There’s never been so much to read at any point in the history of this humanity, but there’s also never been a time where there’s been so little worth reading. Sure, I know, I sound like every other pretentious asshole on the internet with a douchey, bullshit opening like that. But hear me out.
Yes, our emails, Pockets, and Notions have become graveyards of things we want to read. But be honest, what percentage of those things are absolutely worth reading?
I’m not exaggerating. Take a step back and think about the broader media, blogging, and writing landscape. I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me when I say that the amount of quality writing being published has hit a lifetime low since the first caveman started scribbling shit on rocks. The deluge of bad and boring writing far outweighs the good.
We’re all crippled with FOMO when it comes to reading. I sure as hell am! My Pocket, Kindle, and Substack reading lists have become landfills of things I badly want to read, but I probably won’t.
I recently started a small newsletter called Tipsheet to share some of the good things I was reading for free because I felt a bit guilty. And on the about page, here’s what I wrote:
The internet has truly broken all barriers and given everyone a voice. In the past decade, there’s been a mega explosion in the amount of content (a disgusting word) being published on the internet. The amount of brilliant blogs, newsletters, podcasts, tweets, and research papers out there is astounding. It would probably take 100 lifetimes to sift through 1% of the output. And shockingly, most of this is free too.
Initially, I was just curating links because I was reading a lot of good stuff from independent writers and bloggers. I wanted to highlight their writing as a shoutout. But then, slowly, it became another place for me to rant and make horrible unfunny jokes. But still, I include about 10-20 links in each post.
Every week, I spend hours skimming through countless blogs and newsletters to find the good things worth sharing. Initially, when I started it, I thought there was too much good writing. But almost 40 posts later, I’ve realized I was a little bit wrong, not much, just a little.
We’re living through a time in human history when there’s never been so much content. But we’re also living through a time when there’s never been so little good content. It’s not just me; plenty of people feel the same way:
And here we have the real fundamental problem of today’s internet: We are awash in websites, but the amount of information we’re getting from these websites, from all websites really, is exponentially shrinking. The nothing is winning. –Vicki Boykis
This has been bothering me for a while now, and this post is an attempt to think through this. How’s that for a pretentious douchey line?
Even more importantly, I wanted to write this post because I love writing, it’s fun. Writing is one of the best hacks to force yourself to learn about new things because, let’s face it, we’re are all lazy people who overcommit and underdeliver both to ourselves and others.
Writing well requires a deep commitment and an even deeper understanding of things. I’ve always written things in some form or the other. Nowadays, I occasionally write here whenever something is bothering me. I write about index funds and all the unethical shenanigans of the mutual fund industry on Indexheads. On The Tipsheet, I write about income redistribution opportunities (scams). I call it the Financial Times for aspiring scamsters and frauds, and I also curate links.
I honestly don’t know if I am any good at it. Believe you me, I’m not saying that to virtue signal or display some fake modesty. The internet has enough of those pricks. Whenever I post something, a bunch of people say some good things and some bad things. Some even offer to pay for the things I write. I don’t know about other writers, but I have a serious case of impostor syndrome. I’m uncomfortably comfortable with my writing. Again, I don’t mean to be a pretentious douche! I’m removing the underwear of my soul and standing naked in front of you.
Now, I’m not writing this post because I’m a writer, I sure as hell don’t consider myself as a writer. Anybody can write, not everybody can be a writer. It’s a bit like googling how to perform brain surgery and calling yourself a brain surgeon. Being a writer is serious business, and I think there’s a higher bar to be called a writer. Otherwise, every jackass on the internet is a writer and an author.
I’m writing this as a reader who wastes quite a bit of his life browsing blogs and newsletters for that good stuff. But the more I browse around, the more things started bothering me. There seems to be an unbearable sameness to most writing today. Most writing is formulaic and bland. It’s the equivalent of 3 meals of just plain white rice and no sambar.
To quote by the science fiction writer William Gibson perfectly sums up the feeling I’m trying to convey:
“My God, don’t they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo kit and regimental stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.”
Since that’s bothering me, it’s only fair that I bother you with my bothers. Let’s be bothered together. Bothering is sharing.
So, brace yourself, this is going to be a long and incoherent rant. I’m going to go down all sorts of tangents and rabbit holes. I could be right about this or not, but I’m putting this out there. If I’m wrong about this, I want you to spit in my face, virtually, of course. I won’t get a handkerchief and wipe it off. I’ll stand there with the virtual spit on my face as you explain why this entire long rant is not just plain wrong but a waste of your time. I want to know if I am wrong, so don’t forget to leave a comment.
Like I said earlier, I’m writing this as a reader than as a writer. This post may sound like writing advice, it’s not. But if you think otherwise, fuck it, so be it. With that said, here we go.
Once upon a time…
The first blog was published sometime in the 90s. The first blogging platforms, including Blogger, started around 1998-99. It took a few years, but blogging grew exponentially starting in the early 2000s and continued to grow until the early part of the 2020s until Medium launched.
To say that blogs have had a profound impact on the world would be an understatement. They’ve shaped culture, academia, politics and policy. They’ve also left an indelible mark on the broader media landscape. Many of the amazing journalists we regularly read today were originally bloggers. Even to this day, blogs are, in a way, incubators for good journalists, policymakers, and cultural tastemakers.
But blogging has become a little less popular over the years. No, blogging isn’t dead. Every year like clockwork, a bunch of people make this pronouncement, but it’s stupid. If I had a rupee for every time someone wrote or said that blogging was dead, I’d have a penthouse apartment in Jharkhand by now.
Given that so much has changed about the act of writing on the internet, blogging today feels a bit like driving TVS XL next to a Harley Davidson.
This is an interesting question. Since we blame social media for all the ills of humanity, let’s blame them a little for people not wanting to blog anymore too. The decreasing popularity of blogging remarkably coincides with the rise of social media.
Let me also add the caveat that correlation isn’t causation, but you get the idea. Again, at the risk of repetition, blogging isn’t dead, nor did social media kill it. What did happen is that the lowest sediment of bloggers, the pretentious douches, the racist and misogynistic pricks that had blogs moved to those platforms.
