The metrics on social media platforms are gradually destroying our creativity. Aspiring creators are prioritizing clicks over craft and metrics over meaning. Some startup founders get caught up in press instead of profit. As I said in An Audience of One, "The very tools that have made unparalleled amounts of creativity possible are paradoxically inhibiting it."
While Facebook says its mission is to make the world more open and connected, its business model is to sell your attention to advertisers, and the more that it becomes your window to the rest of the internet, the more you're paradoxically inside a walled garden of a social media behemoth.
Sadly, some of the biggest media outlets play a role in perpetuating this. They reward their writers and content creators based on clicks and eyeballs. As a result, that takes precedence over writing something of depth and significance. The long form content on sites like The New Yorker is losing people to the short attention span required for consuming content on sites like Buzzfeed.
A few years ago I submitted a post to a large web site. The editor said my post was too long and in-depth for their audience. The next day, they published a post by someone who wrote something similar to my 39 Observations of a Life that Hasn't Gone According the Plan. But it was just one sentence each.
This obsession with social media metrics cause people to mimic instead of model the people they look up to. And as I said in Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best, "This leads to an unsustainable mimicry epidemic, in which people hide their greatest gifts from the world.
The F-Word Isn't a Formula for Best-Selling Books
Due to the success of Mark Manson's book, authors and publishers alike have deluded themselves into believing that putting the word "fuck" into a title is the secret to a massive best-seller.
There have been multiple books published with fuck in the title.
- Unfuck Yourself
- The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck
While these books have done quite well, what's completely overlooked is the fact that putting the word “fuck” in the title had nothing to do with their success. Publishers and authors have mixed up causation with correlation. Mark has spent years mastering his craft. That's what made his book a freakish best-seller. It wasn't putting the word “fuck” in the title.
In most cases, using the F word takes away from and dilutes your message. When I started speaking back in 2009, Gary Vaynerchuk was one of the first professional speakers I came across. Swearing like a sailor works for him. But when I tried that in my own talks, it was just gratuitous use of profanity. When I got rid of it, I became a much better speaker.
My friend Paul Jarvis designed some of Danielle Laporte's first web sites. People would come to him and say, "I want a site that looks like that." He'd have to make them realize that having a web site that looked like hers wouldn't make them any more successful than putting the F-word into the title of a book.
Mimicry is never the path that leads to mastery. When I got my book deal in 2015, my publisher insisted that I work with a writing coach. One of them was the same coach Ryan Holiday uses for his books. I love Ryan's books, but I didn't want mine to sound like his. So I purposely chose a woman who was a veteran of the industry, had worked with Seth Godin on multiple books, and assured me she'd be tough on me.
The pursuit of meaningless metrics is leading to self obsession instead of self improvement, shallow work instead of deep work, and gradually eroding attention spans and creative capacity. We mimic instead of model, treat guidance as gospel, and falsely assume that if we mimic authority figures, we'll produce their results. As I said in my previous book, all this does is sustain a rampant mimicry epidemic.
Mastery over Metrics in the Podcasting World
Podcasters who don't have an audience obsess over audio equipment, iTunes rankings, and downloads. They focus on getting an audience's attention over creating something worthy of an audience's attention. While we may be in a golden age of podcasting, it's easy to overlook how much time people at the top of the iTunes charts have spent mastering their craft.
- Jordan Harbinger spent years on a previous podcast before his new show, which regularly appears in the top 100 on iTunes.
- Alex Blumberg spent years at NPR learning from masters like Ira Glass, before he launched Gimlet and sold it to Spotify. The same could be said of Sarah Koenig.
- Celebs like Oprah and Dax Shepard may not be masters of podcasting, but they have spent decades becoming masterful at interviewing and acting.
When we started what became The Unmistakable Creative in 2009, I thought I would interview famous bloggers, they would tweet my interviews, and every interview would go viral. I realized how delusional that was after 3 months. It has always been our listeners, not our guests that have caused our audience to grow. After that realization, I've never made a decision based on how famous or popular someone was. I have always made my personal curiosity the primary filter by which I make every decision.
As I tell every aspiring podcast, writer, or photographer, if you want to build an audience for your work, focus on mastery instead of metrics.
Photographers Losing Touch
Tools like instagram are wonderful for aspiring photographers. But when people spend more time worrying about hearts and comments over the beauty of their photos, they're losing touch with their creativity. They aren't learning the important skills like the role of lighting, composition, etc, etc. They are confusing learning how to use a platform with the developing a skill.
Less Creative Kids
But the most detrimental impact of social media metrics is on young kids. When Joey Torklidson told me that his 7-year old son was worrying about the number of subscribers on his YouTube channel, that made me really sad.
If those of us who are adults had access to what kids have today, we would have had a field day.
The tools we have access to today could take kids to unparalleled levels of creativity and artistic genius. Technology could be the greatest platform for imagination the world has ever seen. But that's only going to happen if those kids stop seeing the internet as a tool for getting attention and instead begin to view it as a tool for expressing their creativity.
Losing Sight of the Lead Measures
All metrics, whether it's clicks, likes, comments, shares, downloads, or book sales are what the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution call lag measures. Lag measures are things you can't directly control. All forms of external validation when it comes to creative work are lag measures.
I have no idea whether you'll hate this article or like it. Trying to optimize for that is a fool's errand and artistic suicide. In the last few months, I've had a lot less of my posts reach a large audience of people on Medium. I can spend my time worrying about that, which I have zero control over, or I can continue to write 1000 words a day.
Focusing on lead measures, the things you can control, increases the likelihood of favorable lag measures. Or focusing on the process instead of the prize, increasing the likelihood of a favorable outcome.
- The more sales calls you make, the more likely you are to find someone who wants to buy your product.
- The more you write, the more likely you are to write something worth reading.
- The more you practice taking photos, the more likely you are to take one that's breathtaking.
By focusing on the lead measures, you put your effort and energy into things you can control.
Confusing Attention with Accomplishment
How we measure our lives has a profound impact on our happiness and well being. Measuring the quality of our creative work based on social media metrics causes people to confuse attention with accomplishment.
- There are plenty of shitty books that have sold millions of copies.
- There are lousy podcasts that get millions of downloads.
The result of this is aspiring creatives working on increasing their metrics instead of improving the quality of their work. They fail to see that getting popular on social media is not a tactic, but a byproduct of great work.
Tools that were meant for self expression have instead become attention seeking devices in which people pursue instant applause over the long lasting connection that takes place between a creator and an audience.
It's quick and easy to get attention. Compose a tweet, write a status update, and upload a picture with a clever caption. But it is harder and takes much longer to master your craft. That's why billions of people choose the former over the latter every day. But in the long run, the latter is far more rewarding than the former. What's it costing you to confuse attention with accomplishment?