So You’ve Decided to Unfollow Me

We’re good, seriously.

A double exit-door, open to reveal a Matrix-style code waterfall. Over the door is a green exit sign with a green halo.
Sascha Kohlmann/CC BY SA 2.0 (modified)

It’s hard to overstate how liberating the early years of internet publishing were. After a century of publishing driven by the needs of an audience, we could finally switch to a model driven by the interests of writers.

That meant that instead of trying to figure out what some “demographic” wanted to read about, we wrote what we wanted to read, and then waited for people who share our interests to show up and read and comment and write their own blogs and newsletters and whatnot.

When the first ad networks came along, they leaned into this model: “Here is a writer whose audience has this approximate composition and interests; if that’s a group you’re trying to reach, then here’s a rate card to show those people ads.”

Back in those days, it seemed that ad targeting would enable more niches, more “long tail” publications tailoring to the esoteric, gnarly interests of writers and readers.

But that was wrong. As behavioral ad targeting took off, and with it, social networks and recommendation algorithms, the money shifted to follow readers around on the internet. Some readers were worth more than others. Showing an ad for a contingency liability lawyer to someone with a mesothelioma diagnosis was worth a bundle, for example, but you didn’t have to write about asbestos or lung cancer to score ad revenue from that user.

Rather, if you could suck in a massive, undifferentiated audience, the ad targeting algorithms would segment them for you, matching the reader with the advertiser willing to pay the most to reach them.

We know what happened next: sensationalism, clickbait, cute animals…An explosion of broadly targeted material intended to serve as a funnel for narrowly targeted ads.

A lot has been written about the effect this had on The Discourse™, but I want to talk about the effect this had on the relationship between readers and writers.

In the golden years of internet publishing, the point was to find the weirdos who liked the same stuff as you. Freed from commercial imperatives, the focus of the blogosphere was primarily on using your work as a beacon to locate Your People, who were so diffuse and disorganized that there was no other way to find them.

That’s the dynamic behind the explosion of fandoms and fanfic, behind esoteric maker communities and weird collector rabbit-holes, behind conspiratorialism and fringe politics and the whole loompanic wonderment of it all.

The commercialization of the blogosphere changed the victory condition: from collecting all the people who viewed the world through the same prism as you to collecting all the people, period, so they could be shown behaviorally targeted ads. The locus of individuation shifted from the writing to the banner ads.

Readers who want to read what you want to write are a gift.

Not that there’s anything wrong with readers who don’t want to read what you want to write.

But when a reader wants you to write something you don’t want to write? That’s a curse.

Note that I’m not talking about readers who disagree with your conclusions or methods. I’m talking about readers who say, “I love it when you post about x but your y content is just not my thing.”

The obvious rejoinder to this — if you’re a writer writing to find your people — is, “I guess you’re not one of my people. I wish you luck on your search.”

But decades of behavioral-ad-driven content has trained readers and writers to treat those “Give me more of x and less of y discussions” as training data for a human approximation of a machine-learning system —a means to expand the net, attract more clicks, and make more money.

I hate it.

It could have been different.

Behavioral ads were part of the “Web 2.0” suite of technologies. It’s hard to remember today, but back then, the selling point of Web 2.0 was “mashups”: web tools that let you tear apart a web-page or feed and reassemble it to suit your needs.

“Folksonomy” — including Joshua Schachter’s delightful invention of the “hashtag” — was the word of the day, with users communities feverishly tagging one another’s material to make it easier for others to find (or block) the things they found (Tumblr still works this way, and it’s great).

Once upon a time, it seemed like our web would be one where we explicitly assembled our reading based on our interests, rather than letting the algorithms do it for us.

If you loved a writer’s output of x but couldn’t abide their output of y, no problem — you’d just suck their feed into your reader and tell it to block stuff tagged as y.

That dream is mostly dead. Even on the Fediverse, your ability to follow someone for x but not y is crude as hell, hardly better than the web of the early 2000s.

Which brings me to readers who tell you that they love your x writing but the y stuff grates on them.

I hear from them: “I love your Twitter threads but I’m drowning in your retro ad tweets” — or vice-versa. I understand that readers who go out of their way to tell me this are (usually) just trying to be helpful, but honestly, if you don’t want to read (some of) what I want to write, and you’ve chosen to follow me on a platform that doesn’t let you pick out the stuff you want and hide the stuff you don’t, that’s your problem, not mine.

My weird little cross-platform publication is designed to let you customize your reading. If you just want the long essays, you can follow me on Medium or Tumblr or RSS or via my newsletter. If you want the whole firehose, you can follow me on Twitter. If you don’t want to switch from Twitter to another platform to read my stuff, you can just look at my pinned tweet once a day, which will be an index to the previous 24 hours’ worth of threads.

Or you can read someone else. No hard feelings, honestly! I relish the freedom of writing exactly what I want to write, and the freedom to read exactly what I want to read. If it’s too much work for you to pick out the stuff of mine that appeals to you, that is one hundred percent fine. I am not required reading. No one is.

Find a writer you like and read them. If you can’t find the writer whose work you want to read, become that writer. That’s what I did. It’s great.