86% of young Americans dream of becoming some kind of online content creator, according to this possibly-bullshit poll (I mean, approximately 100% of my friends are in that category, so who am I to doubt them?). Well, guess what: I've been making stuff on the Internet since before most Americans even had a dialup connection. Few humans on this planet have as much experience with online content creation as I do, and I hope you hear the weariness in my voice when I say that.
I published a deranged, satirical “How to succeed like me” column yesterday, but I know some people want actual advice, so here are my 10 best (real) tips. I want one thing to be clear right away: I am not trying to discourage you. I would not choose another career if given a second chance. But as part of this guide, we're going to dig into our culture's weird relationship with its "influencers"… and why it can cost you a bit of your soul if you’re not careful.
My next book, the latest in the John Dies at the End series, is up for pre-order now! Holy shit! It’s called If This Book Exists, We’re in the Wrong Universe and you can get it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Bookshop. Or any local bookstore! The audio version link will be up soon!
1. First, Answer This Question: "Why Am I Doing This?"
Hey kids, I'm gonna share the big secret of the adult world: Grown-ups often don't have good reasons for doing what they do. Or any reasons at all. They fell into their careers by accident, maybe pursuing a degree purely to get into the same classes as a cute girl, or stumbling into a job for quick cash and then getting promoted enough to make leaving impossible. The honest answer to "Why do you do what you do?" is usually, "I dunno, just turned out that way."
This is a recipe for misery, so before you rearrange your kitchen for a TikTok cooking show or buy the gear for you Twitch Minecraft stream, ask yourself, "Why?" If the answer is, "I just want to have fun and express myself," that's totally fine! But I've known creators who said the same and then, within a few years, were complaining that it wasn't paying the bills. I've known just as many who got into it purely as a source of income, who later quit because they weren't having fun. I know others who insisted it'd be a stepping stone to a full-time career, but a decade later, still had no roadmap for how to make that happen.
Remember, becoming a content creator is going to cost you (and that’s in addition to the piece of yourself you’ll lose every time you hear your art referred to as “content”). If you don't know why you're doing it, those costs are going to result in resentment down the line. There’s a reason so many creators you follow are secretly depressed or, you know, publicly depressed.
"Whoa," some of you are saying, "this isn't costing me anything, I'm just going to do a podcast with my friends talking about horror movies!" Ah, about that...
2. Ask, "What Will It Cost Me? And Am I Willing To Pay It?"
Remember, "cost" isn't just about money. Free platforms like YouTube and Substack are a miracle for creatives but whatever you create will still eat time and energy that could have been used on other things. The hundreds of hours you sink into recording mukbang videos could have been spent earning cash at a second job, or making new friends, learning a new skill, lifting weights, or petting a dog.
It will also likely take a toll on your mental health and personal life that you're not yet anticipating (but we'll get to that in a moment). This, in fact, is why #1 is so important: You have to balance the goal versus the cost and that’s only possible if you’re honest with yourself about both. And note that this applies even if your goal is just to have fun and express yourself; you’ll still want to occasionally take time to ask, "Am I having fun? Do I actually find this relaxing and/or fulfilling?"
You'd be shocked at how many creative people are locked in a grind of making stuff that grants them neither money nor joy, out of some vague obligation to their fans. If those fans really care about you, they'll understand if you walk away! If they don't really care about you, why are you making yourself miserable for them?
By the way, this advice isn't just for aspiring amateurs - companies make this mistake all the time. I have creator friends who've been jerked around by jobs because some corporation and/or wealthy person funded a content-making operation based on nothing more than, "We’ll make fun stuff and figure out a strategy later!" Within two years, the suits were squinting at a spreadsheet and getting a migraine. "This is costing us a ton of time and money and all we're getting in return is a bunch of weirdos yelling at us on twitter. Why did we do this?"
Please, for everyone's sanity, have a clear idea of what goal you want to accomplish by making stuff, and be sure everyone involved knows what that goal is. Don't just yank the rug out once the novelty wears off and the bills come due.
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3. Figure Out What The Audience Will Get From Your Creation
The good news is that, for the first time in history, anyone can make content for a mass audience. The bad news is that, for the first time in history, anyone can make content for a mass audience. Your potential readers/viewers/listeners are drowning in media, so you need to think about what you, and only you, have to offer them.
To grossly simplify, content generally offers three elements: Personality, Useful Information and Spectacle (that's stolen from this video from the great Dan Olson). My sense is that you usually need at least two of the three. Did you ever watch Myth Busters when it was on? The Personality came from the interplay between Jamie and Adam, the Useful Information came from the scientific experiments/debunkings, the Spectacle came from the explosions.
"But what about porn?" you might ask. "It doesn't have any of that, and it dominates the internet." Well first of all, the nudity counts as spectacle; I'm using that word to mean anything that engages you on a base, visceral level - anything dazzling, shocking, hilarious, disgusting, whatever. Dan's video up there was about YouTube cooking shows, where the spectacle is usually some kind of visually striking dish.
