About a week ago, I signed up for an account on reddit. My goal was to share some of the podcasts I'd been working on, but for reasons I'll get into later that didn't really work out. What I got instead was something far more valuable -- a lesson in what it takes to build an audience, and by extension a career, online -- and I wanted to share what I found with you so that you can learn from my mistakes.
Here's what I've learned:
It's All Been Done Before
Reddit is the epitome of interest specialization. You like languages? That's pretty unique, but it's way too broad for reddit. What is your specific interest in language? The cognitive development of language skills in toddlers? Now we're talking. Whatever your interest, there's probably a subreddit for that, and you'd be amazed how many people are active participants in that space.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the idea that because you are the only person in your sphere of friends who happens to enjoy some specific subset of things, you must therefore also be a special snowflake unlike anybody else in the world. You are not. Subscribing to /r/conlag should take care of the belief pretty quick.
There's a side effect to this, however, which if ignored can be positively deadly to creative work. When our communication is limited just to those few people we know in person, it's easy to get a false idea about what is common and what is unique.
This can be compounded if you use Google to verify the uniqueness of an idea. Google search is actually kind of terrible. I've talked about this in detail before. And yet, whenever I have a new idea for something, and I want to see if it's really as new as I think it is, I immediately take it to Google. This is bad. Google is not your audience. It will not tell you if your audience has seen anything like your idea before. Google search seeks to satisfy a broad range of people, which means that the people you really care about – the ones who share your unique passions and who are hungry for more of it – will not have their voices and ideas anywhere near the first ten pages of a Google search.
It is therefore essential that you seek to become a part of that community of shared passions BEFORE YOU BEGIN WORKING ON YOUR NEW IDEA. Hear from their own words what they want, what they think is unique, and what they would love to see. Why? Because truly new ideas are rare – far too rare for Google's standards – and almost anything worth doing has already been done before. If you aren't carefully listening to what your target audience wants, you risk shooting in the dark and missing. You effectively leave your probability of success up to random chance, which in the world of creativity is always curved down.
Your Voice May Not Be Heard
My first post to Reddit was a link in /r/fullmetalalchemist. Of course it was: I have a podcast about that show which I feel deserves listeners. Surely the people who frequent a Fullmetal Alchemist subreddit would love to hear a podcast analyzing their favorite show in depth.
Classic rookie mistake.
See, in every community there are universal truths which are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. In reddit, it this: posts from days-old accounts will sometimes be marked as spam and hidden from the general public. It is an automatic process performed by software meant to protect the community. The only way to counteract it is to ask a moderator to manually approve your post, which, for a natural introvert like myself, may as well be asking me to skydive into a pool of sharks. Shameless self promotion is one thing, but asking a total stranger to help me? No thanks.
As both an artist and a creator, it is doubly your duty to sniff out those unacknowledged truths. Don't do what I did. I agonized over the silence that followed my first post to reddit. Why, I wondered, is nobody acknowledging this thing I worked so hard on? Is it really that bad? I don't know, and I can't know because I didn't take the time to suss out the hidden intricacies of my new environment before tossing over my baby, hoping it would be caught before landing in the riverbed of muted silence.
If you want to be heard, learn what it takes to be heard – not just from some vague online audience, but from a specific audience you've come to know and understand better than anyone else. Otherwise, your voice may not be heard.
It Takes A Thick Skin To Just Be Okay
One of the biggest selling points of reddit is the upvote/downvote system that accompanies every post and link. The weird side effect of this is that it gives redditors carte blanche to express their feelings about what you've shared – good, bad, and everything in between. Reddit even gives you a status bar to see the cumulative effect of all these votes. As someone whose experience of the social web has been largely limited to likes and favstars, seeing a -1 on my profile page felt like a stab to the animated heart.gif.
The good news is that nothing on reddit is stationary; everything is constantly in flux. It was a while before I could open myself back up again to a different subreddit, but when I did I realized that those individual votes don't really matter. As long as you keep commenting, those stats eventually go up regardless of how people feel about you.
And then I realized something profound. I'd been living under a terrible delusion for quite some time, and it was impeding my ability to progress as an artist.
I, like most people, live in constant fear that I might not be special.
In any competitive field, there is a noticeable push to be better, more talented, and ultimately more special than anybody else. This is dangerous. Unchecked, it becomes the katana of our own creative suicide. All too often, it leads us to bury and deny our weaknesses and normalities. We feel ashamed that we can not reach the impossible standards we ourselves wish we could have already achieved. It pushes us to behave in a way that is totally counter to what we should be doing, and frequently leads us to ignore our own best qualities.
We want to be liked and we want to be appreciated, but when we work in the business of entertainment those insecurities mean something more. If people don't love us then we don't get payed. And when we fail to overcome that natural antipathy early in our careers, it frequently leads to the assumption that the best route going forward is to give up and pursue something more sensible like door-greeting or postage-stamp licking.
Is that a real job? If not, it should be.
If you're going to have the gall to think someone might actually like what you've done, and you're going to share it online, you have to be okay with the possibility that it might just be okay. You can't measure your own value based on the responses of other people. You can (and should!) measure the value of your work by the interest of your audience, but that does not reflect in any way on the value of you as a person.
Master that distinction, and you're already closer to nirvana than most artists ever will be.
That Is Too Much, Let Me Sum Up
To close, let me bring it all together. If you think about it, we've run into the same problem I started with at the beginning. Unless you're truly awful at what you do (which only you can answer for sure) self-improvement isn't going to be what makes your career. Finding an audience is. You can give it the hours you need to become the most amazing stamp-licker the world has ever seen, and there is a lot of satisfaction to be had there (trust me), but most of the work that we do as creatives ends up being the long hours we put into finding people who care. I have yet to find that audience, but for now I'm still trying. Fingers crossed, I don't meet any more automatic spam filters along the way.