Wattpad and digital sharecropping

Last September, the folks over at Forbes wrote a story about Wattpad and its highly exploitive (though completely voluntary) business model:

Wattpad has more than 4 million writers, who post an average of 300,000 pieces a day. The company brings in an estimated $19 million in revenue, mostly from ads on its site and from stories sponsored by companies like Unilever who want to advertise alongside a specific writer or genre. Nearly all its writers are unpaid; several hundred make money from ad-sharing revenue and 200 of those also earn from writing sponsored content and inking publishing deals with Wattpad. That lean business model means Wattpad is profitable. It has few costs beyond bandwidth, its 130 employees and the Toronto offices. The model “is a great way to seek talent without having to pay huge amounts for it,” says Lorraine Shanley, a publishing industry consultant.

Forbes, September 2018

4 million writers, and only a minuscule number (about .005%) make any money for their efforts. 

Wattpad is a textbook example of digital sharecropping.

I have nothing against the concept of web fiction, web serials, or posting fiction for free on the Internet. Much of the content of this site, after all, is web fiction. (I have my own little Wattpad going on here.)

But the defining characteristic of digital sharecropping is the socialization of effort, and the privatization of rewards. Wattpad earns $19 million in revenue, because writers choose to post their fiction there, rather than writing on their own sites

I can already anticipate your “but….” rebuttals.

Yes, I realize that only a handful of these writers, if they created their own web presences, would garner any appreciable audience, or earn any real revenue. But let me ask you: How much chance do most writers have on Wattpad, amid 4 million other writers, posting 300,000 pieces per day?

The odds of genuine success are about the same either way. The writers who are standing out on Wattpad could, with a bit of effort, stand out on their own online platforms. And then they would make a whole lot more money than Wattpad is paying them, you can be sure. Even more importantly, they would control their own platforms. 

Digital sharecropping works because too many creative types are desperately slavering for any form of immediate recognition, like a thirteen year-old boy hopelessly infatuated with an eighteen year-old girl.  

Look at me! Look at me now!A like on a Facebook post! A retweet! A like on a YouTube video! Oh, any form of recognition will do! Pleeeeaaase!

The owners of the social media giants understand this weakness of all creative people, and they eagerly exploit it. 

Resist. If you can’t afford your own independently hosted WordPress site, then start a free blog on Google’s blogger platform. 

Yes, Google ultimately controls Blogger. But there you at least have some independence. (You can also run your own affiliate links, and eventually qualify for Adsense revenue).

Whatever you do—if you’re a writer—don’t post your fiction on Wattpad. Don’t be a sucker. 

Just as Facebook and Twitter have become the cancer that destroyed blogging, so Wattpad has become the cancer that threatens to destroy independently published web fiction. 

Don’t fall for the scam.

Social media, and me as a writer

On the podcast that he cohosts with fellow post-apocalyptic writer Zach Bohannan, J. Thorn has oft stated that he does not like social media. He also frequently refers to news reports that indicate “the death of social media”.

J. Thorn and I have a lot in common. In addition to being writers, we are both around the age of fifty, give or take a few years. J. Thorn is almost certainly more politically left-of-center than I am. But like me, J. Thorn has expressed exasperation with the cult of political correctness, and its tendency to dumb down artistic expression. (As Thorn recently noted, it is now considered deeply offensive in some circles to portray characters with racist viewpoints in fiction, even if those characters are portrayed as negative foils, with clear authorial disapproval. Because, you know…someone could be “triggered”.)

Also like J. Thorn, I don’t care for social media. I do use Facebook for keeping in touch with my high school friends, but I don’t use it much as a writer. I practically despise Twitter. I do like the video aspect of YouTube, but not its social media aspect. (I disable comments and ratings on every video I upload to the site.) I have an Instagram account that I’ve never used. I probably never will use my Instagram account. 

This is ironic, because I’m plenty sociable enough as a private citizen. I’m also sociable enough on my personal Facebook feed, with people I actually know, in real life.