But it’s not just social media. Like with most things in life, it’s never a single thing. Older blogs continue to die because people either don’t feel like it’s worth blogging anymore, or they had misplaced expectations to begin with. Then there was the wave of professionalization. Several blogs became professional media outlets or were acquired. A lot of journalists were bloggers, to begin with. Of late, several of those journos are returning to their blogging roots, but more on that later, I digress.
The emergence of new platforms, the Google algorithm change in 2011, misguided expectations of blogs to riches, among other things, meant that the number of people wanting to blog has reduced. Perhaps the biggest change of all is the fact that social media platforms are the biggest referrers of traffic now. This has changed nature blogging to a stunning extent and flipped the incentives.
I started my first shitty blog in early 2020, and I still remember, most people around that time were blogging because they had this ridiculous notion that blogging was a path to riches. This time period was the peak of the “make money with your blogs” trend. During this time, If you threw a rock in Bangalore, you’d either hit a snake oil salesman masquerading as a blogging expert peddling blogging courses and books or a TCS employee. But like with all things, trends start and die.
Fast forward to 2021, what’s left of blogging today is so boring and drab. There’s an unbearable sameness everywhere. The plasticky, pretentious, and characterless blogs far outnumber the few quality blogs that are still around.
I’m writing this post because of these two brilliant posts in two amazing newsletters by Ali Montag and Freddie DeBoer and:
This is the price of chasing the Inner Ring. The desire to be likeable—to win entrance into the upper echelons of the attention marketplace, to be noteworthy and taken note of, to make a hit movie or write a best-selling book—provokes the same reaction from anyone who harbors it: inescapable mediocrity. If you want to be in the Inner Ring, you’ve already lost. The incentives driving creative work matter. It’s just as important why you create something as it is what you create. A story written only for profit, attention, or fame won’t be much of a story at all.Ali Montag
Whatever you do, be weird. As a consumer of writing, please, for me, be weird. Whatever this profession needs, it does not need more hall monitors or commissars and it does not need more writers who seem to have nothing to offer beyond looking down their glasses at the world in shrill derision. That territory is covered. That corner has been taken. The whole point of writing, the only reason to have an alphabet, is to say what no one else is saying. To be singular. What is the value of replicating words that have already appeared in the same order? You can’t choose to be good and you can’t choose to be successful. But you can choose to be your own.Freddie DeBoer
Where did it all go wrong? Why is so much of the writing on the internet so boring? Why are writers chasing all the wrong things?
Everything is content, everything is shit
I blame the “contentitfication” of writing.
Blogging and writing became content sometime around the mid-2000s. “Content”, what a disgusting word! An empty, soulless sound that passes for a word. The moment writing started becoming content, everything went to shit.
Today people no longer write. They manufacture content, like cars in a factory. Writing is an act. Writing content is an industry.
One explanation for this is the rise of social media platforms. The moment these platforms started dangling the enormous traffic they could send as a carrot in front of writers, the incentives changed. I was quite young when blogging first took off, so I started digging around to learn more about the blogging of the old. In the early days of blogging, most people didn’t care about views, optimization, or writing to please someone or some algorithm. The idiosyncratic nature of blogging made it interesting. People largely wrote because they had something to say. People didn’t care about all the nonsense about content optimization, SEO, blog design, and metrics. Such fads were quite minimal.
Here’s Andrew Sullivan, a figure that looms large in the world of blogging
What was precious about it was its simple integrity: A writer gets to explore her craft and develop her own audience. We weren’t in it for the money or the clicks or the followers. We were in it for the core experience shared between a writer and a reader — and the enormous freedom that removing the editorial gatekeepers unlocked. It was a brief period, but an alive one, and it was largely lost — or abandoned — because of a major failure of nerve on the part of most print media.Andrew Sullivan
Bloggers were a small community. Even the largest blogs from back then seem small by today’s yardstick, and they weren’t pretentious. The comments sections were quite lively. As quaint as it seems, people actually built real-life friendships from interacting in the comments. There was a certain intimacy and serendipity about old-school blogging. In a way, the comments sections on blogs were a relatively nicer version of the cesspool that is social media today.
And no, I’m not pining for some idealistic version of blogging. I get that this sort of melancholic flashbacks are quite common when things change. We, humans, hate change, and we always paint a romantic picture of the past whenever things change. But no, this isn’t that. But this world would’ve been a far better place with some of that old-school blogging ethic.
Since most writers didn’t care about nonsense like SEO, pretty images, and pretty design, the writing was authentic and had character. It wasn’t polluted by all the faddish garbage that we see on blogs today. I’m not saying it was all good. I think nothing ever changes, it’s just that people discover existing things that seem new. In this case, just like social media platforms are filled with racist, misogynistic scum, blogs had the same problem, too, just not on the scale of social media platforms today.
But the popularity of social media led to a flippening.
Pre-2010, Google was the biggest source of referral traffic. But from 2010-2015, platforms like Twitter and Facebook grew enormously, and today they’re on par with Google in terms of the traffic they send. But Google and the platforms are opposites. While Google arguably tries and fails to surface good content in its own misguided way, social media platforms are designed to highlight the most absurd, silly, divisive, racist, and sensationalist content. A post titled “Top 5 outfits for cats” will always trump “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Home Care & Precautions” on social media.
The tyranny of bullshit numbers and platforms
Slowly, It all became about vanity metrics that didn’t mean a damn thing. Metrics that we’re all guilty of constantly checking. That dopamine rush is too damn powerful. Ironically, the numbers are heavily polluted by traffic from bots, click farms etc. A good chunk of the traffic is fake. You can purchase low-quality clicks to pad up the hits to your blogs and videos for as little as a few dollars. Ad fraud because of these bots is a huge problem even today that costs advertisers billions of dollars despite all the “sophisticated tools” and “comprehensive data” they have.
