On a long enough timeline everyone has a strike price, or so it seems. Few talk about the cruel irony of the online space–the anti-establishment becoming the establishment, and when they become the thing that they once sought refuge against, they try to convince you that this establishment is different. We’re creatures of order with selective memory, and what was once an idealistic rebellion becomes corporatized, systemized, anything-ized. After the dot.com crash of 2000 (I remember it well because I was one of many who lost their job when my dot.com blew through their VC money), we temporarily returned to the perceived safety of brick and mortar companies until a new generation cropped up, the crash being a distant memory, launching companies that were just as insane and overvalued as the ones that came before. But we’re different, they emphatically insisted. Not really. Maybe they have better haircuts? Fancier footwear? Hoodies?
In 2002, I launched an online literary journal because I was tired of seeing good writing routinely rejected by print publications because the writer wasn’t connected or had the means to attend an exclusive MFA program. Or perhaps the writer didn’t know X famous writer, attend Y reading series. The writer couldn’t work the room because they were denied access to the room’s address. I was tired of a limited few benefitting from privilege and access. Perhaps I was also rallying against my own disappointing experience at the Columbia MFA program, where I felt like a complete outsider.
Back then, no one took online lit mags seriously. Paper lent you legitimacy because who would go to AWP with a laptop? Aesthetically, few could compete with the grandeur of the print establishment with their glossy covers and bold-face contributors, and don’t even think that your work would be considered in any of Best American series let alone win prizes. But I kept on trucking. I invested my own money in a site redesign and ultimately succumbed to the paper peer pressure. I spent thousands of dollars because I loved what I did. Even on the days when I had to haul heavy boxes (slim books are surprisingly heavy when you’re moving a few hundred of them from a taxi up two flights of stairs) or I encountered a snobby writer (or forty) who thought my “little” publication was “adorable”, and sure they’ll deign to submit the story they torched in the trash bin because they’re charitable too. Never did I consider making money off my literary journal because I felt, perhaps too idealistically, that money would taint it as money tends to do. Money would drive editorial decisions. Money would force me to sit in a room with people I didn’t respect much less like because one has to work a room and be part of the scene in order to be taken seriously. Not relying on profitability allowed me to say fuck you, I’ll do my own thing over here whether you like me or it, or not. And then I stopped publishing the magazine because I didn’t love it like I used to, and I walked away and watched as a succession of others took its place. I watched online magazines gain the respect, credibility and authority they deserved. I saw online editors blurbing books and hosting conferences. Part of me was really happy, but a small, growing part of me was sad and it wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered why.
I left three years of working in marketing at a major publishing company because I couldn’t stomach the business of writing. Editorial meetings would make me violently ill with talk of platform and reach trumping the quality of a writer’s work. As long as a book could sell, who cared about the contents of the pages? I witnessed talented friends tirelessly sending out manuscripts that would invariably get rejected while I sat in an editorial meeting pontificating our ceiling bid on the media darling of the moment. I’m not naive. I know publishing isn’t a non-profit, but as someone who writes for the sheer joy of it, it was hard for me to detangle the bitter taste from the business with the sweetness of the art. Some can and do it brilliantly; I couldn’t.
I then spent the best and worst four years of my career building a company that specialized in social media marketing. This was a time when social was relatively free. There existed no algorithms to game or pay-for-plays to consider. Social media was unchartered, messy, and I loved it. I loved experimenting in an era when people didn’t take what we did all that seriously. This was a time when sending someone product was good enough to secure a review.
Then something happened. So quickly I was nearly bowled over by it. Overnight, the people who were once content with receiving free product were commanding fees equivalent to a month of my income. Fees for a single photo or appearance. Fees for a return (qualitative or otherwise) of which we were uncertain. It was as if the industry moved from 0 to 90, bypassing a cruising speed. The industry shifted from slightly advantageous to grand larceny. Suddenly, I was dealing with agents who acted as if their clients were the modern day Linda Evangelista–refusing to wake up for less than $10,000 a day. And while I believe that people should be compensated well for their work, some of these fees were a laugh riot. I’d pass on proposals to my clients, to which they’d respond: you must be joking.
This was the new era when everyone was an expert and everyone was in the business of brand ME. This was the era when kids became props and sales vehicles, and some bloggers were duplicitous when it came to disclosure or even their true feelings about a product or brand. If I hear one more time: I’ve been using X product for Y months when they signed for the Fedex package yesterday, I’m going to scream. This was the era when several friends were shocked that I didn’t add affiliate links to the cookbooks I posted or for the books I read. Why would I do that? Just because there’s money to be made doesn’t mean I need to make it.
Lately, a lot of my friends who are trained and established in their fields are losing out to the flavors of the moment. They’re losing out to outfit bloggers who have 500K Instagram followers and LikeIttoKnowIt affiliate links that serve as permanent wallpaper on their sites. They’re losing out to bloggers who have little design experience, training, or point-of-view claiming they designed collections that we know they didn’t design. They’re losing out to “social media experts” who undercharge and overdeliver. “Marketers”, who don’t fundamentally understand basic marketing principles or the complexities of a business, are creating challenges and friction for everyone else in the field. Beware of anyone who calls themselves a “growth hacker”.
The establishment had a dam for a reason. No one wanted to drown in the event of a flood.
And while there are incredible writers and artists who’ve found audience and livelihood as a result of social media, most bloggers are pale photocopies of extraordinary originals. New bloggers immediately ask: How can I make money? When can I get free stuff? When can I get a book deal? Since publishing a book these days is as meaningful and disposable as a business card.
How do you explain that nothing is truly free and that making money comes at a cost and the result of hard work? I don’t dismiss the hard work of so many talented people online, but I question and challenge the sea-of-same which has become increasingly ubiquitous. The flood of beige drowning color. I worry when one blogger is completely indistinguishable from another, down to their peony bouquet and Old Navy comped clothing. And the business side of me, the one who has to pay rent and student loans, has to play into this to some degree (hence, why I can never give specifics or name names because I would actually like to pay off my debt while I am still alive) while the other side of me is washing the taste of all of it out of my mouth. Recently, I attempted to negotiate a deal on behalf of one of my clients for a cause campaign and the person on the other end of the correspondence wrote that the influencer could only write about a cause in the context of an outfit post. I paused and re-read the email several times, wondering if the person on the other end didn’t see this as incredibly inappropriate. Can no one take a day off from affiliate links to use their influence for something good? Must every post and moment somehow contribute to brand ME? Must everything bear a price tag? Are people lauded for weekly “coffee talk” posts because our bar for storytelling is set that low? Does that one slightly revelatory, yet highly edited, post elevate one’s perception of authenticity? Is faux-real the new real?
Behind the scenes, in texts and chats, many of us wonder when this bubble will burst. When the next wave of anti-establishment shakes down this Beige New Order, possibly normalizing it or at least alleviating the insanity of it. A time when my friends will actually get work again and not have to side-step those who have unfathomable fan counts. A time when people stop monetizing life’s real moments. A time when people will create for the sake of creating without thinking about ways in which it can be transactional. I don’t want to be sold to, indirectly or directly, every single day. I get enough of that from the world around me. Blogs used to be my refuge, but now most of them are walking advertisements. Maybe the voice is more conversational (although not really because brands are basically in the mimicry game of what’s working with influencers), but the message is still the same. Buy this because I’m obsessed with this thing this week until I become obsessed with that new thing next week.
Tell me stories. Don’t sell me things.