Showing all posts tagged: content production

The personal website returns: the good, the bad, and the ugly of it

6 May 2024

Kyle Chayka, writing for the New Yorker, in an article heralding the demise of the platform era:

Now digital-distribution infrastructure is crumbling, having become both ineffective for publishers and alienating for users. Social networks, already lackluster sources for news, are overwhelmed by misinformation and content generated by artificial intelligence. A.I.-driven search threatens to upend how articles get traffic from Google. Text-based media have given way to short-form videos of talking heads hosted on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube. If that’s not how you prefer to take in information, you’re out of luck. Surrounded by dreck, the digital citizen is discovering that the best way to find what she used to get from social platforms is to type a URL into a browser bar and visit an individual site.

Platform refers to walled garden environments such as Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram. Places you can check out of, but never leave. I may not be a one-hundred percent fan of some of them, but I don’t necessarily welcome their total demise either. Social networks are part of the internet’s evolution, and fabric. They play a role. But when you find yourself trapped within their confines twenty-four/seven, something’s not right.

Needless to say, I welcome the homecoming of the homepage, personal or otherwise. Not that some ever really went away. Some websites, as Chayka notes, were determined to remain outside the walled gardens. Tech news site The Verge is one, even going so far as to incorporate a social-media feed/stream like feature, when they revamped their website about two years ago. If you can’t beat them, join them. Sort of.

But another line in Chayka’s article sent a shiver down my spine:

One could argue that its [The Verge] makeover, which has now become a subject of admiring chatter among media executives and the editors who work for them, heralds the revenge of the home page.

It’s great The Verge has shown us what a post-platform internet could look like. Not so good, perhaps, is the news that “media executives” are seemingly salivating in delight at the prospect. Out goes one money-making model: the platforms, back comes another: the homepage. But we’ve been there before. And depending how many websites you continue using, still are.

When blogs — perhaps the first descendent of the personal website — began to really take off, about twenty years ago, the first influencers were not far behind. The monetisation strategies quickly followed. This wasn’t all bad. That a writer could make a living, independently, from their craft, was an ambition many aspired to. But as time went on, things began to get out of hand.

And I’m not referring to the plethora of blogs-about-blogging, the content farms, and who knows what else. Reading many blogs had become a trying experience. I lost count of the number of times I’d made my way to a blog — often through a search engine query — to look up something, only to be immediately greeted by a popup box, obscuring the content. They’re called “entry popups”.

“Would you like to subscribe to this publication by email?” read the annoying message. Well, I might, but I’m in no position to decide, as I’ve not been able to read a single word of what’s written here, so have no idea if subscribing is worth my while. Give me ten minutes, I might have a better idea.

Equally irritating were the so-called “exit popups”. Move your mouse pointer towards the top of the page, and, on the assumption you were leaving the blog, one would appear. Their purpose was to entice you to stay, perhaps by offering a discount on an e-book (which you had no interest in), and/or making another attempt to garner an email address.

The early years of the social networks were positively refreshing in contrast. Here was an online experience devoid of popup boxes, ads, and content of questionable quality. Short wonder so many people sought refuge on the platforms. Of course the respite would be short-lived. Now people, “digital citizens”, are returning to websites. But my question: how long before the money hungry marketers make the same transition?

You can still peruse The Verge without being blocked-out by those annoyingly ubiquitous popup boxes. They still carry adverts, but they’re relatively unobtrusive. Of course, The Verge is not a personal website, and the primary goal of personal sites is generally not to turn a profit. But there’s nothing wrong, I think, with a publisher of a personal website, or blog, deriving some income from their website, especially where they are creating content others find useful or enjoyable.

But does that make it ok? To therefore monetise personal websites? Those unkempt public parks, as Mike Grindle eloquently describes them?

I think it’s vital that we still have web spaces where rampant monetization and marketing are frowned upon or outright disallowed – spaces like the Fediverse, personal blogs, and the indie web. They are like the unkempt public parks of the internet’s town square-turned-metropolis. They are places where we should be careful to not let the billboards outgrow the trees.

The billboards had outgrown the trees, particularly towards the end of the first homepage era. And then they eventually swamped the platform era apps. Can anyone else see the trend here? I’m sure the aforementioned media executives can, as they eagerly anticipate the return of the homepage. But they’re not interested in collateral damage.

I can’t imagine though, too many Indie Web/Small Web personal websites sacrificing screen real estate for a great many billboards. There are other means of monetising, some so low key they’re almost invisible. While hardly the best examples of personal websites, even if they are published (mostly) by individuals, Daring Fireball and Kottke nonetheless make for noteworthy role models.

Enduring also, both have been online for decades. Daring Fireball, whose revenue model I’ve written about previously, features a single, small, advert in its left hand column. And it doesn’t look half bad either. Kottke meanwhile, draws income from a voluntary membership system. There’s barely a billboard to be seen, but I’m guessing both publishers are doing well.

If that’s not proof less is more, what is?