Once bloggers and writers saw the serious traffic from social media platforms, they were hooked. This was digital cocaine, and it was addictive. Given that Facebook and Twitter were the biggest drug dealers, the writers, bloggers, and media outlets started pandering to the whims and fancies of the platforms. It stopped being about what they wanted to write and became all about what Facebook, Twitter, etc., wanted.
Political writing is the best example of just how bad things can get in the pursuit of clicks and engagement. It’s long been evident the extremist and incendiary content performs the best on Facebook. The more vile, racist, divisive, and disgusting the content is, the more engaging it is.
The platforms always knew this, though it took a while for us commoners to realize it. And at the end of the day, platforms are businesses that need to make money, and more engagement means more moolah. So they keep feeding the beast. Well, to be fair, the platforms don’t deserve all the blame. The modern social media problem is as much a human problem as it is a tech one. But you have to be a real fucking idiot if you believe we live in a world where nuance matters anymore.
Once some of these writers and bloggers realized that the viler and sensational their content, the more the eyeballs, it all went to shit. The feedback loop between terrible content and more engagement became a virtuous cycle. We’re now facing a reckoning as the powers that be realize that platforms can have real-life consequences. Researchers had been shouting about this since day one.
It’s not just political content, it’s the same with other types of content. If you remember 2013-2015, it was the height of clickbait articles like “9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact” and “Soon-to-be ex-teacher goes off on parents who ‘coddle and enable’ kids. internet applauds.”. Writers and publications churned out such articles on an industrial scale because it performed well on Facebook and Twitter.
Hundreds of websites like Upworthy built business models by getting writers to manufacture such clickbait to please Facebook. And Facebook was quite generous for a while, and all seemed well for these virality-oriented media outlets. But all good things must eventually come to an end and come they did. In 2014, Facebook changed its algorithm to get rid of such clickbait nonsense and the traffic to these sites cratered. Publishers, for the first time, realized that if they played in someone else’s garden, they don’t set the rules.
Then there were those annoying listicles like “16 Indian Serial Killers You’ll Be Shocked To Know About” that Buzzfeed popularized. Buzzfeed was another business that grew by optimizing content for Facebook. But Facebook again changed its algorithm around 2017-18, and the traffic to Buzzfeed and its clones like Scoop Whoop in India crashed.
The reason I’m talking about media platforms in a post about blogging and writing is that, at the end of the day, these organizations are but a collective of writers. Moreover, what big organizations do, the individuals ape.
The individual bloggers were pandering to the platforms much like everyone else. Chasing such fads is one of the biggest reasons why most blogs die within months of starting. In the initial stages, when things work, the dopamine rush makes people feel invincible. But when things change, as they inevitably do, these writers enter the trough of disillusionment. Some spend time looking for the next fad to get back the traffic or let their blogs die a sad, lonely, and miserable death.
I know, I know, you’re wondering what is it that I’m fucking trying to say. Calm down. I’ll get to the point. But bear with me. Let’s wander around for a bit before we dive deep into the rabbit hole. I’ll make it worth it—a bit like the old-school blogging. What else do you have to do? You’ll only Google shit like “10 reasons why Suzlon is India’s Tesla”.
Everything was content
It was not just individuals and publishers who were chasing eyeballs instead of writing something good for those eyeballs. The entire world, including publishing and marketing, fell into the same trap. There are no shortages of trends and fads in marketing, but content marketing by far was the biggest in the last decade.
It started with the industrial scale manufacturing of content for SEO as early as the 90s. Back then, dedicated agencies would manufacture articles stuffed with keywords and buy backlinks if you wanted to rank for certain keywords. The trend peaked in early 2020 after Google became smart. The old link farming and link stuffing rightfully died a miserable death, for most parts. SEO isn’t as relevant as it was back in the day. Since then, Google has gotten a lot smarter and changes its search algorithm a couple of thousand times a year at least.
Brands and companies have always had blogs, but they were mostly an afterthought. Very few took it seriously, and even fewer did it well. But then, in the 2000s, content marketing and SEO starting becoming all the rage. The phrase “everything is content” defined this era.
The moment people started uttering the phrases “everything is content” and “content is king”, things went to shit.
Everything was content, and most of it was just alphabetical vomit!
Content was seen as a solution for everything, and every brand and company wanted to “publish content”. Bad product, terrible design, broken business models, it didn’t matter – content could fix it all. Content became the new Jesus. There are even content farms – armies of low-paid writers to produce articles on an industrial scale in places like the Philippines and Macedonia.
Even though the old school version of keyword stuffing doesn’t work, many brands don’t seem to have gotten the memo. Companies still hire in-house writers and agencies to crank out bullshit articles by the dozens in the blind hope that it matters. It doesn’t!
In hindsight, the moment writing was replaced with the terms “generate content” or “produce content”, we took a sharp left in the middle of a high traffic road onto a one-way road leading to a cliff.
And true to that old saying, “during a gold rush, sell shovels”, millions of people started becoming “content experts” overnight. It was perhaps the most underrated miracle in the history of humanity. Nobody knew what a “content expert” did, but damn it, they were everywhere, like cockroaches.
You couldn’t go two blogs and Twitter profiles without seeing that in the bios. Today there are millions of content marketing blogs, seminars, courses, podcasts, etc. Content consultants have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainy day, and they are just waiting to save you, like Jesus.
For just $250, you can also be a card-carrying member of the “content expert” club roaming around the world making so much money that your bank will call you to close your bank account because they can’t handle all the money you make.
Today, all companies publish content. But content worth reading? I can count that on the one hand. 99% of all content published is just sludge. It’s alphabetical vomit. You can see the undigested chunks of what companies wanted to say and their misguided intentions floating around in the puddle of vomit.
Even good writers are stuck in this purgatory writing about things they don’t care about, in a way they don’t want to, and say things they don’t believe in, mostly because of the money. Making a living just by writing is damn hard. You gotta do whatever.
Anthropologist Dave Graeber in a provocative essay in 2013, coined the phrase “bullshit jobs” to describe the millions of pointless jobs worldwide that shouldn’t exist, but they do. The essay also inspired his book of the same title.