Where I’m not terribly social is with my creative process. Social media is, by definition, social, but a more accurate descriptor would be: mass, anonymous, and indiscriminate. If you put something out there on Twitter, or YouTube, or a public Facebook page, you are inviting random, anonymous strangers throughout the globe to comment on it, to add to it. 

I understand that some people think this is wonderful. To me, it is anathema. 

Every now and then, I see news stories about attempts at “crowd writing”. The basic idea is that a bunch of anonymous people get together on the Internet and write a short story or a novel. Just like Wikipedia.

The very idea makes my hairs stand on edge. What’s the point?

Please do not confuse this attitude with the conceit that I am the only person out there who has anything worthwhile to say. On the contrary, I spend a lot more time reading other people’s stuff than I do writing my own stuff. But I’m only interested in reading things that were written by a single author, with that author’s signature at the bottom of the page. One person, one voice. 

I have zero interest in wikis, YouTube comment threads, and off-the-cuff, glib one-liners on Twitter (from anonymous Twitter members, in most cases). 

This could be a generational thing, I grew up in an era when writing was a serious activity, structured around an organized publishing industry. Most writers jumped through innumerable hoops to get their words out into the world. The last thing they wanted to do was write anonymously, or to ask random strangers to add their two cents to the page.

I don’t think you have to be a writer to become exasperated with the anonymous, group project of social media. What, really, is the point of Twitter? Does anyone actually read YouTube comment threads, except as a means of confirming that there are some really bored, really dysfunctional people out there?

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr…they can all be cast upon the ash heap of history, for all I care. The Internet, in my opinion, was much better without them. 

Like J. Thorn, I have a habit of seizing upon online articles that predict the imminent demise of social media. I fully recognize that my own wishful thinking may lead me to give such articles more weight than they deserve. 

But one can always hope.

Why most writers should stay away from Reddit

I will openly confess that social media has never really been my “thing”. And I think that most writers have an uneasy relationship with it, at best.

Most writers get onto social media and immediately want to promote their books.

“Hey! Buy my book!”

“Did you know I have a new book out?”

“Have you seen my new book? Here’s a link to it at Amazon, for your convenience!”

And so on…

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Did you see what I wrote? Did you?

I’m not quite that tone-deaf. I have rarely attempted the outright sales pitch on social media. I will admit, however, a tendency to use social media exclusively for linking to this blog.

“Hey, read this post I wrote yesterday. You’ve got to read it. World-changing stuff, I’m telling you!”

This is why I rarely use Twitter. Twitter is a place where people bitch about politics, and discuss material written on external links…by other people. And then they bitch about politics some more. And post some more external links. “Did you see what so-and-so said/wrote/did? Here’s a link.”

I’m not interested in doing that. I always want to post links to my material.

This makes me a bad Twitter user.

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Reddit is not for me

But if I’m a bad Twitter user, I would be even worse on Reddit. I wouldn’t even think about getting onto Reddit, in fact. According to the Reddit terms of service:

You should not just start submitting your links – it will be unwelcome and may be removed as spam, or your account will be banned as spam.

You should submit from a variety of sources (a general rule of thumb is that 10% or less of your posting and conversation should link to your own content), talk to people in the comments (and not just on your own links), and generally be a good member of the community.

And furthermore:

It’s perfectly fine to be a redditor with a website, it’s not okay to be a website with a Reddit account.

But the thing is, I would be a website with a Reddit account. I know that. This is why I stay the heck off Reddit.

My ratio would be the exact opposite of what Reddit prescribes. About 90% of my links would be to my own content.

 




On social media, it’s all about links…and brief, snarky comments

Think about it from my perspective: Why would I want to post only “10% or less” of my own content, when I write content all day? When I have so much of it to post.

You egotistical bastard, you might counter. What, do you think you’re smarter than everyone else on the Internet? Or a better writer, maybe?

My answer to that is: I’m smarter than some, not as smart as others. The same goes for being a better writer.

But there is another way to look at this. I remember the pre-social media days, when “webrings” were the thing. A common complaint back then focused on websites that consisted only of links—with no original content. Often you would go from website to website, finding nothing but lists of links.

