How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self Promotion

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love ‘Self Promotion’

Introduction

One of the greatest tricks the Devil ever pulled was convincing generations of Internet people that ‘external hosting’ was a sin against community building, and that ‘self promotion’ of content on external hosting was something of which we should be ashamed. That ‘marketing yourself’ outside a platform was inherently more sinful than debasing yourself within.

I see this repeatedly in the three big sites that have the largest pull of gravity in this hobby. /r/boardgames is positively hostile to the idea of clicking a link that takes them away from Reddit. BoardGameGeek users often react very negatively to the idea that their attention is piqued on the site and the actual content exists elsewhere. Facebook discussion is a little less overtly so, but the idea that your contribution to a community might be a link to an outside blog is a flavour of anathema that drives some people to fury. ‘If you really wanted to talk about this, you’d make the extra effort to do it here’. ‘This is a community, not an audience’, ‘etc, etc.

The weirdest part of all of this is how many creators willingly sacrifice their own work by buying into this dangerously cultish nonsense. It’s a con-trick, people. It’s a way to ensure your vassalage in a system where you reap none of the real rewards while producing all of the real value. More, while it brings some short-term gains it’s the perfect way to completely sabotage your own future. Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and BoardGameGeek. These are sites that do not care about you other than as your ability to produce internal value. The owners of the communities within these sites are not working in your best interests. They’re only interested in building their own brand, and if they can trick you into doing that for them… well, more the better.

Today I’m going to advocate for a bit why you should take the harder path that goes with creating and hosting your own site as opposed to what might seem easier – to build your presence inside an existing ecosystem.

Content for the Content Mill

Larger platforms offer you one important thing – the availability of a large, ready-built and relevant audience. That audience stays on the platform for two main things:

  1. Connection
  2. Distraction

People build friendships on online platforms, and those friendships might be surprisingly resilient. I have lost contact with hundreds of real-world friends but I still have a solid core of people in my life that I first met on Discworld MUD. I have twenty year friendships that began online and I suspect and hope they’ll last the rest of my life. That’s a powerful benefit and you’ll never be able to compete with that unless you break out and become an unfeasibly large site with a dedicated community of its own. The thing about real connections though is that they start somewhere and break out of those contexts. You encounter someone on Facebook. They become a Facebook friend. Then you add them on Twitter. You exchange email addresses. Meet them at a convention. Go out for drinks. And so on. A connection that exists solely tied to a platform is always going to be transient because ‘shared use of a platform’ is a very fragile basis upon which to build a relationship. Still though, until you grow big you can’t hope to offer that and it’s a big part of why platforms exist. It is, in the end, their real unique selling point.

But one of the other reasons that drive people to platforms is distraction, and that’s where things take a more sinister turn. Facebook profits in mind-boggling amounts from the content you freely provide. You maybe don’t think of your engagement with the platform as ‘content creation’, but it is. Your status updates, photos, likes, replies and so on are the reason why people even check the site. Take a hundred streams of ‘content’, blend it together, and baby you’ve got a stew going. That stew has one nourishing factor – distraction. That nourishment comes from your content. And that content is valuable.

On the face of it, that’s fine. But as the platforms grow they become too noisy for a simple unfiltered feed of updates to work. Or… so they claim.  The real problem is that simply providing access to content in the order in which it was posted lacks a profitability edge. So instead, ‘for your convenience’, the content gets curated. Some of it gets made more prominent – mostly the stuff people pay to boost. Some of it gets less prominent – mostly the stuff that doesn’t keep you generating content. And some of it is downright censored – mostly the stuff that sends people away from the platform. Sometimes this is done by algorithms, and sometimes it’s done by the people that have bought into the idea of a platform as a community rather than a profit making enterprise.