This is how he describes Bullshit Jobs in his book:
This I consider the defining feature of a bullshit job: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing it. He might not be able to admit this to his coworkers—often there are very good reasons not to do so. But he is convinced the job is pointless nonetheless.
So let this stand as an initial provisional definition:
Provisional Definition: a bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.
If there were ever two jobs that deserved to be right at the top of the bullshit jobs list, it’s content marketing and SEO marketing. These are pointless jobs. These jobs wouldn’t exist in an ideal world, but we don’t live in one, do we? We live in a world where this kind of music gets 2 billion views:
This is not just my opinion. Half the people in the content marketing and content production industrial complex will tell you the same thing – that there is no point to the job. Anybody with the ability to frame a proper sentence is a content marketer and a writer. Doesn’t take a great genius. But these people will have you believe otherwise.
What’s more, if you, like me, believe that the internet has become bit of an unbearable place, these morons are to blame. Next time you see a content marketer, punch him in the throat.
Today, the platforms have become the new overlords, and everybody is just dancing to their tunes. People don’t write anymore. They just spend time “optimizing” to please the overlords. And these overlords are pretty capricious. Their moods keep changing like the weather. But everybody wants a bite of that juicy traffic carrot they’re dangling. So people begrudgingly dance to their tunes and do whatever the overlords demand.
New formats and new platforms are being created every day with the promise of driving even more traffic. And the writers keep jumping around like monkeys from one platform to another and one format to another. They seem to live in la-la land where the realization that catering to the whims of the platforms will only end in tears has been stifled with chloroform on a pillow.
There are tons of examples of stupid trends. In the early days of blogging, it was unfiltered thoughts. With YouTube, vlogging became a rage, and it still is. Writers became vloggers. Then microblogging was all the rage with Tumblr, then publishing on Facebook pages and a hundred others.
In the early 2020s, it was all about what Facebook wanted. First, it was clickbait articles. Then the infamous pivot to video in 2015. Facebook launched a video feature, and it wanted publishers to create video and promised to open up its traffic firehose. But it turns out Facebook was overstating the video views and misleading both publishers and advertisers. In 2016, the pivot ended in tears. Several publishers spent millions hiring writers and creatives to create videos on an industrial scale, only to fire them later.
Trying to make a living as a writer or a journalist is hard enough, what with the dim industry prospects and low pay. But having to deal with publishers chasing shiny objects that can end disastrously, that’s a bit too much.
Then there was Facebook Instant articles, which was launched in 2015. Initially, several publishers jumped on the bandwagon only to abandon it quickly as traffic and revenues disappointed. But in the last year, revenues seem to have gone up again, and I have no doubt publishers will chase this again.
And finally, in 2021, Facebook was feeling a little insecure about the popularity of Substack. So, it launched a clone called Bulletin. It seems to be using the same old playbook of spraying money to get popular personalities and writers like Malala, Tyler Cowen, and Malcolm Gladwell to seed the platform. Going by Facebook’s history, I wouldn’t bet on Bulletin being successful. But writers, I’m sure, will chase this shiny butterfly.
When Medium launched in 2012, blogging suddenly became hot again. Everybody wanted to have a blog on the platform. Reminds me of all the novelty around Clubhouse today. But Medium is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t trust platforms. Since 2012, it has made so many pivots that my head spins just from thinking about it. Several publishers bought Medium’s pitch of money and traffic multiple times, but it didn’t work out. They had to waste time and money moving to and away from the platform. Medium, on its own, has hired and fired hundreds of people, including writers, and shut down publications. But, it seems like, after all the pointless nonsense, they are returning to their original blogging roots. After all, Ev Williams, the founder of Medium, was one of the founding members of Blogger.
Having raised $132 million in funding and 9 years into its existence, nobody has a clue what Medium is. Their last pivot was as recent as March of this year. Pivot till you make it, seems to be the mantra.
Dance monkey dance
It’s not just large publishers. Several independent writers and small-time bloggers make the same mistake of catering to the whims and fancies of the platforms. One moment they are writing heartwarming stories on WordPress, real miracles about how watching a sleeping dog in the parking lot of a Tiger global funded startup changed their life on LinkedIn, publishing productivity porn on Medium, ranting on YouTube, and the next they are showing off their funny shaped bum on TikTok. All because they promised money and views. Off late, it’s writing threads on Twitter and fake motivational nonsense on LinkedIn Pulse. I’ve also skipped 100 other fads in between these fads. I mean, from writing text to showing your bum?
This tendency to chase fads becomes even more relevant today with the rise of the so-called “creator economy“, more on that later in the post. Bear with me. We’re going wide and deep.
In doing all this, they are just puppets of the platforms.
The dumpster fire that is media
Perhaps, the biggest cautionary tale for writers on just how bad things can go wrong is news media at large. News publishing has never been hugely profitable. It has struggled throughout history, save for a brief period thanks to the artificial monopolies. But then the internet exposed just how terrible the business model of news publishing was, and the industry imploded. First, the classifieds revenue dropped, then the social media platforms unbundled everything and took a big chunk of ad revenues. The only choice the industry was left with was to do anything to survive, including bending over backwards to please advertisers and taking handouts from Google and Facebook, the very platforms that took away their money. Oh, the sweet irony!
Every major corporate media outlet – print, online, radio, whatever – relies on advertising. That can make it really difficult to write criticism of the ideals, let alone the products, sold by those advertisers. I’ve had stories killed or extensively rewritten because they made advertisers angry. But even at outlets with a brick wall between editorial and advertising, I’ll see my piece critiquing some aspect of diet culture running alongside banner ads for flat tummy tea. Or, even more frustrating, running alongside other articles that promote weight loss and fatphobic messages about health and wellness.Virginia Sole-Smith
They tried digital, iPad magazines, pivot to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, TakTak, podcasts, vodcasts, vlogs, instant articles, bytes, bites, shorts, subscriptions, thalis, and pretty much anything that could potentially make a buck. Not that there’s anything wrong with experimenting. But this was out of desperation more than anything else.
