gets dumbed down to the lowest common denominator is this: You’re not writers. You’re not artists. You’re not craftsmen. And it’s disingenuous to portray yourselves as such. You’re salespeople dressed up as content marketers. Just say it.
Your prose reads like AI-crafted Millennial refrigerator poetry. Your #SponCon reads like a school spirit cheer. Your free content is the top of your funnel. Your e-books and webinars are below. You’re wasting people’s time.
Now. For the rest of you: Here’s how to get to a place where people want you without having to resort to such superfluous sleaze.
How to Become An Influencer Without Selling Your Soul
Alright, this is pretty straightforward.
- Whatever your chosen Medium (see what I did there?), get really, really good at it. If you’re a writer, get better at writing. Practice an hour a day. Take classes. Read better writers and deconstruct them. (My current favorites are Brianna Wiest and Scott Galloway, who I’m tagging not so I get their attention [I won’t] but so you can just click and explore their borderline-transcendent bodies of work.) Go out and live and find interesting stories to tell. Love and experience loss. Take a metric hellaton of mushrooms. Whatever it takes. If you’re a photographer or musician, the medium’s different but the process is exactly the same.
- Make friends with your audience and your peer group. This is a no-brainer, and I see too many people mess this up. I clap for every comment that’s not a troll-job. Lets you know I see you. I read other writers and comment on their stuff. Not to gain favor or fawn, but out of genuine appreciation. I make friends with my readers and peer-group because I find people fascinating. That’s the only reason to do this. Unless, of course, you don’t like having friends.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. If your essay from three months ago is stuck on 172 views, and your last essay was three months ago, then it’s time to level up. I posted every day for three months in 2018. That’s what got me here. Now I can post like once a week … but if I went a month or six? That’d sink the Pirate Ship.
- Say something of value. Remember my cardinal rule? “Never waste someone’s time.” If what you’re saying is neither new information, old information presented in a new way, or entertaining as all hell, then you’re wasting someone’s time. You’re going to suck at this at first. That’s okay. You know the saying about sex with 18 year-old dudes, right? “They have no idea what they’re doing, but they can do it all night long?” You’re going to be an 18 year-old dude in bed for a while. Keep fucking. Keep experimenting. All night long. Listen for feedback. You’ll get the hang of it.
- Only enter into collaborations with brands you already have great affinity for. You know who I do #SponCon for? A cannabis distillate company based out of Colorado. Why? Because I really, really love their product and they started getting sales when I linked to them in a column I don’t even remember writing. They reached out to me. I would also welcome collabs from: Spotify, Topo Chico (*grits teeth* now a Coca-Cola company), New Era, Lucky Brand Jeans, Patagonia and SXSW.
- Use your powers, platform and privilege for good. There’s real-live fascism happening in the United States at this very moment. The least you could do is speak out against it, and not pretend like it’s not happening, and not write like some kind of neutral “hear both sides” automaton. You don’t have to do it all the time. Just more often than never. Also, make sure your actions match your words. Don’t be a slack-tivist, a one-note journo-hack, or performative in your “woke-ness”. Let Shaun King do that for you.
- Every time you level up, be gracious to the people who got you there. Say thank you, ya prick.
- Give back. No two people take the same path up the mountain, but if you see someone trailing you, the least you can do is pass the rope down and coach ’em up behind you. And if they reach heights you never dreamed, be their biggest fan.
There’s a company in Austin called “Live A Great Story.” I’m not affiliated with them in any way, shape or form. I don’t know who runs the jawn. I don’t even necessarily know what they do. But their stickers are everywhere, all over town. And it’s a delightful little mantra.
Life is a series of stories. Some short, like the time I was jailed in the same holding cell as a famous rapper (weird place to say, “hey man, love your work”). Some long, like my three-decade battle with depression. Some even longer, like the arc of history that bends fractiously toward justice. “Live A Great Story.” That means something.
I think we forget that all knowledge, all wisdom, all passion, all data, all planning, all memory, all expectation, all paradigms … they’re all stories. Stories we tell ourselves to soothe, calm, inform, engage, enrage, activate, entertain, seduce, sell and so forth. Not enough people ask themselves these two fundamental questions: What stories are we telling? And what stories are we living?
To be an influencer means to live a compelling a story, to tell a compassionate one, and to both live and tell it as well and precisely as possible. What passes for influence in most corners of the internet is nothing more than charismatic models, salespeople and brand advocates with impeccable cinematography, a clean and dreamy aesthetic, clear calls to action, well-worn ad copy tropes, and — of course — a webinar where you can learn all the tricks of the trade for just a shade over what you’d be willing to pay. Fuck all that. You’d be better off taking your money and buying a flight to the west coast, where you could woozily live out new stories to tell.
I am a storyteller. I am not an influencer, and I am not the cosmos. I am a blip upon a blip within the cosmos. My Medium page’s expressed purpose is simply this: When I die, I don’t want my stories to die with me. I don’t want my words to go unwritten.
And on my epitaph, I’d simply like the following:
“I hope I didn’t waste your time.”