That’s corrosive, because it changes the nature of the content people create. It drives people into content cul-de-sacs. If you want to be noticed on Facebook or BoardGameGeek or Reddit and you don’t want to pay for it? Well, you need to engage with the platform using its own internal tools because those are the ones, understandably, they’re most willing to promote. But that’s a problem, because…

You Don’t Get to Choose When You Profit from Your Content

Imagine this scenario. You spend two weeks working on a video. It’s funny, witty, and provides what you believe is an important contribution to an ongoing debate. You post it on Youtube. It gets millions and millions of hits. You’re delighted, because you enable ads on the video and you’re expecting to get some payment from it.

But then you notice something weird… the video was demonitized. You don’t know why, and the tools Youtube provide for querying this are opaque and unhelpful. Maybe you’re lucky and you get the video remonetized but by then it’s already too late because it happened after the initial novelty of the video wore off. You didn’t decide to make the video free, Youtube decided that for you. They got all the benefit from your video and you got nothing because you’re just a user. You’re not even the product, you’re the schmuck feeding content into the system to make sure the real product (human eyeballs) has a reason to stick around. Sometimes, such as with Facebook, they’ll actively charge you money just to make sure the people interested in your posts even get to see them.

Even in prison people get paid somewhat for the work they do.

This isn’t an extreme scenario, although it’s also not the everyday experience of your average content creator on Youtube. But the rarity of it is only one small issue – the fact it can happen at all is horrifying. You don’t earn from a Facebook video that goes viral. A tweet that garners millions of likes won’t earn you a penny. A million geekgold on BGG does not translate into an actual profit. It’s one thing to do something for the sheer love of it. It’s another to let someone else decide whether you get to decide whether love is a sufficient reward for your efforts,.

But even that’s only a minority issue because most people won’t ever profit from the content they’re creating anyway. Pennies at most. Instead people often do this for the joy of getting it out in front of people. But…

You Don’t Control Your Content

Okay, let’s look at a different example. You spend a day crafting a beautiful post for Reddit. It’s touching. Profound. Impossibly moving. You make an important argument that people need to hear, and you support it with all the evidence available. You spend hours polishing it. You go to the sub where the message has most meaning and you submit it. Seconds later an automod message comes your way saying that your post has been removed for… it doesn’t even matter. You violated some rule of the sub, or you just hadn’t posted enough, or you were flagged up as a bot.  Maybe you’d posted something in the wrong communities. Maybe you’d been autoflagged as a wrong ‘un. The reason is irrelevant, as is the validity of the reason. The simple fact is that the mere existence of your content on a platform is within the gift of someone else. Whether you get to even express yourself is something someone else gets to decide. It’s fair enough – they are the gatekeepers to the audience. Fair or not, it requires you to bend in directions that someone else decides. Jump through hoops that someone else put in place. And even if you’re a ‘member in good standing’, the chances are low you even get to influence the selection of the people that can put those obstacles in your way.

So – you knuckle under. Maybe you can make a few changes and have the post accepted. Or… maybe it stays up for a few hours, generates a lot of interesting discussion, and someone comes along and deletes it despite the fact it was obviously getting attention. Again, it doesn’t matter if this was because you violated a rule or because the mod was in a bad mood. The mere existence of your content is only ever as solid as the indulgence of those with delegated authority within the platform.

A post I wrote about busting the myths of sociological accessibility was once linked to Reddit by someone. It generated a truly phenomenal number of hits and discussion for a while, and then it was deleted by a mod. It was reinstated a day later, by which point the Reddit algorithms has buried it in the arse-end of the sub where no-one ventures. That didn’t matter really for me because the post was here and no mod save for me gets access to delete this site’s content. Imagine though if I had engaged with Reddit ‘on its own terms’ and that happened? Imagine I had written the post for Reddit and it just… got deleted?

I’ve seen hundreds of Facebook threads deleted by vindictive mods just because they didn’t like the discussion. Similarly, the Facebook algorithms themselves will straight up hide content that they don’t want to be seen… such as, for example, content that is profoundly critical of Facebook. A lot of the content that they hide should be hidden. It’s hard to argue all of it should be.