Except for large publishers like The NYT, FT, WSJ, Economist, and Economic Times to an extent in India, very few publishers have succeeded in pivoting away from an ad-supported model to reader-funded subscriptions and membership models. There are even fewer success stories among independent media outlets and blogs. Though there are several promising new upstarts like Morning Context, Ken, the new Factor Daily in India, The Athletic, Axios, Mirror and newsletter bundles like Every. In the last decade or so, 1000s of print and digital publications have shut down globally, and hundreds of thousands of journalists have been laid off.
When nothing seemed to work, many even dropped all pretence of objective journalism and became click-whores.
But that didn’t work either. There’s only so much attention people have as opposed to an infinite supply of ads.
Out of all the journalists I’ve spoken to, I’ve never met anyone bullish on the media business. You can see that in the fact that high-profile journalists are leaving mainstream publications and getting back to blogging or starting their own newsletters on Substack. I’m not sure whether this will be a trend, but it seems like the news organization is being unbundled again.
In the last 5 years, I personally went from getting 70-80% of my news from mainstream publications to almost 10-15% at best now. To say that the quality of news of major outlets has gone down the toilet would be a massive compliment. I wouldn’t even use most mainstream newspapers as cleaning paper. That would be an insult to the dirt.
Off late, when I read some news from any mainstream outlet, I feel like gouging my eyes out, stabbing them repeatedly with a fork, putting the eyeballs back in a freezer, and then stabbing them again for good measure, so those eyeballs by some medical miracle don’t become usable.
Everything is cut, copy, paste
There’s very little originality anymore. No, I’m serious. Just think about the last time you came across a writer whose writing compelled you to subscribe or set alerts on his blog. I’ll bet that that doesn’t happen often. What you end up doing is jump from site to site like a zombie consuming stuff in bits and pieces everywhere. There are very few publications that grab our brains by the balls.
All that bullshit about people having shorter attention spans, I’m not buying it. People’s attention spans have remained the same, gotten better even. Where it has reduced is when it comes to subjecting their eyes to all the inane bullshit. It just feels like it has lessened because quantity often trumps quality. Give me a 3000-word essay any day.
I spend quite some time trying to read newsletters, blogs and listening to podcasts. And to find good things to read and listen to, I spend quite a bit of time searching. I think I have some 100+ newsletter subscriptions, 300+ podcast subscriptions. No, I don’t mean to brag. I don’t read and listen to everything; it’s not humanely possible. But all those subscriptions are like a nice feed for me to filter and find the good stuff.
But since I started wasting my time doing this, save for 5-10% of blogs, newsletters, and podcasts I’ve subscribed to, everything else is disappointing. There’s an unbearable sameness to most writing today. The writing is bland, has no character, style or insight. To quote Freddie again, “All of it is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy”.
What’s old is new again. In the recent past, the number of people trying to make a living by writing seems to be increasing again. But if you read what these guys write, it’s all the same. They are either mimicking someone or are pandering to platforms. Very few writers dare to be original because they are afraid of pissing off their bosses, editors, platforms or writing experts.
One reason for this is all the nonsensical hacks, tips, tricks, and a generous assortment of bullshit writing advice. Now that everybody is a “content guru”, there are millions of writing guides, courses, blogs, tips, videos, books, and podcasts. In fact, there’s more content about how to write than original writing. Writers today spend more time figuring how to write than write something worth reading.
Half these people who publish these writing guides and tips are fucking hacks and failed writers who couldn’t write something interesting to save their lives. I don’t care if you think that’s harsh. I can say that because I’ve wasted enough of my life scouring blogs, podcasts, and newsletters on writing. When someone starts to write, they’ll be riddled with insecurities and a strong case of impostor syndrome. I know I was.
The easiest thing to do is look around for help, and people end up going down the filthy rabbit hole of writing advice. It’s filled with hacks and quacks who make a killing preying on insecure writers. If you listen to them, they’ll have you believe that for just $200, you can be a writer that would’ve been the lovechild of a threesome between Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Mark Twain.
For Godsakes, say something original
This whole thing reminds me of another two brilliant articles. The first was a New Yorker piece titled “The Age of Instagram Face” by Jia Tolentino. Though what she wrote wasn’t about writing per se, it might as well have been:
There was something strange, I said, about the racial aspect of Instagram Face—it was as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism.
The second was a piece titled “The blandness of TikTok’s biggest stars” in Vox by Rebecca Jennings. Again, this wasn’t about writing specifically, but it applies perfectly to it:
We’re now at the stage of TikTok fame where its influence on the realm of traditional entertainment is undeniable. TikTok stars are making real headway in Hollywood, and vice versa — like, even Anthony Hopkins has a TikTok. That also means we’re at the stage of the relationship where we can finally start to suss out its effects: Namely, that pop culture is being increasingly determined by algorithms (not a new thing, but no platform’s algorithm is more powerful at surfacing tailored content than TikTok’s). This also tends to mean that what we’re seeing is the lowest common denominator of what human beings want to look at, appealing to our most base impulses and exploiting existing biases toward thinness, whiteness, and wealth.
Today, most newsletters and blogs all seem the same. I don’t read much political content because most political writers are partisan hacks. But since I read a lot of finance content, 7 out of 10 blogs and newsletters are either about what some investors said or did or some banal summary of what’s happening in the markets. There’s no value to either of those. There are already too many people Filter Coffee and Finshots doing it and doing it better than you.
Again, don’t get me wrong. If you do that out of passion or as a side project, that’s fine. But there are several paid blogs and newsletters filled with Xerox copies of what’s already been said and written a million times. If you’re doing this seriously and want to build a career writing, why the hell will someone read and pay for that nonsense? There’s zero originality or insight.
At this point, It’s not just beating a dead horse. The horse died 50 years ago. Now it’s beating the partially decomposed skeleton of the horse.
I’m not saying that you should aim to be a modern-day Ernest Hemingway. Not everybody is a genius. But if you’re writing something seriously, at least have some original insight of your own or a unique style of saying and presenting things. That’s the least you can do if you want me to read and pay for your shit.
