no one’s going to read this, and that’s ok
Writing today seems like standing in a giant hall filled with people as far as the eye can see and trying to outshout just enough of them for someone flying overhead to catch the sound of your voice and maybe pause for half a minute to listen. More often than not, your voice barely rises above the deafening din. Because we no longer have gatekeepers, for better or worse, pretty much everyone gets their turn at a megaphone and the result is a cacophony through which random ideas and trends emerge, seemingly with no rhyme or reason and seldom repeating what at first seemed like obvious success.
But it’s hard to blame users. Confronted with a tsunami of sites, blogs, and aggregators, it’s practically impossible for them to navigate through it without serious help from machines. They have literally millions of choices, and even curated lists are becoming overwhelming for many, prompting countless users to ask if they may be better off not using social media or trying to uncover a scrap of something they’ll consider treasure in a figurative landfill, spending all that time they waste on their smartphones today to pursue their own hobbies. So, if it’s fiendishly difficult to get eyeballs to your work and getting harder every year, shouldn’t we just give up? After all, what’s the point of swimming against a current?
Well, there are two reasons. The first may be best explained by an old joke about a desperately poor but very pious and kind man who prays to God every week to win the lottery so he can get back on his feet and help others with what’s left. On hearing his prayer for the hundredth time, the angels ask God if he would grant the man’s wish because he’s worthy of good fortune. In reply, God says that he absolutely would, but that the man has to actually buy a lottery ticket first. In short, if being noticed and getting your work widely seen is like winning the lottery, no matter how small your chances are, they’ll be zero if you don’t even try. You probably shouldn’t devote your life to becoming an assembly line of content without a steady paycheck to do so, but you should at least try if the inspiration hits you to see what happens.
The other reason is a lot less practical and comes without a corny joke from which I had to shake the cobwebs. It’s the moral satisfaction of creation for the sake of creation. There’s just something empowering about turning an idea in your head into a real physical object you can hold, or a digital representation of it you can share with the world, and maybe even beyond if you sign up for an Active SETI project. It’s the same reason why you do anything creative at first. And yeah, let’s be honest with ourselves, probably 90% of our creative output is going to be crap at first try. But that’s okay because if we fix our mistakes, learn from them and the experience of others, and practice with enough focus and discipline, we’ll improve.
We should also find joy in doing what we do. I like writing about science and analytical pieces because there’s no “wresting with demons” or turning my readers into unwitting therapists. There’s science, math, and facts. For many articles written on this site, I’ve done a whole lot of number crunching, and more than a few started out with completely opposite summaries and conclusions than they ended up because while checking and rechecking the finer points, I saw that my initial take was completely wrong and helped me connect dots I wouldn’t have even bothered trying to connect otherwise.
I’m a big proponent of learning by explaining what I think I know to someone else because the need to break down jargon, establish context, and show your work so the end result makes sense and can be followed means you have to evaluate everything you think you understand. In the software world, a version of doing this to solve problems is known as rubber ducking, and it’s probably not unfair to see Weird Things as me rubber ducking questions and findings about science, technology, and the universe that catch my attention, a collection of detailed notes in perpetual progress. (I use a Hypnotoad on my desk and my dog when it comes to my code.)
By writing down and working through so much over the years, I’ve been building up a whole repository of facts and charting their relationships and meaning. Whether an article is read by 100,000 people or 300 within the span of a few months, I still either learned something putting it together or was able to test my knowledge of the subject matter at hand. And yeah, all this writing makes me generally good at science trivia and it’s far from uncommon for my friends to recruit me to help settle their debates about science and technology. That alone makes this whole experiment worth it in my mind, as do the various fringe benefits of having my work cited and quoted in certain discussions.
In a way, wanting to create for the fun of it gives an edge to those creators with persistence, realistic expectations, a goal beyond simply being noticed, and an open ear to constructive criticism. Out of every million others competing with you, most will give up after their first few times almost invariably fail to bring them the acclaim and cash they seek. And if we return to our lottery hypothesis from earlier for a moment, consider that even if you get a few hundred unique views on a typical piece, over five years at the rate of even 50 pieces of content per year, your work has still been seen more than 60,000 people. That’s the population of a large town looking at your stuff without any of it even remotely close to going viral.
Social media’s vast numbers often obscure the reach we still manage to get. In just a little less than its first two years, Weird Things broke a million views and despite entire years off, it’s now hovering around three million views across about 2,000 articles. Over a dozen years of writing across multiple websites, I’d estimate that roughly 5 million people have read my work. That’s a little more than the number of digital subscribers for the New York Times. And it’s not because my work is so special, it’s just because over the years, the numbers really add up, especially as I keep generating content just because I want to write about science, technology, and yes, social problems caused by Luddism or statistical illiteracy weighing on my mind.
Really, the bottom line here is that there’s nothing wrong with not going viral or not having your content seen by millions of people within weeks, then being lavished with attention and cash. The most important thing is to create because you want to create, to focus on honing your craft and learning from the experience. Thanks to how the internet works, you’ll still be able to reach those millions of eyeballs. It’ll just take you a while, long enough to possibly get really good at what you do and learn some very useful skills along the way. Judging your hobby by comparing your reach to those of social media influencers, who themselves often slam into brick walls fairly quickly, is a sure way to lose your passion for it and forget why you started creating in the first place.