How can you make a living by putting words together online?
Many reading about writing online have one burning question and it’s always that one, never the one about creating community, never the one about the difference between writing with purpose and content writing.
These are desperate times and the idea of typing whatever you like online and getting paid for it sounds like a dream come true, a dream that you hope might replace the job you lost if you were previously employed or the clients who hit the wall if you were a freelancer.
Perhaps you hope that by being extremely frugal, knuckling down, and throwing yourself into creating copy you might avoid financial collapse, perchance create a successful online writing business. This is vague; social media marketing and content wonks are never specific.
Writing is what you make it.
Instead, they argue that if they can do it, anyone can. Often, the loudest evangelists are outliers, folks with an unusual personal narrative writing online either redeemed or transformed. Metrics and dollars are their only measure of success and you, the reader, are both these things.
Under the guise of ‘inspiring’ the universe, they rope you in with formulaic content that sells a story, their story, the kind of story readers want to pay for because it’s a lot easier to spectate someone else’s rise to the top than getting on with the work required to get there yourself.
When you’re vulnerable, you’re more likely to be lulled into a sense of possibility, no matter how questionable, because some hope is better than none. That hope is what powers most of the writing online but it’s not always made of the same stuff.
Those spitting flames about some celebrity’s reputation are hoping for a viral hit, ditto the dude bros rehashing the same productivity tips, ditto the fauxminists raging about victimhood and trauma who didn’t take kindly to being upstaged by a global pandemic then civil unrest.
What trends pays. What pays trends. Still, but likely not forever.
How can you protect yourself from profiteering and exploitation?
Some platforms trying to make amends for the culture they encouraged, enabled, and empowered. In response, alternatives are springing up, like Parler.
Depending on your willingness to embrace dialogue and your personal level of optimism about the culture we live in, they’re either more echo chambers or tools with which to dismantle them. At the beginning of this week, Forbes reported Parler was offering $20,000 to any progressive pundit, commentator, or writer willing to engage in debate. But only as long as you have at least 50K followers on a competing social media platform.
The internet is the arena and we’re all potential gladiators.
Also, the coronavirus has chewed through media the same way it’s chewing through everything else so the ranks of unemployed media practitioners / broke freelancers are swelling by the day. To an administration that thrives on riling up Americans against the industry by calling the players who do not fawn over Mr Trump’s leadership ‘fake news’, this is… great news.
So far, unchecked capitalism remains America’s modus operandi.
Offline and online, greed is the zeitgeist and those who’ve been hogging the spotlight aren’t letting go or pivoting. From legacy media outlets across the political spectrum publishing polarizing op-eds to any chancer with an internet connection, being on the make is still the default.
And why not? We have the tools, we have the political climate, we have the desperation so the race to the bottom is on. People are going broke, going hungry, and losing their homes. That one-off stimulus check is already a receding memory for many. Rent is due every month, humans need to eat regularly.
‘Will write for food’ is no longer a witty bio or the secret handshake of struggling freelance journalists but a reality for many pros and wannabes alike. Platforms are having a field day offering to ‘syndicate’ your content against exposure, feeding off your hope of hitting the big time. This is profiteering. Syndication generally involves some kind of republication fee, no matter how small.
Besides the obvious absence of morality, here’s why such a business model is unsustainable: “Roughly half of Americans with lower incomes are worried about paying their broadband and cellphone bills over the coming months,” according to the Pew Research Center carried out in April 2020.
How can the words you write online support change?
Let’s go back to the social media marketing and content wonks whose livelihood rests squarely on selling the dream to as many hopefuls as possible. They’re now pushing it harder than ever, lining their pockets by picking ours before there’s nothing left in them and the market shrinks drastically. And there’s no shortage of hangers-on emulating them and hoping to curry favor with… platforms? Algorithms? Peers for telling them what they want to hear?
It’s noise, not signal.
If you can read, you can write. You don’t need to spend $50 on an ebook or a grand on some homemade course. Besides feeding off your writerly dreams, the online parasite industrial complex pushes formulaic writing: Follow instructions to the letter and you too will find success. Regardless of how many posts the digital mavens and gurus keep blessing us with, there’s no such thing as a turnkey viral hit.
And when/if that happens, hopefully you’ll sound like you, not someone whose formula you’ve replicated, not some article you’ve ‘rewritten’, another popular way of churning out oodles of content featuring second, third, or fourth hand knowledge.
The reason newspapers and magazines have style guides is the same reason the internet doesn’t have one: So you might express yourself in your own words and in your own way. Do it regularly and for long enough and you’ll inevitably get better at it, same as learning to walk or cycle or knit.
A society who thinks out loud in print and speaks truth to power sounds like a utopia but then again, is it? 87% of Americans say it has been at least important for them during the outbreak and 78% believe it has been a mostly good thing for society, according to Pew Research Center.
In this unprecedented context, writing online can do a lot at a time when the dark side seems to have better marketing than anyone else.
Writing teaches you how to express yourself with confidence and it can contribute to the creation of a more equitable society. This starts with a better internet where conversation and community trump cliques and clickbait clusters.
As the digital gap is set to widen, writing online comes with added responsibility not everyone is ready for.
Writing doesn’t just usher in change, it defines it.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.