Meanwhile plenty of personal website readers are happy to make “buy a cup of coffee” type donations to content creators whose work they like, or buy their products. There’s also going to be other ways to go about this, without a return to those homepage destroying, oversize, billboards.

There’s also something else that may help prevent a repeat of the overgrown billboard homepage apocalypse. Something that was not present twenty-years ago, at least not entirely in the form it is today, and that’s the Indie Web/Small Web community. A community determined to see independent publishers thrive. Massive billboards may one day again overwhelm, and wipe out, resurgent homepages, but not in all quarters of the internet.


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Personal branding overkill is killing solo content creators

2 April 2024

A band performs live as an audience member photographs them. Photo by Pexels.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

Rebecca Jennings, writing for Vox, on the tyranny of the personal brand, and the stifling effect they are having on content creators:

The internet has made it so that no matter who you are or what you do — from 9-to-5 middle managers to astronauts to housecleaners — you cannot escape the tyranny of the personal brand. For some, it looks like updating your LinkedIn connections whenever you get promoted; for others, it’s asking customers to give you five stars on Google Reviews; for still more, it’s crafting an engaging-but-authentic persona on Instagram. And for people who hope to publish a bestseller or release a hit record, it’s “building a platform” so that execs can use your existing audience to justify the costs of signing a new artist.

Back in the day, and I’m talking fifteen plus years ago, if you had any sort of online presence you effectively had a personal brand. It was a term that was frequently bandied about, often quite casually, but to me seemed like a set of (self-determined) guidelines to adhere to.

Boiled down, a personal brand helped maintain a consistency across your online activities. It was quite simple, mostly.

For someone like me, as a blogger/self-publisher, it meant standardising the avatar/log on my website, Twitter page, and things like (the long gone) MyBlogLog, and I was set. Back to blogging I went. Although some people took their personal brand (or, more specifically, the idea of a personal brand) more seriously than others, maintaining one was very much a part time effort. That’s because if you were a content creator (however you defined that: blogger, photographer, musician, artist, designer, author, whatever), being creative was what you did first and foremost. Times have changed.

Yet this is not the place I thought we would, one day, end up in. I do not rate myself as an artist, but I vividly recall the excitement the self-publishing potential of the internet evoked, when I launched the first iteration of disassociated in 1997. Back in the day, the internet presented itself as a space where creatives could carve out a niche of their own, free of intermediaries such as newspaper and book publishers, and record companies.

If they had something they wanted to share with the world, there was no longer anything stopping them. All they had to do was find an audience. And as a bonus, there a possibility they may even be able to make a little money from their craft in, what were then, newly minted roles as content creators. They could deal directly with anyone who was interested in their wares. Outside the costs of hosting a website, and owning a domain name, no one in the middle would be taking a cut.

A whole new age of opportunity seemed to be dawning.

And for a while, some creatives, musicians, writers, and other content creators, did well in this new self-publishing wonderland. Back then, these people centred their enterprise, their brand, their personal brand, on a website, and did so for some time. Even during the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century, social media channels were far and few between.

Friendster and MySpace were among them, but they were largely for personal use. Facebook, Flickr, Reddit, and Twitter, began to appear, and at first were used as side-line web presences. Creatives were grateful for the extra exposure they offered, but generally didn’t stray far from their websites. But as the likes of Twitter evolved, some of the first self-made influencers began to emerge. By self-made, I mean people who were not celebrities, or music or movie stars, but had garnered large followings on the platform, in their own right.

They may not have had millions of followers, initially, but with several tens of thousands, were the envy of many. And so the shift began. Creatives wanting a spot in the limelight, began devoting more time and energy to social media. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok added to the frenzy when they arrived. Social media channels had the audiences already. Massive audiences. It was only a matter of finding a slice of the collective gaze.

Content creators could throw out the SEO handbook; they no longer needed to drag visitors, kicking and screaming, onto their websites. Before long, the big social media channels were just about the only game in town, and if you weren’t on-board, you were out in the cold. Long gone was the content creator’s individually owned and branded website.

That in turn, heralded another change. Instead of being a part time web designer, content creators were taking on the role of marketers, and full time administrators of their personal brand. Fine of course if you have the luxury of a social media manager who can take care of your self-promotion, leaving you to focus on whatever it is you do. But solo content creators usually do not have that luxury. So when creatives are spending more time maintaining their personal brand, and less on creative or artistic output, something’s clearly not right.

How is anyone meant to bring forth quality work, when they’re thinking only of self-promotion? No doubt some are managing, but many would be struggling. But personal branding overkill is only part of the problem. The returns for content creators aren’t what they used to be.

Publishing advances for authors have decreased, as have royalty payments for musicians. This is partly a supply matter. With so many artists and content creators vying for audience attention, some are going to be overlooked. Musicians also have to contend with the algorithms on the music streaming services. If their work isn’t put on high-rotation, few ears are going to hear it. And recent changes to the way Spotify makes royalty payments is only going to make matters worse. To be eligible to receive a royalty, a track must be listened to at least one thousand times a year.