That was considered bad netiquette back then. But Reddit and Twitter are all about linking to content you haven’t created. A complete flipflop of the Internet ethos.

This doesn’t mean that Reddit and Twitter are bad, mind you. I also understand the deeper reasons for the draconian “ten percent rule” at Reddit. The platform’s members don’t want to be overwhelmed with “buy my x!” posts, which would be the inevitable result otherwise.

But this is also why I mostly stay off Twitter and Reddit, and other social media platforms that are all about linking to external sources.

 




And why wouldn’t I link to my own stuff?

The bulk of my time is spent creating my own content. That leaves me relatively little time to gather and curate content written by others.

And yes, there is an unabashedly selfish side to this, as well: After I’ve spent a few hours working on an essay or a short story, will my first impulse be to link to something a stranger wrote? Or an article from USA Today?

Hell, no. My first impulse will be to link to what I wrote. That’s only natural.

 




Curator or creator: know which one you are

But there is also an unselfish side to this. The Internet needs people to curate content, but it also needs people to produce content. If no one produces, then eventually there is nothing to curate.

The key is to know which one you are—a content curator or a content creator.

If you’re primarily a content curator, Twitter and Reddit are for you.

If you’re primarily a content creator, then you should probably stay off Twitter and Reddit. Your time would be better spent working on your own books and blog posts.

Give the curators something to find. They’ll find your stuff…eventually.


Podcasts, audiobooks gaining on Facebook

Here’s some good news: According to a recent study, podcast and audiobook consumption are up; Facebook usage is down.

Other highlights include:

More than half the US population now reports having used YouTube specifically for music in last week. This number is now 70% among 12-34-year-olds.

The study shows an estimated 15 million fewer users of Facebook than in the 2017 report. The declines are heavily concentrated among younger people.

That sounds about right. Aside from music, YouTube has mostly been reduced to adolescent humor and political rants (both of which have their place, mind you, but not in unlimited doses.) YouTube is a great place to watch the latest Def Leppard video. (Hey, I’m from the ’80s.)

As for Facebook: I use it to keep in touch with old high school friends. Beyond that, I can skip it. (And my younger cousins, all of whom were born since 2000, have zero interest in Facebook.)

On the other hand, I love podcasts, love audiobooks. I still prefer reading. But you can listen to podcasts and audiobooks when you’re on the go.

My new, old-school approach to the Internet

What the Internet has become….

 

Despite my general fondness for the twentieth century over the present one, I do—and always have—loved the Internet. I first dipped my toes into the online world in early 1998. I was immediately hooked.

That said, I have a distinct preference for the Internet the way it used to be—say, before 2004. Allow me to explain why.

 

In 2003, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube. Nor was Wikipedia yet the cancer it has since become, the top result in most online searches.

Back then, the Internet was a vast sea of personal webpages. There were legions of Internet columnists, writing intelligently and at length from various points of view.

The Internet was “diverse”—in the best sense of that word.

 

What has happened since then?

The Internet declined in stages. Right around 2003, someone got the bright idea that everything posted online must have a comments section. According to this view, there was never a news story or essay written that could not be enhanced by the feculent ramblings of every anonymous fifteen year-old boy on the planet who can somehow finagle his way onto the Internet.

The enthusiasm of online comments sections has since waned, but comments sections have been overtaken by something even more pernicious: social media.

On a personal level, I appreciate Facebook as a means to keep in touch with my high school classmates, and some previously long-lost work colleagues from the 1990s. But as a means of rhetorical or literary expression, social media produces little but rants and snark. (Twitter is the worst offender in this regard.)

And let’s not forget video. Online video has been around since practically the beginning of the Web; but in 2002, when content was delivered in the form of video, it usually had a specific purpose. Today it is impossible to visit any news site without being bombarded by blaring, autoplaying videos. Often these videos are completely redundant recitations of the text written immediately below.

 

The net result of these shifts is that the Internet has progressively become shriller, louder, and stupider. Mindless videos have replaced thoughtful texts. (One of the more popular videos on YouTube features an orange-haired young man doing nothing but staring at a banana.) No one has time for anything that can’t be written or read in twenty seconds. Commentators who used to blog are now spending all of their time composing off-the-cuff, 280-character tweets.

