I Was a Content Creator for 72 Hours
Boy was I miserable. But I learned a few things about sustainable internet-ing.
Content Creator: a person who makes videos or posts for any social platform – TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Youtube – with the goal of amassing followers. If you amass enough followers, you are anointed an influencer.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I don’t know what started it - I’m sure a therapist could tell me that it hearkens back to getting a like on my first Instagram post in 2012 - but there has been a growing desire to try what Packy McCormick calls The Great Online Game. The theory goes that because the internet is close to infinite there are close-to-infinite opportunities if played the right way.
For example, if there are five billion people on the internet, and you convince just 0.01% of them to pay you for your product or show up for your promotion, that’s 500,000 customers. Or if you start from the bottom up, your potential next business partner or lifelong friend is hiding somewhere in the corner of the internet; plant your flag, be yourself, and you’ll eventually attract those people to you. All you need to get started is a username.
So for 72 hours I got active. The plan was to engage with this internet social media thing and start playing the Great Game. Over the short term I was going to start small: one TikTok video a day and one post on Twitter about anything I was learning (very general, I know). I also planned to continue writing this, The Reflection Point, once a week. I also planned to keep spending 99% of my time and brainpower on the very real company I work for that pays me real money to support a real life. I envisioned myself as a trolling boat (not trawling!) with multiple lines in the water, passively seeing if any got a fish to bite.
I started on a Friday morning. By Sunday I was miserable.
This Is Your Brain On Internet
While I haven’t seen any of the social media documentaries like The Social Dilemma, I’m guessing the gist is that they hijack our dopamine systems to get us to constantly stay on their platform, all while heightening disinformation. But that’s just if you’re consuming the content. From what I experienced, once you start to create the content and compete for attention, everything gets so much worse.
The minute I started it’s like my entire brain turned into a content machine. Every single thought I had was immediately followed with “that could be a tweet.” Every single location I walked by prompted “that could be a good place for a video.” I saw a baby in sunglasses and tweeted “Babies in sunglasses are the best.” I’ve since deleted it but why on earth did the world need to know that? And by world I mean my 46 followers?
Your mind starts to think in potential threads (Twitter-speak for tweets that are linked together, like a little story) and engagement. If you stub your toe on the sidewalk your brain lights up, not in pain, but in opportunity. Is there a lesson here? Is there a twitter thread? Is there a funny video to make? “5 things I learned about mastering networking by stubbing my toe”.
Even your individual thoughts get chopped up into 280 characters, Twitter’s maximum. Time alone with yourself is supposed to be like floating down a meandering river of your own thoughts, following each one casually, never knowing where it will lead. You can put your phone on airplane mode and all distraction is gone.
Once you dive into content creation, that divide is forever erased. I literally started forming thoughts into tweets, prepackaging them for delivery. That meandering river turned into Class V rapids - I never let a thought run on its own, but immediately strategized about how to phrase it in a tweet-friendly way. Every moment became a potential content opportunity I couldn’t pass up. For someone who gets no greater joy than writing these longer Reflection Point posts that you are (hopefully still) reading now, the loss of extended thinking was actually pretty frightening.
What Are You Playing For?
Given all the downsides, at this point you might be asking yourself why anyone would actively “create” for these platforms. I’ve found that there are actually two viable paths:
Be a professional: welcome to the big leagues. This is your full time job. You are competing on likes, followers, and promotion dollars against other social media athletes around the world. You spend 8+ hours a day planning, executing, and editing your videos, tweets and content. You actively look at the comments and respond to each one to create a sense of “engagement” and “community”. You study the algorithm. You partner with other pros to expand your reach. Done right, you can make $17.5mm a year just like Charli.
Be an intentional amateur: I do think there are rewards at the lower and middle tiers of success - with little downside and always the chance of massive upside - which makes the Great Game worth playing. This can be as simple as making a few thousand people laugh with your videos on TikTok (the world could use a bit more laughter). Or it could be finding your tribe of like-minded enthusiasts on Twitter - basketball, biographies by Robert Caro, being a woman in the workplace etc. Reputation is definitely a form of currency, and somehow Twitter has become a place where you can actually build yours, no matter how small the scale is.
Trouble comes when you don’t know which path you are on, or you try and blend the two together. Are you an amateur who all of the sudden finds themselves constantly posting, playing for likes and followers? This is as absurd as a rec-league player jumping onto an NBA court. Not only are you playing with the odds stacked against you, but you are also hurting your real job that is supposed to be the main game you’re playing.
Or are you an unintentional amateur? This can mean posting rants about politics, sports, your boss, or other social media users, all the while forgetting that this is all very publicly accessible. Or it could mean randomly posting things you think the internet will want to hear. You basically become a derivative internet person, losing all form of authenticity, waiting for someone to pat you on the head with a like for saying the same thing everyone else is.
Know your path, choose your path, and make sure to stay on it.
The Real Rules of the Game
Over 72 hours I very much learned the existing rules of the game, or at least what the already-successful content creators claim the rules of the game are. Tweet 5 times a day and post a video on TikTok 3 times a day - you never know what will hit. Quantity matters. Create create create. “It’s the algorithm fam.” Engage with the community. Spend an hour commenting on other people’s posts. Follow people so they will follow back. “My goal is 3,000 followers in 30 days. Here’s how I’ll do it.”
What a nightmare.
Fortunately, with the right rules, I think it’s possible for intentional amateurs to play the Great Game well. Here’s what I think can work:
Your own life comes first. Any pursuit that dilutes, diminishes, or distracts from your current job or relationships should be avoided. This is about enhancing your life. There is nothing wrong with cutting it off if you see negative impacts.
This is not about likes or followers. This is about finding your people (that 0.00001%) through posting about things you actually enjoy or have some expertise in, not what you think the internet wants to hear.
This is long term. There is almost a guarantee that you are not an influencer in 5 years. Certainly almost nothing will happen in the short term. Over the medium term you have the potential to have meaningful interactions with new people.
Avoid the downside. The internet is public. Pretend you’re in front of Congress and they pull up your tweet or TikTok from a year ago. Are you putting things out in the world you want to stand by? Or would you squirm like Cousin Greg in Succession:
"Is this your Tweet?”
Quality, not quantity. There is a push by the gurus to always be getting something out, whatever it is. Have some intentionality about what you post - who you’re helping and what you’re trying to say. Speak less if you don’t have anything to say at all. It’s not unreasonable to think of your public presence as a positive to anyone who sees it. It can be a record of things you stand by, a statement of who you are and how you think. This is planting your flag. This will attract the right people, slowly.
To summarize: shoot for the moon without shooting yourself in the foot, all the while planning to stay firmly on Earth.
The internet is wild. It’s full of stupidity, hatred, misinformation, love, humor, and cutting edge intelligence - all at a level humans have never seen before. Social media, done right, might just be a way to filter the internet down to its very best parts.