Angellist founder Naval Ravikant writes, “Every single tweet costs nothing and has the potential to reach the entire world.
“It’s the best lottery ever made.”
It’s difficult to predict what will be a hit or not, and luck is a factor, so the metaphor of a lottery works. Artist Pharell Williams calls himself “the Mr. Magoo of music;” despite making so many hits, he still doesn’t know why they work. But of course, Pharrell knows that music isn’t entirely a lottery. And Naval knows that Twitter isn’t entirely a lottery. It’s a combination of luck and skill. Here are some conditions and skills that can set you up win the social media lottery:
Leading Thinkers are Memelords
One person replies to Naval, “But one where a winner keeps winning. Case in point, you.” Naval replies, “I’m playing the same lottery as you. The only difference is that I’ve figured out one of the winning numbers in advance.”
The key to winning the lottery is people paying attention to you. People with an audience, relationships, and reputation get to win the lottery more often because they scratch fewer numbers; people are already interested in them. To build on Naval’s analogy, some people, like Kanye West or Banksy, have figured basically all but one of the winning numbers; they can win with very little effort. In fact, other people tell stories about them, in the hopes of winning the lottery, so they can win with none at all.
That’s because unlike the lottery, not each ticket is made equally. UC Davis distinguished professor Dean Keith Simonton, who has studied creative genius for decades, has a concept he calls the initial creative potential of an idea. He’s turned it into a formula, based on originality, utility, and surprise.
Most social media posts barely qualify as lottery tickets. In fact, they have virtually no chance at going viral. They’re not original, useful, or surprising.
In our case, some people have developed a good sense of the initial creative potential of their ideas, and what people like, and so just seem to win the lottery more and more often. Others clearly have a skill for this; modern day memelords, like Tim Ferriss and Lil’ Nas X, come to mind. They constantly cultivate a practice of making memes or “ideaviruses,” and an infrastructure and community that enables that as well. They then build those memes into their actual books and songs, and their promotional content, to make them more shareable.
We’ve now stretched beyond the limits of the lottery metaphor. When it comes to anything related to creativity, success is a moving target. Figuring out a “formula” only works at the highest, abstract, level. On Twitter, the word constraint, the voice and tone, and all of that matter.
One strategy that people naturally follow is to chase the moving target; to remix memes, make their own trends, etc. (That’s why everyone is talking about the coronavirus right now.) This works sometimes, but also detracts from the disproportionate success that comes with originality.
Experiment and Learn from the Feedback
To me, social platforms are not only lotteries; they are also laboratories. Writer David Perell says, “I’m writing a book about writing, one sentence at a time — right here on Twitter.” I feel the same way about Medium; I’m writing a book about creativity, one article at a time, with a chance to learn which combinations of ideas and phrases resonate with people.
Rather than throw everything into a book proposal, the “waterfall” way of approaching writing, I’ve taken a more agile approach to my writing. Constant, small, releases. I’m clearly still experimenting with frequency — at minimum once a week, often more. I figure, if Facebook can push changes to their product every day, so can I.
From a publishing perspective, publishing the way Charles Dickens did sounds really useful to me. (A Tale of Two Cities first appeared in 31 issues of All the Year Round magazine.) Keeping track of information is more important too, because it potentially provides the infrastructure to make more tickets, faster. It also means developing a sense of how to get better lottery tickets, through stronger ideas and communication.
That’s the theory, anyway. This is hard work in practice. For example, the more time I spend writing this article, the stronger I feel about this idea. I realize this iteration of it is very far from perfect. But it’s also just the first one; a few hours ago, it was a hunch. I plan on writing some notes down, and letting time and my unconscious brain work its magic.
It’s A Numbers Game*
*But, again, not every ticket is made equal. Buying a lottery ticket is easy, because each one has the same chance of winning. Making a lottery ticket in the social lottery is much more difficult.
The main challenge with creative work is, like entrepreneurship, it’s so inherently personal. Failing at creative work can also feel like failing as a person. Making shitty creative work can feel like being a shitty person. And watching other people succeed — they always seem to be succeeding — is discouraging.
In The Luck Factor, Richard Wiseman briefly writes about three people who win a ton of prizes (TVs, holidays, etc.) from competitions. He writes, “All three of them were well aware that their lucky winning ways are, in reality, due to the large number of competitions they enter.” Some of them do up to fifty per week. But entering those competitions are easy; the prospect of the pains of creative work deters most people from continuing, or even starting.
While creative work requires us putting ourselves into it, I think succeeding requires removing ourselves from the outcome. It’s difficult to keep this in mind when it also is how we put food on the table, but it’s important. Make getting those tickets as fun as possible. Simonton writes in The Genius Checklist about figuring out what’s acceptable, and trying to make more of those; not trying to make perfect work, but making more acceptable work.
On top of that, real life happens. Some days, you’ll make five lottery tickets; other days, just one. On the bad days, you just need to keep making one. And no matter how close you get to winning the lottery, or even if you win it once, you might win just by playing the odds. If you’re not happy abiding by luck or those results, then you need to notice and play the deeper levels of the game, what some call the metagame. I’m barely scratching the surface here; another article, for another time.
Again, the lottery metaphor again reaches its limit here. Not each creative idea — Tweet, Medium article, YouTube video, etc. — has the same chance of winning the lottery. And skill, cumulative advantages like followers, timing, etc. all can be huge factors.
The Social Media Lottery Is Actually the Attention Lottery
The most important part is this “social media lottery” concept expands far beyond social media; it’s about catching people’s attention at scale. Don’t limit yourself to studying social media. The strongest example that comes to mind is 50 Cent’s mixtapes, which secured him a second record deal after he got dropped from his label. It generated much-needed buzz, way before social media was around. Or if you want to go really old school, take a look at the Hedgehog and the Fox.
There are ways to improve your odds at winning this lottery. It’s worth understanding them. Packaging ideas, experimenting with them, and playing the odds are just a small sliver of the actions and mindsets it takes. Keep your eyes open; every day gives you 24 hours a chance to learn and participate.