But if you're making porn that's actually intended to engage an audience long-term and keep them coming back, you'd damned well better believe at least one other element has to be there, usually personality. I’d even argue that the content is “useful” in that it serves a tangible purpose (as a masturbation aid).
"But what about podcasts? There's no spectacle there, it's just audio." Sure, but in addition to the personality of the host and whatever information they're conveying, there's usually some more visceral element that satisfies that third part. In the shows I'm on, it's usually the jokes that interrupt the hard information, which abruptly engages a different part of the brain. In true crime podcasts, it's the lurid descriptions of the crimes, with interview shows it’s the occasional heated exchange with a guest, with Joe Rogan, it's the weird conspiracy stuff. In this column, it’s this photo of my dog, Gracie, with her Emotional Support Rock:
So if your show isn't growing, ask yourself which element might be missing. Are you offering interesting information/insights? Do you have those moments of humor or shocking/mind-blowing revelations that get the listeners’ juices flowing? If you have plenty of those and you feel like you're somehow coming up short in that third category of personality, well, uh…
Here's where you might want to take a moment to collect yourself before continuing.
4. Know Going In That The Audience Will Want A Piece of Your Soul
Have you ever looked up a recipe on the internet, only to get frustrated because the instructions for making cornbread begin with a 1,000-word essay from the writer about how this is the cornbread their aunt used to make when she lived in Baton Rouge? There's a reason they do that.
See, of the three elements, two of them can be replicated anywhere. Want to review movies on YouTube? You'll be expressing the same opinions on the same movies as literally millions of other channels. When it comes to spectacle, you’ll generally lose that battle to more well-funded operations.
The only thing that's unique and special about your content is you. There is only one you, no one else has your exact personality. If you stand out, it's probably because people specifically connected with you. That's what the recipe writer up there is trying to do, to differentiate their cornbread recipe from the millions of others, and literally the only way to do that is by injecting a part of yourself into it. Creating for an audience means opening up some private places and letting strangers in.
I mean, just Google a celebrity name and look at the most common searches it suggests below the box. It’s usually not about the celebrity’s work, but rather their dating life, their income, their family.
Unfortunately, this means when the masses reject a piece of your content, they often won't be rejecting the premise or technical aspects of the presentation - they'll be rejecting you, as a person. They'll be saying that you, as a human being, are not good enough, not interesting enough, not unique enough.
This can be hard to take.
Never forget that modern audiences aren't just looking for media to consume - to them, media is as plentiful as air. They're looking for a relationship. And when you disappoint them, they will take it as a deep, personal betrayal. I had my first really scary cyberstalker when I was still just a little-known blogger working two office jobs. I've had fans show up at my house, I've gotten more death threats than I can count (they're so common that they really don't mean much - people raised online just use death threats as a type of insult).
Again, I'm not trying to scare you off. I love my job and wouldn't trade it for anything. But this isn't the old days, when creators could remain aloof and let their work speak for itself. No matter what medium you choose, your first publicity person will be you and the only way to promote your work is to open your guts and let the audience probe around inside. If they don’t like what they see, don’t take it personally. Hey, have you ordered my book yet?
5. Interact With The Audience and Give Them A Chance to Achieve Status Within The Fandom
Out in the real world, hobbies don’t just provide fun and distractions - they provide status. You can win Cool Points in your friend group for getting good at the sport/video game you all play together, or being fun at parties, or demonstrating an unusual talent, or just having an attractive face. Humans are social animals and don't find activities rewarding long-term unless there's some social status reward.
Since content creators are fighting for the same free time as the above activities, the challenge has always been figuring out how to offer the same kind of Cool Points for engaging with them. This is why every successful Twitch streamer devotes a huge chunk of their stream to calling out new subscribers by name, or holding contests to give away merch, etc. They'll offer tiers of fandom and badges/awards to those who've been the best fans for the longest - anything to give the audience a chance to contribute, to see their names in lights, to feel like they’re getting something out of the relationship.
"But Jason," some of you are saying, "I've been following you for years and you absolutely suck at this! You rarely stop to celebrate specific fans. And when have you ever spent time in the comments of your articles, demonstrating that you value their input?" Well, here's the thing...
6. Know That You Will Sometimes Be Used As A Receptacle For Strangers' Rage
If you’re like me, the tip above is the one you’ll find the most difficult, because you're either introverted enough that public interaction on that scale is extremely taxing, or you're sensitive enough that negative feedback - even if incredibly rare - is crushing. Unfortunately, the modern content creation landscape heavily favors those who are immune; either extremely confident/charismatic people who easily brush off criticism, or angry assholes who thrive on it.
And by "criticism" I mean it in the way modern fans convey it, via elaborate descriptions of how they hope you and everyone you love is tortured to death. Regardless of any debate about "cancel culture" or whatever, the undisputed fact is that there is a segment of the population that spends a ton of time online, which can induce a sense of numb helplessness. For them, outrage is the most pleasurable and intense emotion they can experience - it makes them feel strong again. They also have been trained by the internet to turn everything up to 11, as they fear any lesser response will simply be ignored (and, to be fair, they're usually right).