If you own your own platform, you actually control your own content and it can exist beyond the whims of what a moderation team or an algorithm permits. People might delete links to your site, but they can’t delete what’s actually on there.

Platforms Don’t Care About Your Discoverability

Let’s change it up a little. You spend an hour crafting a beautiful post for Reddit. You’re looking for a game, but you’ve got some very unusual requirements. You explain your circumstances in a text post. It’s masterful prose because you get right at the heart of the tragedy and pathos of your situation. You agonise over the wording. You finish. You submit it.

Minutes later it’s deleted by a mod and you are directed instead to the ‘What Should I Get Megathread’. That thread is recreated every day, so there are hundreds of almost identically named threads on the page. Again, it doesn’t matter if this is a sensible rule or not. You’ll be shunted around as moderators see fit and to hell with whether anyone actually sees what you post. Maybe your request would have helped thousands. Doesn’t matter, they’ll never see it because none of these platforms put a premium on making it possible for people to easily find old content. You’re stuck using google and hoping that you can stumble upon the magic selection of keywords that find what you need. And if those people just so happened to be elsewhere at the time the thread was up? They’ll likely never even know it had been posted at all.

Why would a platform care about that? It’s novelty that drives distraction. A week-old post may as well be etched into Babylonian cuneiform for all the relevance it has to modern internet attention spans.

The search features of any online platform are uniformly terrible, because all that matters there is the new. That’s where the money is, and that’s where the eyeballs need to be directed. Either that or what is ‘hot’ or ‘viral’. There’s a Matthew Effect that exists in online content creation – that which generates attention will be prioritized to generate even more attention. Did ten friends like a twitter post? Then Twitter will tell you that rather than show you any of the tweets that you actually opted-in to see. What business is that of yours? Your feed has nothing to do with you.

Let’s say you start off as a new reviewer, and you decide to build your audience on Reddit. You post regularly, outlining your thoughts and opinions. And because you’re doing it ‘in platform’ you actually have a leg-up on the rest of us trying to build awareness of our own sites. Lets’s say you’re a hit. People read and upvote and everything. It’s going great! Probably! But your username is unlikely to stand out in a community of several million. You have no ‘brand recognition’, and you can’t parlay your Reddit success into anything outside the platform. ‘Lots of people read my posts on Reddit’ is both unconvincing (for reasons I will get to) and unimpressive (because those same people would have read pretty much any post that passed their eyeballs).

Your engagement may be sky-high, but nobody really knows who you are and the platform actively frustrates anyone trying to find out. There’s no ‘Joe’s Review Corner’ that prominently appears in the site’s core navigation. You’re just lost in the jumble. There’s no index to your content. No historical frame of reference. Nothing you can point to as a body of work that can be translated into anything else. It’s all just interchangeable distraction, left to sink into the broader sea of ‘stuff on the internet’. Discoverability, in such circumstances, has to happen externally. You could set up your own subreddit where that’s not true… but then you’re in the same position as everyone trying to host their own outlet.

And that’s a problem because…

You Can’t Measure Your Success

Meeple Like Us stands alone as a site. We’re part of no network (although we’ve been asked a couple of times). Part of no larger initiative. We don’t often collaborate save for podcasts and occasional guest articles. And there are good reasons for that. The main reason is that I need to be able to quantify the site’s success in a way that most people don’t.

As part of grant applications, I use Meeple Like Us as an example of the visibility of the research area of board game accessibility. I can point to the number of visitors we get, the number of posts the average visitor reads, the amount of Patreon income, and other hard-nosed measures of ‘impact’. That’s vital because it gives numbers around which I can make a case for support. A canonical reference is needed for that, and most platforms (with Youtube being a notable exception) offer virtually no tools for offering fine-grained analysis of just how well you’re doing.

Think back to your most successful Reddit post. How many people Read It (haha)? How many people are still reading it? How many genuine upvotes did it get? And I mean, how many did it get rather than how many does it show, because those aren’t the same thing. How many downvotes? How many of those came from unique IPs? What’s the combined readership of all your posts on Reddit, and what are the demographics that you reached?