The overemphasis on social media has also diminished the leverage of individual creators. Building one’s online presence on someone else’s platform is usually a Faustian bargain. As many YouTubers have discovered last year (when their accounts were suddenly demonetized), social media giants are free to change the rules at whim, and often will.

For a long time, writers were building their online platforms on Facebook, and achieving substantial organic reach. Then Facebook changed the rules, too, with the aim of maximizing ad revenues. Today, if you want your posts to be seen by more than a handful of the people who have “liked” your Facebook page, you’ll have to pay Mark Zuckerberg for every view and click.

 


 

Like I said, I miss the way things used to be. Back in the “good old days” of the Internet, I maintained several personal websites. These were hosted by a now defunct web hosting company called Interland, and created with a now discontinued web editing software program called FrontPage.

It was a lot of fun, because I was focusing on writing for an online audience, which was my reason for being on the Internet in the first place. That is, I’ve concluded, what writers should be doing online, and social media isn’t the ideal venue for that.

I wasn’t scrambling to upload YouTube videos, and then neurotically checking my view stats and “thumbs up” votes. I wasn’t arguing with that teenager from Belgrade, Serbia, who showed up in my comments section—because no website in 2002 had a comments section. I wasn’t worried about getting “likes” on Facebook posts, and following people I don’t know on Twitter.

Another bad thing about social media, from the writer’s perspective: Social media demands constant interaction. This is because social media also drives a compulsive quest for approval from the Internet masses. The resultant hamster routine is a major timesink, and counterproductive to the creative process.

I’m not suggesting that the creative person’s online presence should exist in a vacuum. Yes, of course, you should check your site’s stats at regular intervals. If you maintain a website with any ambitions at all, you should think about factors like SEO, site organization, and ease of navigation. You should also have an email address, posted online, whereby readers can get in touch with you.

But there is a vast difference between acknowledging that there is an audience on the other side of what you are doing, and the peripatetic, minute-by-minute interactivity of social media. You probably want to maintain a mailbox, a telephone, and a doorbell at your house. You probably don’t want to knock down the walls of that house, so that anyone can walk into what is left of your living room, at any hour of the day or night.

 

With all that in mind, I recently made the decision to stop devoting time to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook (none of which I’d ever really liked), and to rededicate myself to building up a personal web presence (which I’ve enjoyed quite a bit in the past.)

This site, Edward Trimnell Books, is unabashedly rooted in the pre-2004 ethos of the Internet. Here you’ll find long-form opinion pieces, and long-form works of fiction. There are no like buttons, no comment sections, and there will be only the occasional online video. If you like my writing, if you find my opinions worthwhile, you’re welcome to hang around.

Everything posted here is completely free to read. There is no registration process, nor are you required to give me your email address.

 

My opinions are my own, and I’m unapologetic about them. I don’t go out of my way to offend anyone; but nor am I politically correct. I grew up in the 1980s, when plain and straightforward were the default modes of speaking. As a result, I say pretty much what I think today, without regard to speech codes, or what the pointy-headed nitwits on Vox and Huffington Post have deemed to be acceptable opinions—as of this week.

If you vehemently disagree with something I’ve written here, you’re free to email me or contact me on Facebook. (You can also feel free to contact me in those ways if you want to deliver praise, or express agreement with something you’ve read here.)

I’m reasonably responsive to concise and polite emails—even if you disagree with me. But as the above paragraphs hopefully make clear, I take the Seth Godin approach to comment sections. That is, I don’t have them, and I don’t believe in them. For me, writing is not a committee project.

 

 

That’s my new, old-school approach to the Internet. It won’t be to everyone’s liking. That’s okay. The Internet is a big place, and there are plenty of other options if this one isn’t your particular flavor.

But most of all, I promise the reader that no matter what, I will never subject you to a five-minute video of me watching a banana. Because even if the damn thing did get 2 million views, I just don’t see the point