This reminds me of this Jason Zweig story:
I was a speaker at a journalism conference. And the question came from the audience. “Describe what you do for a living. Don’t tell me what it says on your business card or your resume. But tell me what you do for a living.” My answer was, between 50 and 100 times a year, I say the exact same thing in such a way that neither my editors nor my readers will notice I’m repeating myself. That is kind of the way I think about my job. It’s because I am in the business of giving advice on investment decision making. And I think there’s only a handful of things that are true. And when you try to sort of expand beyond that set, you quickly get into the position of starting to tell people things that are bad for them. So I’ve willingly put myself in a box.
And Jason is one of the most read journalists in the world of finance and has built a cult following. Writing is easy. Anybody can write well. Writing decently is like wearing clothes. The goal is to be not naked. As long as you don’t wear underwear as a hat, it’s mission accomplished. It’s the same with writing. As long as you respect the basic conventions of the language and don’t try to use commas as the new full stop, you’re good. Unless you’re trying to be a pretentious and snobby literary critic or something, which is a whole different thing
If you can frame a sentence and put a full stop in the right place, you’re good to go. But getting people to read what you’ve written, now that’s a nightmarishly hard thing. And to get people read, your shit needs to stand out. Your writing should be like a silent and smelly fart in a crowded room. People should have no choice but to take notice.
Here’s Freddie’s advice to writers:
In broad strokes: if you want to make it as a writer, you will have to differentiate yourself, in text, from the vast rising oceans of texts that surround the digital world. There has never been more text being professionally published in the history of the world, which indicates that the market has never been bigger. But that also means that there has never been more words vying for the attention of a public that also has more and more not-words to pay attention to. So you have to be different. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult, and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves.
Just work. That’s it. Focus on what stirs you up inside, what is beautiful and true. Work on making something good—not something that is liked. Take responsibility. The work will lead you home.
No bloody secrets or shortcuts!
A massive cottage industry has developed around teaching people how to write and make money. There are countless blogs, newsletters, podcasts, videos, and books on the topic. I even came across a $900 writing course taught by a popular influencer as I was writing this post.
Now, I’ve been writing on and off for a while. When I initially wanted to learn how to write, I went down the whole “how to write” rabbit hole. I’ve wasted enough time reading and listening to experts. So believe me when I tell you, 90% of them are full of shit. These are all failed hacks who’re trying to make a buck by fleecing nervous and gullible wannabe writers.
If you look around even a little, you’ll find a million secrets to everything from being a millionaire blogger to a content machine, whatever the hell that means. Everything about writing has been reduced to a hack, a tip, a trick, or a list. Writers today think of writing like it’s cooking, all they think they need are the recipes and steps. This is a travesty.
Writing is a creative activity. There’s no process. It’s whatever you make it to be, and that’s what makes writing worthwhile. Even though there are just 26 alphabets in the English language, there are hundreds of thousands of words and millions of combinations you can use them in. Despite this, the most published content is “You’re a badass, ten steps that can change your life”🤦
Anybody who thinks that writing can be turned into a formulaic process is not even fit to be an underwear seller. But writing today has been reduced to just that. Everybody is selling, tweeting, writing about the same steps to “success”. And this success today is measured by retweets, likes, views and clicks. Writing has become less about writing and more of a popularity contest.
Writers today are constantly searching for tips and hacks to get just a few more clicks for the shit they write. As if there’s some holy grail. Everybody is doing the same shit over and over again. This is partly because writers have benchmarked themselves to some bullshit standards set by quacks masquerading as self-proclaimed writing experts. As if these useless hacks have spent all their lives researching the perfect “content formula”.
The end result is that most writing on the internet is the same. The same listicles, the same he said she said, the same top 10 things, and the same here’s 5 things successful investors do. It’s just a deluge of useless shit published for maximum engagement and minimum value. This diarrhoea of text is aptly called “content”. It’s not bloody “writing” for sure. And this content has as much character as an unsalted cucumber.
💩An ocean of bullshit
Like I mentioned earlier, in the last couple of years, thanks to platforms like Substack, etc., the number of people starting to write and blog seems to be inching up. I’m just guesstimating here based on my experience, but except for 5-10% of these newsletters, everything is the bloody same, and everything is useless.
Since I mostly read finance-related newsletters, one of the biggest trends among finance-focused blogs and newsletters is curation. Even Tipsheet is a curated finance newsletter. Morning Brew arguably made this format popular, and it’s been wildly successful. Morning Brew has over 2.5 million subscribers and was recently acquired at a $75 million valuation by Business Insider. And in the last year alone, I’ve personally come across at least a hundred newsletters that are, at best, cheap clones of Morning Brew.
The other big trend among blogs and newsletters is another type of curation. I call it “he said/she said”. These newsletters and blogs are apparently dedicated to “distilling the wisdom” of successful traders and investors, or at least they try to. But at the end of the day, they are filled with formulaic bullshit stolen from another blog or newsletter which stole it from another newsletter that misinterpreted the original source material. At this point in humanity, there must be at the very least 3 billion blogs and newsletters dedicated to translating what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger said.
If you’re one of those people and reading this, can you please leave those two old people alone? They’re 90+ years old, and at this point, your clickbait nonsense about what they said and what they mean is bloody annoying.
There’s a reason for the deluge of such he said/she said, they do this content, it works! Warren Buffett is one of the best investors on the planet, and he has a rabid following. And given his popularity, any piece of content with his name in the title is the ultimate clickbait, regardless of the quality of the content, and it consistently works. Rich people and their stories appeal to the greed in all of us. It’s the same with other popular investors too. Everybody wants to know how they make money.
It’s surprising just how popular Buffett is, even when compared to penny stocks and making babies.
Once people realized that they could piggyback on the popularity of the rich and the successful, there was a deluge of blogs and newsletters dedicated to “uncovering the secrets” of these people. Everybody wanted to uncover the secrets of what makes Naval, Tony Robbins and Warren Buffett tick. But in reality, the life advice column on page 37 of Playboy Magazine is more useful than these blogs and newsletters. But it gets the clicks, the usefulness of the writing be damned.
