the audience trap

Somehow, I’ve brought you another newsletter. To be 100-percent transparent: It was a particularly close call this time around. I’ve thought about quitting the Maven Game nearly every week since I started writing it in 2015. With the pressure I’m currently under, I’ve gone from thinking about quitting to full-on contemplating it. And we all know how serious that is.

How do you keep going? (That’s not rhetorical. I’m really asking.)

In the last week alone, Jason Kottke has blogged about everything from architecture to linguistics to politics to military strategy (and that’s just scratching the surface). He started his blog in 1998 and went full-time fifteen years ago. Here’s his post celebrating that anniversary, here’s his post announcing his intention to go full-time in 2005, and here’s his very first post, written almost twenty-two years ago. 

(Isn’t it beautiful how the Web makes it so easy for me to show you this?)

Kottke is a true rarity in 2020. Blogging the way he does it is a lost art form. I started a blog in 2003, several years after Kottke but before blogs went mainstream. It was delightful, at first. If you wrote about something, no matter how obscure, your fellow weirdos would find it. You’d get all these interesting comments from people who were one of five in the world who felt the same way about X, Y, or Z. There was an amazing signal-to-noise ratio. SEO didn’t come into it—blogging just worked. Then things got more crowded, then life got busy, then I quit. I went through something similar with my podcast. The delightful parts got less delightful, the aggravations multiplied, and I packed up my microphone. 

People say newsletters are the new blogs, at least in the sense that you can (theoretically) build a stable audience of real people unmediated by any algorithm, but I’m skeptical. We mix up newsletters and e-mail marketing. E-mail marketing is here to stay because it’s effective at selling stuff: courses, software, consulting. Newsletters suffer from the same fundamental flaw as blogging, podcasting, and, well, newspapers and magazines: a shaky, ad-driven business model. Despite a large readership, Jason Kottke’s ad revenue dropped out from under him quite suddenly a year or two ago. Luckily, he was able to rapidly switch to a subscription model and enough of his loyal readers signed on to keep the operation running. For now, anyway. 

Most of us aren’t in a position to charge a subscription fee. Frankly, unless you have an extraordinary, and extraordinarily loyal, audience like Jason Kottke does who will follow him wherever his interests lead, I don’t see how you could sustain this kind of personal writing with subscriptions even as subscriptions sustain the business of writing it. Can you imagine if I tried charging you for the Maven Game? Even at a dollar a month, I’d feel obliged to actually say something useful. To cut the crap. No more flights of fancy, bizarre references, or pointless digressions. It would be nothing but “a weird trick that works for me when I have writer’s block” or “the one thing you need to know about finishing your book.” It wouldn’t, in other words, be the Maven Game anymore.

After last week’s essay, one reader wrote:

Interesting newsletter.

Clearly, a fan. He continued:

At first, I thought, “man, I hate Dune; this isn’t going to be any good”. Then came “oh no, not politics” thought. Mild panic at “When was the last time you listened to smooth jazz?”, and then got even worse when I got annoyed at another glaring error (not your fault, I admit) in the Slotkin story. (Nothing became contaminated in the event; lots of things got irradiated.) And don’t get me started on St. Peter’s choice of instruments, which would just be another reason why I wouldn’t want anything to do with the proposed Biblical heaven if it should happen to exist.

Now tell me what you really thought about it:

And even when you finally reach something relatable to me (the well-grounded, solid-ground anecdote), you just have to insert the Spielberg bit and destroy any hope of serious thought.

Believe it or not, the email ended with a morsel of positivity. I moved on with my day. But imagine if this response had come, not from a reader, but a subscriber. Someone whose satisfaction with my work tied directly to my livelihood. You can bet it would have influenced my approach to this week’s installment. Maybe not by a lot, maybe not with any conscious intent on my part, but I’d have toned it down a bit with the me. Over time, responses like this one (yes, I get them now and then) would polish the rough edges around here until I sounded like everything else you read online. Except you wouldn’t be reading anymore, would you?

Speaking of shaky business models, my first attempt at a career was in The Theatre. I worked for a subscription-based theater company based here in New York City. We always had two audiences to keep in mind: the regular people and the subscribers, or “patrons,” as we called them. The regular people were regular people: theater lovers of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The patrons were all grouchy, old, white, and rich. My job, above all, was to placate the patrons: when they got the wrong seat, when an usher was rude, when the coffee wasn’t hot enough in the patron’s lounge. (It was never hot. I know because I’m the one who carried the urns from a catering service several blocks away an hour before showtime.) Doing that job, I learned to appease the irritable and reassure the entitled—”OK, Boomer” hadn’t been invented yet—and I still rely on that skill-set in my day-to-day work.

This was a top-tier, well-funded nonprofit theater company with multiple stages, big budgets, actors you recognized from television. It was thriving. But the shows sucked. Pure CBS. The plays they chose pandered to their subscribers because the whole operation was built on that base. Mounting something risky and fresh could alienate the patrons, and then what? Even if they could weather the loss of the steady revenue, they’d end up scraping by in between hits just like every other theater in town. And that’s uncomfortable. Rather than stomach the risk, they went for the safe bet, over and over and over.

As a result, the literary department had to turn down all kinds of great opportunities that went meteoric elsewhere: Avenue Q, Urinetown, on and on. Each hit that got away carved another divot in the hearts of the very smart, talented, and passionate young people working at that theater. But that was the business model. Once you get hooked on an audience, there’s no escaping them. 

I quit blogging before most people even knew what blogging was. Same for podcasting. I’ve been way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting and then abandoning new media. I’ll stick with this newsletter a little bit longer, with its non-existent business model and complete lack of personal utility. Not because I see gold at the end of this rainbow but because I kind of like the colors.