Part of it is that they perceive any attack on a creator as "punching up", as striking back at the powerful, even if the creator’s "power" is having a YouTube channel with 76 subscribers. The first time I got an email from someone vowing to knock me off my ivory pedestal, I was still making $8.25 at a data entry job and driving a 12 year-old pickup truck that sometimes wouldn't shift into reverse. The moment you have a platform, any platform, you'll become a sort of idol that some people will fantasize about toppling, because the actual powers in society are untoppleable and it feels good to have done something.
Don’t take it personally.
“But people shouldn't do that!” you say. “It drives away the creators who care and leaves only the jerks!" Sure, but you don't have the power to change how audiences behave, you can only control your reaction. Speaking of which...
7. Accept That You Can't Control What Your Audience Gets From Your Work
Somewhere right now, some hard-working young woman is struggling to figure out why some of her shoe review videos get way more traffic than others, and will soon realize the hits are the ones that prominently display her bare feet in the thumbnail.
Creating art is not like having a direct brain connection to other human beings; what you create and what they perceive will be totally different, often in ways that you will find frustrating. Work you intended to be ironic or satirical will be taken at face value, symbols will be misinterpreted, jokes will fall flat.
And, the one that will hurt you most of all, the work that you put the most effort into will likely not be your most successful. Some of the most popular pop songs of all time were written in 20 minutes. Your passion projects will bomb and stuff you dashed out on a whim will soar. Don't take it personally.
8. Don't Try To Chase Trends
Remember when The Hunger Games came out, and for several years after we got these knockoff Teen Apocalypse franchises like Divergent and The Maze Runner? And then there were a bunch more that you've already forgotten about, because they came in at the tail end of the trend after people were sick of it?
When you reach a place where you really start caring about audience size - say, when your income starts to depend on it - you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what’s hot and how to get a piece of that juicy action. That's a loser's game, because you'll always be up against huge, well-funded creators who can chase those trends better and faster.
Remember, your audience is here specifically for you, so the best thing you can do is keep evolving, polishing your skills to better convey your own voice. If something bombs, don't take it personally. Even if the work that bombed was, in fact, deeply personal to you, and the hate mail is saying that you, personally, are shit.
“So, what, I’m supposed to just throw the stuff out there and hope for the best?” Well, not exactly…
9. Get Ready To Deal With Platforms That Do Not Have Your Interests in Mind
The veteran content creators out there have spent this entire list screaming in their heads, "Is he ever going to talk about platforms and algorithms?!? Literally nothing else matters!"
In my youth, creating online meant making a website and convincing people to show up every day. Now, it means making content for some app the audience is already using: Spotify, TikTok, Soundcloud, e-readers, whatever. But ask any YouTuber what it's like to deal with that platform and you'll get hours of nightmare stories: Algorithms that randomly bury videos for seemingly no reason, content pulled over spurious copyright claims or falsely flagged as inappropriate, traffic that seems to come and go totally at random.
This is where you do have to pay close attention to what’s hitting and why, because lots of times it’s not about what you made, but some miniscule aspect of how it was presented on the platform. Titles and thumbnails make a massive difference, as do other non-obvious factors like content length and time/date of upload. This means a certain amount of time/energy/expense is going to go to simply dealing with the infuriating peculiarities of these platforms, whether you're talking about Twitch or your newsletter service or whatever.
There’s no one solution or trick to learn, because they tweak their algorithms daily and what succeeds today will fail tomorrow. It’s a moving target driven by a bunch of code written by people you’ll never meet for reasons not even they fully understand. At least one lovingly-crafted piece of your work will die because of it. Don’t take it personally.
10. Remember That Other Creators Are Not Your Enemy
Envy is a cancer and it's easy to feel a twinge of bitterness when some other creator gets the success you think you’re owed. But this isn't like rival salespeople competing to win the yearly top seller bonus, there are plenty of opportunities to go around. I’m an author, but my competition isn't other authors, it's video games and podcasts and all of the other distractions people might choose over books.
Creators need to support one another and you need creator friends because, to be frank, no one else is going to understand you. And if someone finds more success than you even though you feel like they haven’t paid their dues or don’t work as hard as you, don't take it personally.
I hope this hasn’t been discouraging, all of this can be overcome (I mean, I did it, and I’m a fairly unremarkable man). If you want future posts like this delivered to your inbox, click the subscribe button below - it’s free and has no ads. And pre-order my book! It’s out this fall, but people like me depend on pre-orders. You can order it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop or anywhere else you buy books! Audio order link is coming soon! Thanks!
Jason here I am in the comments seeking interaction so as to gain status! Its funny because I am referencing the thing in your post but also its true!
Great post. Re: the last segment: if there's room for both the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there's also room for your crappy band or podcast or whatever and every friend you have that succeeds is raising the tide for you as well. Celebrate others' success and they'll work to help you achieve yours. thanks for the read.