Okay, maybe that’s asking a bit much. How many people have subscribed to your BGG Blog? If there’s a way of finding that out, I don’t know what it is. How many people read your posts, and for how long do they read them?

Yeah, you can’t answer that because platforms rarely expose the tools to let you know how you’re doing. Perhaps to avoid you being discouraged. And even when they do, they don’t even necessarily tell you the truth. Many companies died pivoting to video because it was in Facebook’s interests to feed them bogus stats. Even platforms with built in analytics often have a granularity or a focus at the level of individual units of content as opposed to the whole body of content as a whole. Measuring the success of the ‘You’ project is always harder than it has to be.

And all of this means…

You Have No Brand

I know it’s very ‘hustle economy’ to talk about your content as part of a brand, but if you’re ever hoping to parlay your work into something that actually gets you some kind of reward that’s how you have to think of it. Reddit often makes the distinction of being ‘A reddit user that’s a brand’ rather than ‘a brand with a reddit account’ because that’s the framing they want. They can profit from the former. The latter is much harder for an external platform to control and monetize.

The great trick that many platforms have pulled off is making people think ‘linking to external content’ is ‘self promotion’. It’s sort of true, but only in the shallowest way. People have bought into that convenient mantra rather than peel it back and see the vaguely horrifying assumptions upon which it is built. It argues that content that exists independently from a platform is inherently inferior to that which is built within the restrictive and coercive framework of the platform itself. That being independent of the often creator-hostile ecosystem will somehow yield more questionable work than that which is ideologically pure within its constraints.

The fundamental philosophies of these sites have in turn indoctrinated their most dedicated of users into becoming their own low-grade enforcers of these policies. That’s why Reddit will often aggressively downvote self-promotion even though it’s absolutely in the best interests of the hobby to ensure the widest plurality of voices.

What every platform wants is to grow itself. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter deprioritise external links in order to keep you in their ecosystem. They can make money from you there. Reddit wants to keep you posting on Reddit because if you click a link that takes you off the site maybe you won’t come back. BoardGameGeek has built the world’s most unintuitive sandbox of interrelated features to ensure you don’t ever need to go anywhere else. They don’t want you to leave. And, overwhelmingly, the actual value these sites have is generated by the people they have trapped into the system. The community comes for the distraction, and the distraction is generated by the community.  It’s like the papacy in years gone by – somehow the institutions get rich but those generating the wealth are denied an Earthly reward while being constantly under the threat of excommunication.

Conclusion

I’m not saying that platforms are bad. I mean, many of them are but that’s independent of this post. What I’m saying is that if you are attempting to build a sustainable and exploitable body of work… the worst way you can do it is by relying on a platform. You’re too much at the mercy of mods, algorithms, discoverability processes. You’re also constantly fighting the attitudes of the slavish dementors that have put their own independence secondary to their adherence to a corporate mindset. It makes things much more difficult to begin with – I won’t argue that at all. It’s hard to build an audience. That’s why so many leap at the chance of getting access to one that already exists. Trying to tap into that audience will be met with hostility. It’ll have people constantly throwing accusations of ‘self promotion’ at you.

Once you get passed that though, you’ll find that your independence has more tangible rewards. They might accrue more slowly, and with more effort, than the attention you’d get otherwise. But it’s the difference between living off the sweat of your own brow or tilling fields for a feudal lord. The first route probably won’t get you where you want to go. The second definitely won’t.

I hope some day that the power of platforms will be broken sufficiently that people will understand that ‘self promotion to an externally hosted link’ is the only real sustainable way that independent voices will ever be able to claw out a niche for themselves. Sure, no-one ever has the right to access an audience that exists on another platform. A healthy landscape of voices requires people remove themselves from a dependence on the indulgences of those that don’t have their best interests at heart.

If you’re unsure where to start with this – if maybe you have a blog you’d like to host but don’t know how, give me a nudge. I’d be happy to help you get started.

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