In one way, you’d think that nothing would be easier than building a following online.
After all, the Internet has radically leveled the communication playing field. It’s no longer 1965 with three TV stations, all manned by old white dudes; anybody can post anything instantly. You can connect with people anywhere in the world, any time you like, for free.
And if the ads and general tenor of the #smallbiz conversation is to be believed, ANYONE can build a HUGE following in JUST 90 days! #totesforreal
But when that doesn’t happen … when you’re a year out and you’ve got like, 18 followers — two of whom are your best friends and one of whom is your mom — when your blog’s a ghost town, when the only thing you get in response to your Facebook ads is a big, fat goose egg …
Talk about a mindfuck.
So maybe you think that you suck and you stop posting and give up on getting your message out to the world. (“I suck. The Internet sucks. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.”)
Or maybe you don’t. Because c’mon, we all get that people are busy, and who are you in the grand scheme of things? But somewhere, deep down, there’s this little bitty resentful voice that says, “But wait, my stuff is special. People should pay attention to me. I’m trying to help them. Love me, dammit!”
You could follow the predominating advice for solving this problem, which is to steal people’s attention any way you can.
Be the trendiest, shiniest, most exciting person out there! Post more! Post every day! Post every hour! Use scammy headlines! Freak those people right the fuck out, that will get them clicking! Demand their attention, you know you deserve it!
Or you could understand that the key to your relationship with people online lies in one fundamental principle: you’re spam until you prove otherwise.
Seriously, nobody cares about you. In fact, people are unconsciously biased towards tuning you out. It’s not because you suck. And it’s not because people are assholes.
It’s because people are exposed to upwards of 100,000 words a day, most of which boil down to “Buy me!” in some form or another.
It’s because we are biologically wired to see almost everyone as set dressing, and we don’t listen to set dressing. (See: Dunbar’s number.)
And most importantly, it’s because you’re writing to humans. Actual, messy, in living color, gloriously irrational, people who have absolutely no obligation to listen to you. No matter who you are. No matter how great your thing is. No matter how much you care or how many people have listened to you before.
Access to another person’s brainspace is a privilege every single time.
And believe me, I get how tempting it is to read that, nod, and let it pass right on by.
When you’re in an environment of list envy, follower feeding frenzies, and comments section humblebragging it’s incredibly tempting to listen to all of the people out there that tell you that the only way you can get people’s attention is to force yourself on them.
It pushes all kinds of deep, fundamental buttons. Because it is true that people are saturated with content and primed to tune you out. It is true that bounce rates are measured in a matter of seconds, and OMG, if you can’t get people to listen to you then you can’t sell your thing and your business will fail and your dream will be relegated to the cutting room floor by the collective “Meh” of the Internet.
And even deeper and darker, if nobody’s listening to you … then maybe that means you’re not actually worth listening to.
That’s scary shit. But the answer isn’t to become the loudest, flashiest, human equivalent of a pop up ad you can.
It’s to change the dynamics of the conversation from “Oh God, oh God, please listen to me, listen to meeeeeeeeeee!” to “I see you. You and I are equals here; I will fundamentally respect you every single time, and I will show that by writing things that are valuable to you in a way that really resonates with you.” It’s changing from what Martin Buber calls an “I-it” relationship to an “I-Thou” relationship, where two people connect as equals, with mutual respect.
And good lord almighty, that’s hard. To do that, you have to get some skin in the game. You have to truly open up and connect with people, which is messy and unpredictable and sometimes scary. You have to be authentic, not in the “Oh look, I dyed my hair blue and took a picture of my mildly cluttered desk” sense of the word, but in a “I have something to share with you that scares me, but I know it’s going to make us both better people” way.
The craziest thing? Writing like this actually gets you all those results that the scammy people promise.
OK, so you probably won’t get seven zillion followers overnight. But you will get the loyal, incredibly engaged audience who actually wants to listen to you. It’s simple relationship physics — the more desperate you are for someone’s attention and love, the more you’ll repel them.
But take a stand for something, work from a place of unconditional respect, and refuse to put out half-assed work, and people can’t get enough of you.