The Economics of Sincerity

Why Megan Greenwell's parting shot was nothing but net.

So, there's this very good farewell message that went up on Deadspin a few months back from Megan Greenwell, that's a sort of post-mortem of a model of business where writers and bloggers who know their audience and know the market (which, for what they're doing, overlaps considerably with the audience). It's been making the rounds again after a wave of resignations from Deadspin staff after a corporate edict to "strict to sports" was handed down.

Deadspin's new parent company has been trying to spin this as a business decision, and I guess I would call it a business decision before I would call it an editorial decision, because it's got nothing to do with editorial judgment in a traditional sense.


The problem is, it has nothing to do with business judgment in a traditional sense, either:


I missed Greenwell's brilliant takedown the first time it went around. Probably if I looked at the date and compared it to my life I could figure out why it didn't hit my radar. This summer was brutal for me, and then the month of September might as well not have existed. Late August... I'd rather not think about it, actually.

I was aware of it but didn't read it, just kind of silently gave it a mental nod of approval and a quiet "right on". For me, the push to get politics out of the remains of the Gawker empire always reads first as echoes of the culture war. GamerGate was thick as flies on fly food around the fall of Gawker, as their gaming news site Kotaku was sort of the embodiment of everything GamerGate was against: "political agendas" in gaming coverage. The usual suspects are of course applauding the actions of Deadspin's new owners and are very forthright about the fact that they think the journalists who quit are a bunch of soy-slurping liberal whiners who don't know or care about sports and couldn't hack actual journalism.

I didn't have the spoons to actually read the insider's perspective when it went around the first time, but I've read it now, and I can say, it's worth reading.

I'm going to focus on this part right here, though:

Again, even if her bosses weren't actually motivated by the culture war thinking, I can't help seeing echoes. For GamerGate and for its parallel movements ComicsGate (GamerGate, but for comics) and the Sad Puppies (GamerGate, but for science fiction and fantasy literature), whenever something that didn't have "universal appeal" sold a lot of copies or won an award or garnered acclaim, it was proof that something was off, that something sinister was afoot. 

There are more straight people than gay people, so obviously the market is in making games for and about straight people. The way to make money is to make games for and about straight people. If 90% of the world or more is straight, then marketing anything outside the bounds of the straight market is a ticket to failure, and when someone does that and doesn't fail... something hinky must be going on.

That's what they think, and there's enough logic in it that it can be hard to argue them out of it. 

But what if I told you there are more video games out there than any one person could play and buy?

And what if I told you that the vast majority of people making video games are catering to straight people?

That's what we call a crowded marketplace. That's what we call oversaturation. That's what we call stiff competition.

The thing that GamerGate never understood -- nor the Sad Puppies, nor ComicsGate -- is that the reason things that struck them as outside the actual marketplace could be wildly successful is that they were targeted specifically towards underserved markets, whereas the stuff they think of as "just regular stuff"... games ,books, comics... is basically not targeted at all, towards markets that are spoiled for choices.

A person who "just likes comics" might be a DC person or a Marvel person or have favorite creators or whatnot, and sure, that brand loyalty is worthwhile. To the brand. But a young trans person who is looking for something that speaks to them? They will go looking for it, and when they find it, they will cross over companies and platforms to get it. They will gush about it. They will evangelize.

The DC people, for the most part, when they talk about comics, they want to talk about Batman to other people who know about Batman. Oh, a lot of them love the idea of introducing new people to their favorite characters, and they'll have recommended reading lists and a favorite graphic novel or trade paperback collection they will lend or even gift to people just for the pleasure of knowing they've made a new friend in the hobby. The stereotype of the gatekeeping nerd who doesn't want the normies to ruin their fun is represented by real people, too, sure, but even most of them are eager to share so long as the sharing happens on their terms.

But. 

You don't get the same buzz from that kind of crowd. You don't get the moment of electricity where three people who haven't picked up a comic (or  video game, or whatever) in years all hear the whisper of something new, something meaningful to them, something that speaks to them, something made for them and become fans on the spot.

"All things to all people" is an alluring fantasy for a big corporation, but it's hard to manage outside of retail. Amazon can manage it because it's more convenient, if you're doing a lot of online shopping, to do it all in one place. Content production doesn't work like that, though. 

When Valve became the Amazon of digital game sales, they basically stopped making video games. They can be all things to all people as a retailer. They can achieve effectively universal appeal as a retailer. They can't, as a game developer. Their games were wildly popular, huge cultural phenomena. But they had specific appeal.

Content isn't retail. 

And who manages to survive doing their own online retail, in a marketplace where Amazon exists? It's sites that, like Deadspin's Concourse, have specific voices. Specific identities. They speak to specific markets. When I'm not shopping online, if I'm not buying something from Amazon, I'm buying something from ThinkGeek, or Torrid, or Redbubble or Etsy for an artist or crafter I like or some goth or fantasy apparel place that I saw on Facebook. If these places tried to compete with Amazon -- tried to be all things to all people -- they would probably lose. And if they somehow one day won, then Amazon would lose.

Because there isn't room for a lot of big winners, being all things for all people. You get a few big winners, and a lot of people limping along, doing the discount, cut-rate version of the all things for all people site in hopes of picking up scraps of the giant pie.