Look, I’m not dunking on curation. When done well, curation is quite valuable. For example, Liberty’s Highlights and Neckar’s Notes do a phenomenal job. But just vomiting what others said is useless. Of course, readers will engage with your content. You might get lakhs of hits and page views. But nobody is going to remember your content or you. Do you know why? Because every other idiot is saying the same shit because you’re all listening to the same bunch of idiots telling you to do the same goddamn thing.
It’s the same with books too. Half the books published today aren’t worth recycling. I feel bad for the earthworms that have to eat and poop these pages. Everybody is mass-producing garbage that’s popular. The self-help motivational genre is a perfect example.
We live in an unequal world, and people are riddled with insecurities and are looking for answers. Anything that can get them out of the terrible situations they’re in. These blogs and books just prey on the insecurities of those people.
If not that, they’re just designed to appeal to the part of our brains that crave some feel-good nonsense that we probably won’t remember, like “10 reasons why you’re a badass”. This type of content gets the hits and sales, but it’s about as useful as woollen underwear in a hot summer.
These trends are the result of everybody following the same old playbook to please the algorithms, both digital and human. Yep, it’s quite easy to hack the human brain too. A book about how to become rich will always outsell pretty much every other useful book.
Getting a million views is the easiest thing on the planet
No, that’s not a clickbait sub-title, although it’s a damn good one if I do say so myself. But if you want to get like a million hits on your piece of content, it’s the easiest thing on the planet. Just set up a Twitter account and keep tweeting threads about what famous investors said or did, like “100 things Warren Buffett does before he goes to the toilet in the morning” or “What farting in a board meeting taught about how to build a career”. Keep doing that consistently for a year, and your threads will start getting millions of impressions, and you’ll also have hundreds of thousands of followers.
You need zero original insight. Even a mediocre thread can go viral. I’m proof of that. Here are a couple of my idiotic threads:
It’s the same on LinkedIn. If you publish some bullshit success story, you’ll get more views than a Salman Khan movie.
But all this writing is like the dirt that settles at the bottom of a glass of water. You wouldn’t even use that water to water your plants.
Write things that people remember you for
I think we have enough of what other people said or did at this point in humanity. We have enough formulaic writing. We have enough writing that conforms to some bullshit standard set by some useless writer whose greatest achievement in life is writing a B grade porn column in a local tabloid. We have enough bland and unimaginative writing. We have enough writing that ticks the boxes of a writing checklist sold by a snake oil salesman.
When I read something, the only things I remember are when the writer ignores all this nonsense and puts his view across in his own original voice. Again, the goal isn’t to be the Shakespeare of finance. But rather, write about things people want to read in a unique voice and style, your unique voice and style. Not some fucking idiot’s who just tweeted a 20 tweet thread on the writing secrets of Leo Tolstoy.
And I don’t mean that you have to create something original each time. I think there’s no such thing as original writing. Everything is inspired by something or someone else. I’m a huge Matt Levine fan, and I’ve tried to imitate his writing on many occasions. But it can’t be 100%. Trying to be is stupid too. The more you try to imitate someone, the easier it is to publish something mediocre.
The trick is to put your own unique spin on it. And finance writing is a perfect example of this. In the 400+ year history of modern finance, the investment principles have remained the same. Save more, spend less, diversify, and have patience. But there are millions of personal finance books, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, vlogs, and whatnot. And I’m sure we all have our own favourite books and blogs. They are our favourites because the writers figured out how to say the same old things differently. That’s it. They didn’t cook up some profound insight that wasn’t already known.
Morgan Housel is a perfect embodiment of this. Morgan writes about the same things we all know about money. But he writes them in a unique way, and that’s why so many people read and love his writing. His ability to weave together the past and the present, his conciseness and unpretentiousness are why people love his writing.
Having said that, most writing advice is pure, scented horseshit!
Write short sentences. Write short articles. Don’t write short sentences. People hate long-form. Start with bullet points. Don’t have long titles. Have long paragraphs. Write daily, no matter what. Don’t write daily, write only when you have something to say. Be unconventional. Don’t be unconventional. Write outside in a park. Write inside your house. Don’t write in a coffee shop. Write in the morning. Write in the evening. Don’t write in the evening. Listen to music when writing. Don’t listen. Listen to Dum Maro Dum. Mimic other writers. Don’t mimic. Sit on the toilet with your iPad and hold it in.
My god, just thinking about the sheer amount of pointless writing advice out there gives me a migraine.
Trust me, there’s no secret sauce.
There’s more writing advice than the number of ITC investors who think it’ll go to Rs 800. But all of that is useless. Do you know why? Writing is a creative process, there are no steps. The only real way to write well is to write a ton of things, get feedback from good writers and readers, learn from the mistakes and keep writing until you find your own style and voice. For example, Sir Reddy is super generous and brutal with his feedback whenever I post something and I’ve fixed tons of mistakes because of his feedback. You need to find people like that.
The success of writers we see and admire didn’t happen overnight. Whether an author or a blogger, that overnight success would’ve taken them years of toil, hard work, rejection and anxiety. If you think some moron on Twitter can tell you “10 steps to be a brilliant writer”, then you’re an idiot.
Don’t get me wrong, read writing advice, columns, books, listen to podcasts all you want. But always remember, context is king, and what works for some good writer might not work for you.
You can pick up a few things here and there. But at the end of the day, your style, your point of view will come from writing a ton and getting good feedback either from writers who know what they are talking about or from readers who have acceptable levels of IQ.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Here’s David Perell summarizing Morgan Housel’s writing process. Now, watch it fully and just think about the takeaway. Do you really think you can mimic his process? The odds are, you’ll realize that you have your own style and motivations.
The only goddamn way to write something worth reading and something that people can remember is to keep writing, keep putting it out there, keep getting humiliated, keep getting feedback and keep doing it until you find your lane.
And then, I’m going read every goddamn thing you write. I’m going to share it with my friends. I’ll share it, tweet it, thread it and shred it. I’m going to be your biggest goddamn cheerleader. There are tons of people like this on the internet. That’s how you find your audience.