What an appalling, and sad, state of affairs, one far, far, removed from the almost utopic cyberspace realm the self-publishers of the late 1990’s envisaged. Certainly the problems are easy to identify, but the solutions are going to be little more elusive. In the meantime, perhaps some consolation can be taken form the artists themselves. I like to think they’ll come through this. They’re survivors; they’re used to doing it tough. Not that anyone should be using that to their advantage.


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Ten years of Kurzgesagt and freely available quality content

29 March 2023

It’s been ten years since Philipp Dettmer founded educational science portal Kurzgesagt. To mark the milestone, their latest video looks at Kurzgesagt’s inner workings, and explores how the operation is financed. There may not be too much for science enthusiasts to take away, but this is invaluable learning for content producers.

Kurzgesagt charges nothing for people to access their content. Rather than imposing a paywall, they have developed other revenue streams, including a shop and sponsorships. Readers/viewers are not assailed with ads, or thoroughly annoying popup prompts to subscribe to newsletters, instead leaving the content to be enjoyed at leisure. This is the way to do it.

Thank you Kurzgesagt for the first ten years, and here’s to the next decade.


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Notes feature will transform Twitter to content creation platform

27 June 2022

Social networking service Twitter looks set to make the transition from microblogging platform to content creation platform, with the trailing of a new notes feature. Twitter notes — currently being tested by users in Canada, Ghana, Britain, and America — allows posts of up to two thousand five hundred words at a time to be written.

It reminds me a little of the notes feature Facebook used to offer, that I used early on, when I still used Facebook. It’s a smart move on Twitter’s part, as it stands to significantly increase engagement on the platform. Presently users need to direct followers to external resources, such as their blog, if they want them to read posts exceeding two hundred and eighty characters.

Writers who do not have a website of their own look to particularly benefit from the notes feature, should Twitter decide to roll it out.


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An online revenue model for independent content producers

12 April 2010

Independent online publishers, content producers, and bloggers, who are looking for a way to earn an income, or make money online, could do worse than take a few cues from Daring Fireball, the website of John Gruber, who lives and breathes all things Apple.

Daring Fireball serves over two million page views, and generates an estimated revenue of US$15-20,000 each month, making Gruber’s methods well worth scrutinising. Let’s find out how we, as independent content producers, can do likewise.

Become a member of a private advertising network

Daring Fireball is part of The Deck, a private ad network created by Jim Coudal. Collectively, member websites have a very large audience made up mainly of creative, web and design professionals.

Members, who are admitted by invitation only, are required to display an image 120 by 90 pixels in size, and cannot carry any other forms of advertising on their website.

When you consider that 26 advertisers pay US$7900 per month, to advertise across 43 member sites though, the return, even allowing for The Deck’s cut, is going be very worthwhile.

Sell weekly sponsorship slots on your RSS feed

Gruber estimates that in excess of 150,000 readers (though the actual number is probably far higher) subscribe to Daring Fireball’s RSS feed, and this level of interest has allowed him to offer exclusive weekly sponsorship at US$3,500 a slot.

Do the maths there, that’s an income of US14,000 every four weeks, not bad at all for a one person operation.

A number of other high profile bloggers have attempted to monetise their RSS feeds, many of whom incidentally are members of “The Deck”, though very few have emulated Daring Fireball’s success.

A recent discussion with Jason Kottke on The Pipeline, Dan Benjamin’s online radio show, both conceded that Gruber is one the few people to make RSS feed sponsorship work.

Sell merchandise and website memberships

Daring Fireball offers readers the chance to become members for a cost of US$19 annually.

While membership isn’t worth much in itself though, aside from gaining access to a separate RSS feed which apparently includes a few extra items not published to the main feed, it is really a way for supporters of the site to make a contribution should they wish to.

T-shirts are also sold, they are usually made available once a year, and with a purchase comes an automatic one year membership.

The income from t-shirt sales and memberships, while handy, would be far less than that generated by “The Deck” membership and RSS sponsorships though.

Leverage your online profile to earn income offline

Someone with the high profile of John Gruber could probably do well on the speaking and appearance circuit, so there are definitely opportunities in that regard.

Don’t charge your readers a cent to access your website

Despite publishing one of the most highly regarded news and information resources of all things Apple and Mac, Daring Fireball does not charge the casual reader anything to visit the site.

Sure, the super-motivated can take out a US$19 annual membership, or buy a t-shirt, but there is no compulsion whatsoever to do so.

I want a piece of the action, what do I do next?

Who wouldn’t want to be an independent online content producer earning in the region of $20,000 a month? I’d happily settle for a quarter of that amount.

Without telling you how to go about it, I can say that there are two important things you need to do, and that both require inordinate amounts of time and effort.

One is always to work on boosting your profile (marketing and promotion), the other is producing quality, useful, content.

While nowhere near the traffic levels of Daring Fireball, it’s my thought that an independent online publisher could make a reasonable, self supporting, income from around 30,000 unique visitors a day.

At least it’s a nice round number to aim for.

Originally published Monday 12 April 2010.