If you browse Twitter frequently, or even occasionally, you’ll probably have become very familiar with threads—when an author connects multiple tweets together by replying to himself or herself. (Old heads like me will still let the term “tweetstorms” slip out.)
People write a lot of threads, because people believe that Twitter amplifies threads. And of course, many enterprising Twitter creators have exploited this opportunity to their advantage; the problem is, of course, a lot of these threads start looking the same. There are some threads who call this out (the irony isn’t lost on me or the original authors, I’m sure):
(Some people are so tired of seeing threads that they’re muting the thread emoji.)
We’ve actually seen this before, of course. In 2013—which feels like a millenia ago in internet time—Upworthy headlines were everywhere, juiced up by Twitter and Facebook algorithms in growth phases favoring organic links. Independent journalism organizations like Poynter even published articles on how to write Upworthy-style headlines.
For at least a few months, the internet started looking homogenous; without seeing the author’s actual name, you couldn’t tell who was writing what. Because each writer stopped writing like themselves, and started writing like Upworthy, they chose to become a content machine. It felt like each actual person writing the article was interchangeable, and even expendable; the headline and style became the star.
Everybody wanted to learn 5 Ways to Write Headlines that would Get Millions of Visitors in Less Than 5 Minutes (and You Won’t Believe #3). And then of course, inevitably, the tide passed. Upworthy had to evolve beyond its capability to write great headlines; it had to chase longevity.
Understanding the inclination to go viral
The tendency for a creator or artist to trend towards becoming a content machine is more than just a desire for the excitement of going viral; rather, the event of “going viral” indicates something more. If we’re to understand this urge to become a content machine, we can’t just blame algorithms for rewarding clickbait headlines.
Going viral means what the creator has to say definitely, objectively, matters. It means, by extension, that the creator matters. We’re all victims of inadequacy—of our self-doubts, but also the changing trends and economics of platforms—and we want an assurance that we don’t need to doubt ourselves. We want to matter, and going viral is one way to make it feel like we do.
There are also all of the career opportunities that emerge from going viral. One could say that the best thing about going viral is they can then write about how other people can go viral; sometimes that might mean selling courses on going viral (a very lucrative, and apparently timeless, endeavor).
The main challenge is one of objectives. Quality is difficult to measure for all sorts of reasons, so we use shortcuts to do it. Currently, popularity is the best way to create a winning image, which makes it an easy proxy for quality. After all, 5,000+ people hearting your thread can’t be wrong, right?
By contrast, actor Ethan Hawke says it well, “It’s not up to us whether what we do is any good. And if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic.”
There are dozens of posts out there on how to write better headlines, or how to get people’s attention. It wouldn’t be difficult for you to figure out how to plug your subjects into these formats. The troubling element, of course, that few creators like to admit is there’s rarely ever a certainty a piece of work is going to resonate—let alone go viral.
When you deliberately choose to change what you have to say to fit inside these formats and structures, or start veering only towards topics with a high potential to go viral, you also stop making things for yourself. Your work starts looking, by necessity, like everyone else’s; you’ve taken your first step away from being a creator, and towards being a content machine.
The life-changing magic of suboptimal hooks
I recently wrote a blog post about the less visible costs of keeping your options open. I decided to format it for Twitter as well.
A part of me regrets not spending more time writing a catchier hook. It’s not like any creator sets out to purposely hinder their own reach, after all.
Happily, another part of me—one that grows stronger each day—is merely interested in writing the way I want to write. Especially at my blog, and Twitter, where I don’t have the pleasure of working with another editor, and where frankly I just dash off very quick starting points for thoughts. These aren’t my books, after all; they’re very casual surfaces for me to publish my work. It’s supposed to be fun.
To be clear, writing headlines and hooks can be fun, when they’re allowed to emerge more organically. For this piece, I came up with several headlines—and none of them bear any resemblance to the threads at the top. (“Don’t Become a Content Machine, Against Becoming a Content Machine, Content Machines, On “The [xyz] Guy” “Here’s what I learned…”, and the thread emoji,” etc.)
I also want people to follow me for the way I write. I don’t always like writing concise intros, I like taking the scenic route. If you’re not into that sort of thing, I totally understand, but my blog might not be the best one for you to read.
More importantly though, I want to connect with the people who want to chew their own intellectual food; I don’t always want to do the chewing for them. There’s plenty of processed content out there already, and I’m not interested in contributing to that ecosystem. It’s my own version of a longcut.
I’ve always liked the metaphor likening publishing content to a tuning fork; each post I write is effectively sending the equivalent of bat signal, or a high-pitched frequency sound, or whatever else, to people who will appreciate it, and enabling people who won’t appreciate it to ignore it.
(I followed Rameez right after I saw this tweet.)
Stop creating like a machine, start creating like a person
When my original thread on Yeezy a few months back went viral, it occurred to me (as it would with any sensible person) that I could become “The Yeezy Guy.” Double down, bet on what’s working, and do more of it. I didn’t want to do it though. I compromised by starting a newsletter, and I resolved to keep doing what I was doing—writing about it when I felt like it, or when I noticed something interesting. It’s been really nice.
That’s the stance I’m taking on creative work moving forward—hobby or otherwise. If there ever was a piece of advice that’s well suited for every creator and artist, it’s the need to stay consistent with your creative practice; if you hate what you’re doing, there’s only so much you can force yourself to do before your dislike for the process shows in your work.
Part of this means alleviating the financial pressure of instrumentalizing your creative work, maybe by finding another way to make money. But part of it also means cultivating the courage, and confidence, to know that your work will find its way to the people who want to find it, through promotion.
The most important thing, though, is to have fun again. You know how.
Play. Try making something just for one person. Or, even more radically, try making something you won’t ever show anyone else. Creative work without play is just labor (and for many people, it doesn’t pay very well!).
With all respect, I don’t want to read work from another content machine.
I want to read what you have to write.