Write well and they’ll come
I’m sure you would have heard of this phrase ‘If You Build It, They Will Come’ at some point in the context of startups. It’s the idea that if you build a good product and launch it, people will find it no matter what. The “startup gurus” can often be heard pontificating that this advice is bullshit. Maybe, maybe not, I don’t want to get into that.
But, when it comes to writing, if you write something good, the odds of it getting found are higher than they were at any point in history. The internet is a serendipity machine. I’ve personally experienced that with some of my own writing. There have been several of my posts that have had their minor viral moments. I’ve never “optimized” them or “growth hacked” them. I think people found the posts and shared them because they liked them or found them useful—end of story. It’s the same thing with every single piece of content. People read, share, and keep coming back only if they find it useful.
Sure, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a long time for this to happen. But if you write something good consistently, the internet will make sure you’ll find your audience. It’s because there are 1000s of people like me who continually scour for good things to read, and we genuinely love sharing things. For example, I look forward to reading every issue of Front Month, Freefloat, StockViz, High Vol, Pravin & Anish, Prashant, Capitalmind, Media Operator, Money Stuff, Buggy Humans, Margins, Simplanations, and Publisher Weekly, among other blogs and newsletters every week. Because they are useful and have substance. And every week, when the latest issue is out, I share it on Tipsheet, on social media, and with my colleagues. There are 1000s of curators who love picking up things and sharing them on newsletters and blogs.
It’ll take time, but it’s going to happen. But most people don’t have the patience to stick it out, which is another reason why most blogs die pretty quickly.
To the creators
In the past 5 years, this whole creator economy has become a big thing. At its core, it’s basically people monetizing their talents like writing, singing, art, design, teaching, etc. But of course, there has to be a fancy term so the VCs can take advantage.
But I digress. Platforms like Substack, WordPress, Revue, Scrollstack, and Gumroad have made it easier than ever for writers to monetize their work.
And we’ve seen an uptick in the number of new blogs and newsletters, both free and paid, especially post-pandemic. Most of the success stories we often hear are about writers who already had existing audiences like Bill Bishop, Noah Smith, and Matt Taibbi. But a few, not many, but a few less famous writers have been successful too. That goes to show just how hard it is to make a living as a writer.
It’s never been easier to monetize your writing, but it’s never been harder to find your audience. Here’s an excerpt from Vicki Boykis again from her post about her experience running a paid newsletter:
I genuinely don’t believe that, because I think there’s a limit to how much people are going to pay to subscribe to various newsletters. I personally subscribe to four, which is costs $20 a month. (I used to also pay for Stratechery, which is the gold standard for tech/business newsletters, but it was too high volume and a bit too pro-Silicon Valley to offer me value personally, although I think it’s important that it and newsletters like it exist, but at this point $2 million a year into the game, Ben Thomspon doesn’t need my help.)
Now, I don’t mind! They’re good newsletters! But it is wholly unrealistic to expect people to pay upwards of $100 to get their news and opinion fix on a monthly basis from 5 or 6 different sources.
The difficulty of monetizing things is just one side of the Coin. Being a creator, a writer, for example, is no walk in the park. Often, I see annoying stories that being a creator means having the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and on your own terms. This has to be the most idiotic thing ever. Being a creator is another fancy word for having a job. And like every other job, It comes with all the same pressures and difficulties.
The reality is that creators are burning out and are riddled with mental health issues, just like regularly employed people. Being on a treadmill of quantity over quality, which is what the incentives are geared toward today, is no easy thing. The glamorous side of the creator economy looks good in Instagram photos and captions, but that reality doesn’t exist. If you fall into the same trap, you’ll burn out or, worse yet, get bogged down with anxiety. It’s not worth it. Fuck all this useless advice. Find your own groove, which comes only with tremendous experimentation and anguish.
There’s an ocean of the same packaged, plastic bullshit writing everywhere. To swim in this treacherous ocean and find your own island with your tribe, your writing must stand out like a pink shirt in a white-only ceremony. That’s the opportunity if you ask me.
And no, this isn’t some work hard, follow your passion bullshit. Experimentation is the only thing that works. Anybody who says otherwise is the equivalent of an Indore stock tipster.
Take the example of the financial services industry. Entities like AMCs, advisors and financial platforms are among the largest content producers on the planet. But 99% of it is just absolute garbage. Pause for a second and think about the last time you read something worth reading from these guys. You won’t remember easily even if I put a gun to your head and told you that your life depended on it.
It’s the same old useless facetious and fluffy bullshit book reviews. Pointless Q&As, same old “10 investing lessons I learnt from watching a dog scratch its balls”, drab keyword-stuffed articles, and posts with forced and contrived analogies. 100% quantity, 0% quality – total horseshit. In fact, if you kidnapped some of these people and told them that the only way they’re getting out is to write something that’s barely readable, they’ll die in captivity.
It reminds me of this Steven Pressfield post:
** nobody wants to read your shit.
Let me repeat that. Nobody–not even your dog or your mother–has the slightest interest in your commercial for Rice Krispies or Delco batteries or Preparation H. Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchopotoulis.It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.
Nobody wants to read your shit.**
It’s true. Nobody cares about your shit. If you want us to care, it better be goddamn worth caring.
The world needs more writers who can write things in their own unique way and their own unique style. Not another fucking idiot who writes “10 things I learnt from watching Scam 1992” or “Here are 10 timeless lessons from Warren Buffett”.
I’m sure this will piss off someone from the content marketing and content production industrial complex or maybe some writer. If you’re one of those people, go suck a lemon!
Fuck Google, fuck SEO, Fuck optimization, fuck, hacks, fuck tips, fuck tricks, fuck listicles, fuck short sentences, fuck long sentences, fuck word limits, fuck repurposing content, fuck repurposed content and fuck the 100 other fucking useless bullshit fads that are turning the internet into an absolutely unbearable cesspool of regurgitated alphabetical vomit that passes off as writing.
Write your own shit, your own way, uncontaminated by any pretentiousness without pandering to someone or something. I’ll be the first person to pay to read your stuff.