When it comes to online content... the internet itself is Amazon, or the Steam store, or whatever your metaphor is. News sites and blogs and whatnot, they're the things for sale. The people who win on Amazon mostly aren't the people selling generic staple goods. Amazon themselves usually offers cheap but decent versions of those. The people who win on Amazon are the people who know their market, know their market isn't "everybody", and know how to speak to their market.

And there's a lesson here for any content creators, whether you're a blogger, indie journalist, YouTuber, game developer, writer, musician, whatever: 

Don't try to be all things for all people. 

Make the thing that you really want to make, make the thing that you really want to see, and do it the way you want to do it.

There are over a billion people online. You're not going to get a billion readers or viewers or customers. But whatever thing you're hungry for, whatever thing you want that doesn't exist, you're going to find out that there are other people who are hungry for it, too. Some of them have been hungry for so long they've forgotten what it is they're feeling, have forgotten the concept of food itself, and will only know that they're hungry when they get a whiff of something good.

If you want to see this in action, take a look at the economics of furry fandom, where artwork and fic and props and costumes are regularly made and sold. Good artists turning out good, solid art for an appreciative community that is willing to spend money.

You could not make a furry web portal that is "all things to all people". You couldn't even make a great one that is all things to all furries. The next big internet arms race is not going to be to try to capture the furry dollar. The pie's not big enough for that, and the people who think they can capture all of the pie are going to be turned away by the things that strike them as silly and unsavory. In order to feel like they were speaking to as broad an audience as possible, they would have to tone down or prune off so much of it that there wouldn't be anything left.

But the people who speak to that market are listened to. 

The people who cater to that market can do good business.

I honestly think the future of tabletop roleplaying is going to look a lot like the furry marketplace. Indie gaming is already shaping up to be very similar, and it's not just because of the overlap between furries and roleplayers. It's because it's a better model, a more sustainable model, for most operators than the corporate model. 

When I had my first bout of success as a fiction writer, even as my audience was growing I kept receiving advice about how I could broaden my appeal if I toned down the queer parts, the dark parts, the political parts, the kinky parts, etc. I was told my work was good but it lacked mass appeal.

But if I'd had mass appeal, I would have moved out of a marketplace where I was frequently the only contender that my audience knew of into one where I was competing with everybody else, indie aspirants and those with corporate war chests behind them.

When my Twitter account first started blowing up, I heard it all over again. On days when I gained 500 new followers in a few hours, some of them would inevitably have advice for me about how I could reach more people if I was less strident, less silly, less verbose, less.... less myself.

I could talk about how it wouldn't be worth it to me to give up my soul and gain the world, but as Megan Greenwell has so clearly put it: that's a romantic story that doesn't convey the actual problem with it as a business plan.

There's no world in which I as an individual person could start with a Twitter account that has a few hundred or a thousand followers and grow to almost 40,000 (which I expect to hit before the end of the year even with me being less active on Twitter) by being nobody in particular. I could only do it by being myself. I could only do it by speaking in a voice no one else has, offering an experience no one else can.

Now, if you're an indie creator, it's worth bearing in mind that there's no magic formula where be yourself = profit. I started out with a head start on Twitter from my fiction. I got a following for my fiction by having made some savvy decisions at the heyday of Livejournal and the early days of Project Wonderful. Before Project Wonderful folded, my biggest advice to anyone trying to advertise their creations was to find the weirdest or most "particular kind of humor" webcomics that they liked and spend money to advertise on them, on the grounds that people who shared your tastes might like your stuff. That's how I got started.

(Moment of silence for Project Wonderful. We had something great in it.)

For something with corporate backing, though, and the visibility and imprimatur of a big, legit masthead, though... it really is pretty close to a magic formula. It works. Provide a distinct voice. Speak to specific audiences instead of trying to be all things to all people (especially when "all people" is flattened to "mostly straight, mostly white Anglophones who think that other people are politics". Everybody's fighting for that market. It's a huge pie but it's being carved up too many different ways.

The real money is in selling people things they didn't know they wanted until they sought it, by offering them something they're looking for and leading them to new things. Deadspin did that, by having incisive, viral-ready articles and blog posts on the Concourse that would bring in people who had no reason to go to a sports site. Kotaku and Gizmodo and the other specialty arms of Gawker did it, too.

It was good business, while it lasted.

While it remained in the hands of people who knew the value of it, or who were at least prepared to be persuaded.

There are lessons for indie creators and freelancers. Authors. Game designers. Know your audience and speak to them. Help them find you. 

"Just be yourself" is terrible advice, but only because the word "just" is there. "Just" is a four-letter word, as far as I'm concerned. It makes things sound simple and automatic, when they're not. "Just be yourself" and you will not be successful, but being yourself is an essential and necessary step in being successful.

Having money behind you helps. It helps so much that if you have enough of it, you can get away with being inauthentic. Enough money will shatter almost any wall.

But you don't need to shatter every wall. 

I mean, the phrase "load-bearing wall" exists for a reason. You can build with walls.

Your peculiarity is not an obstacle to your success. The specificity of your appeal is not a problem. 

It's what you have to work with.

Go and do likewise.


Thank you for reading!

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