Forget 1000 true fans, you only need 1

An unorthodox but effective approach to growing an audience

Wait! Just Listen is a free weekly Sunday newsletter on living a purposeful and meaningful life, in a digitised world of opinion polarisation, gratuitous commentary and click-bait. Subscribe with one-click to receive my musings right in your inbox.

When social media first gained momentum, I remember being bemused over the rather silly-sounding quantification metrics these platforms proudly carried with them; ‘followers’, ‘likes’ and ‘subscribers’. I began to wonder if running a social media page was in fact a weird virtual re-enactment of some kind of messiah complex fuelled by personal feelings of entitlement (‘I deserve recognition’) and infallibility (‘I’ve got life down pat’). I guess I wasn’t too off the mark, but nevertheless it got me thinking about how ordinary people like myself, without a star-spangled following, build audiences in the digital age.

In 2008, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive director of Wired magazine wrote a brilliant piece on how success for artists and writers (creators in general) could be realised with a loyal base of just ‘1000 true fans’ who are devoutly dedicated to the cause. There is a refreshingly practical quality to Kelly’s article as he elegantly teases out how creators have an opportunity to harness online interactive platforms to design a uniquely intimate bond with their audience, a bond so sacred that it remains inimitable for your typically large conglomerates and their 20-million strong customer base.

I compared Kelly’s impassioned treatise to my humbling experience with Wait! Just Listen. It was a lazy overcast Sunday afternoon when I first flirted with the idea of starting a newsletter on the back of a call I had with my dad, a formidable writer himself. I knew I loved writing but the idea of garnering a decent readership base never seemed plausible given that my sole intention was to carve out a virtual space where I could simply express my craft to a handful of likeminded people. Think rickety soapbox rather than a full-blown speaker’s auditorium.

Fast-forward 7 months into this passion project, as I sit here writing in my home office whilst sipping on a full-strength Americano (the only way to have coffee), a vague sense of disbelief creeps in. This article will find its way to over 1000 inboxes this weekend. It isn’t a gargantuan amount but it is a decent start for a space that is essentially an informal literary and ideational playground.

But to who or what do I owe this unprecedented milestone? I do not have a surefooted creative recipe or a grand vision to share. I did not start out with an extensive network of influencer contacts. I do not possess, to the best of my knowledge, an ability to make content ‘go viral’ because, well, that simply isn’t my style.

I did however have one die-hard fan who’d furiously champion every keystroke and half-baked crazy idea without a hint of hesitation or judgement. The same fan would sit by my side at 2am in the morning as I haphazardly scribbled essay ideas when inspiration struck. True to form, this devoted fan would also pull me out of moments when I felt my creative spark was fizzling out.

That fan is me.

You see, I believe, that as an artist, one is obligated to first become unwaveringly convinced of one’s own value and contribution to the craft. You have to be your first ‘true fan’.

I don’t mean this in a self-assured hubristic way but rather in a more self-reflective and contemplative context. In other words, the artist must have undeniable faith that his/her work brings forth a discernible quality to the world. This ‘quality’ however isn’t an objective or measurable element. It is simply an instinctive, firm and stubborn acknowledgement within, that one’s work is unique enough to stand out from the mainstream churn of content yet relatable enough to seize the attention of those who care for the cause, whatever that may be. I’ll admit that it is an extremely delicate (and sometimes frightening) balance to strike but the rewards are insanely fulfilling if done right.

So instead of shooting for the right answers to grow an audience, it is far more crucial to ask the right questions on what you can do to combat the sterile mundanity of content homogenisation - the same sorts of listicles, commentary pieces and reviews, dished up daily on a virtual platter, dominating the majority of content consumption experiences. We may have reached a new dawn of virtual interactivity but let us not kid ourselves. The Internet still comprises a small number of highly vocal people regurgitating the same content, causing it to float to the top of our collective awareness which eventually trickles down to that broader “junk-food” hungry audience. No disrespect to these content types or the people who consume them of course. After all, mainstream cultural products - the Tik-Tok’s and memes of our world - orient us to the colourful societies and communities we inhabit.

Regardless, the role of any impactful creative work is to try and disrupt and unsettle the automated cycle of content homogeneity by offering a style of output that gently nudges one’s intellectual boundaries and agitates commonly held expectations or assumptions. For me that meant articulating ideas close to my heart on leading an analogue life in the digital space, from a largely contrarian viewpoint away from the virtues of pop-philosophy, ‘digital minimalism’ and Marie Kondo style underwear folding tips. But I digress.

Ultimately, appreciating the value of your art is only possible if you become an ardent disciple of your own craftmanship. American poet and essayist, Walt Whitman once memorably wrote about the crippling dangers of self-doubt, when you’ve lost your most faithful fan/follower, your self. Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” On some fundamental level, he knew that in order to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to ravel and embrace in the process of creation, to eventually, as if through a rite-of-passage, nurture a sense of self-belief in the importance and quality of your end-product.

Only by holding on to the integrity and solidity of our conviction and vision, be it creative or existential, can we then be in a position to articulate our art with clarity and fervour to others around us. And make no mistake, the content will often speak for itself if the person behind its inception is a fan. The work will be imbued with a magnetic sense of sincerity and truthfulness that attracts more than it repels.

So if you came here today expecting a detailed rundown on growing audiences, I humbly apologise because the ‘fan’ in me wouldn’t allow it. There are other haunts for that sort of content. The purpose of today’s piece is to really impress upon my discerning readers (most of whom are brilliant writers), that the most important fan you will ever have is yourself; the only fan who will serve as an inner barometer of your own value. The other 1000 will come in due course.

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