Be Careful What You Create

Jolts, Jars, and Jibes.

One morning a few weeks ago I was merrily browsing Instagram when I had a bit of a jolt. For context, I have an Instagram account specific to my photography, which I also use exclusively to follow my favourite photographers and creatives. I’m careful to curate my feed to only those whose work I really admire. I do this for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to waste too much time consuming content
  2. I want to absorb content I really like, so that it influences my own work

However, I had recently followed a relatively young photographer. I’d been drawn to his unique compositions, and had been enjoying his feed.

But that morning, as I flicked through the stories, I was suddenly jarred by a picture of a news headline, with that photographer’s jibes on the particular content written around it.

Now to be clear, I didn’t necessarily disagree with the points he made, and neither was the content in and of itself extraordinary upsetting. But in the context of swiping through pretty pictures, it was a bit of a punch in the guts.

As I mentioned, the creator was young, with a relatively modest (but rapidly growing) following, and I’ve little doubt that as that growth continues and the creator matures, they won’t want to risk upsetting their source of income with potentially edgy social commentary.

However, this did make me think that whatever type of creator you are, you should be very careful when commenting on social issues. Not particularly because you may not be right, but simply because if people follow you because of your pretty pictures, it’s likely they’re not wanting to have their downtime interrupted by the jolt of seeing one of the many unpleasant events happening in the world.

I recognise this is a nuanced topic in itself, and therefore requires a more nuanced approach than I wish to extrapolate here. But it’s something that all creators should bear in mind. The web is a mentally exhausting place, but proper segmentation can go a long way to making it bearable.

It’s not easy being rubbish

Part of the struggle with online creation now is achieving the right balance between quantity and quality. This predates, but has been exacerbated by, the recent explosion of short-form video content. Think TikTok, Shorts, and Reels. Bizarrely, as I’m writing this, TikTok has announced that you can now upload videos as long as ten minutes on the platform.

Some of the long-form/short-form debate surrounds what constitutes an acceptable production value for online content. This is quite specific to video content, which is the most time and resource intensive form of content creation out there. Really, the shaky TikTok footage saturating the web right now harks back to the early days of social media, when everyone’s photos were blurry, posts still bore the marks of text-speech, and video was relatively non-existent.

Fast forward several years, and the advancement in video technology has meant anyone with a phone is capable of producing content that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the silver screens of the 90s. Pocketable cameras can shoot 4K, which can be edited using industry standard software on a sub-$1,000 laptop, and uploaded for free to the platforms of your choice.

But this amazing advancement brings another problem to the would-be video creator, especially those trying to compete with the already established channels. If you want to produce long-form content, you have little to no excuse for it to suck. And it’s not just your visuals that need to be stellar, research shows that lousy audio = poor retention. So you’ll need to add sound engineer to your expanding skillset. Oh, and graphic design, cause thumbnails are everything.

If this seems a bit depressing, then you have three valid options:

  1. Decide you don’t care, and just do as much as you want.
  2. Don’t create content.
  3. Create less

Both of those seem a touch dramatic, but if you don’t enjoy the entire process, and you don’t have the money to outsource any elements, then why do something that makes you miserable? You can either choose to work on the elements that you do enjoy for another creator, or monetise them specifically.

Like graphic design? Create thumbnail templates.

Fancy yourself an audiophile? Master someone else’s waveform.

Love writing? Start a newsletter.

And if you really love presenting, it’s amazing how many brands are jumping on the content creation bandwagon. Everyone from clothing stores to tech retailers needs people who are knowledgeable about content creation and can talk to a camera.

Or if you’re willing to not achieve MKBHD levels of production, then just know that that’s absolutely fine. I recently started watching a programming tutorial, only to discover that the whole thing was just a screen recording with Pachelbel’s Canon dubbed over top. So what you might ask? Well, that video alone had over 30,000 views, and the channel had 3,000+ subscribers. Showing that you don’t have to create a Hollywood epic in order to be useful.

Finally, if you want to be a perfectionist, just be a perfectionist. YouTube channels like LEMiNO thrive despite only uploading once or twice a year. Don’t buy into the belief that you need to be uploading multiple times a week to any given platform to be successful. That’s just one marketing tactic in a myriad of options, and depending on your niche, it might be completely the wrong choice for you.

You don’t need to be first

I remember an idea I had when I was in my early twenties. I had just finished university and armed with a shiny certificate and just enough ability to write terrible web apps I came up with the idea for a new site which would allow for reviews of tradespeople.

I worked on building sites for six months in my teens so I had some experience of that world and I was fully aware of the power that a simple recommendation could provide. There are so many horror stories of bodging builders that if someone you trust can provide an honest review for one, chances are that’s who’ll you’ll go for.

The web app in question would allow for users to post verified reviews of builders, electricians, plumbers etc. There would be no cost to the reviewers, instead, revenue would be generated by the tradespeople who would have to pay to be listed on the site.

That was about as far as I got thinking through the concept because I then went on Google and found at least two other sites who were already set up and claiming to achieve the same or similar things. I didn’t look particularly closely because I thought I’d had an original idea, and was crushed to find out it had already been done.

Except in hindsight, it hadn’t. Thinking back, neither site functioned exactly how I thought they should. I gave up not because I didn’t think I could do a better job of the concept. I gave up just because the concept was already out there.

I hadn’t thought about this until recently when a couple of things happened. First, I heard an interview with a now-famous TikToker who claimed that no one would ever be able replicate the way that she’d found success. That struck me as arrogant and a bit deluded.

The second was that upon finishing Clarkson’s Farm, I had the idea for a site that would allow people to search for local farm shops and independent produce sellers. I immediately repeated my trick of several years ago and fired up Google to find out if this idea had also been taken. Alas, I found it had, with multiple sites claiming to list the farm shops in question.

But as I resigned myself to being unoriginal for life, I remembered something. Specifically, I remembered Bebo. Do you remember Bebo? Funnily enough it is back, at least in a closed beta (send me an invite?) Bebo was the first social network I was on, although it was launched a full two years after MySpace. From what I can recall, it had most if not all of the same features as Facebook. I remember posting images, commenting on them, and interacting with friends in similar ways. And yet Facebook.

Bebo officially launched a year after Facebook, but I remember it being incredibly popular in the UK. And even before that we had MSN Messenger, which was effectively a desktop version of WhatsApp. But in the case of Bebo, MySpace, and MSN Messenger, being first, was not particularly the be all and end all.

There are lots of reasons why these different social networking tools failed. Ultimately though, it comes down to the fact that being first is not always as important as being better. What Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and now TikTok have gotten right, is that they’ve simply built better tools. They’ve also marketed themselves better, positioned themselves better, and prioritised better.

So what does that mean for my ideas…and yours? Well, only fools rush in for sure. But what you can take away from these lessons from the recent past is that just because it’s already been done, doesn’t mean you can’t too it too. Just do it…better.