Existentialism After Influencing
The New York Times wrote another article about me, except it’s about someone else.
I got an email this weekend from an old-school blogging buddy in Germany, someone I cofounded a hula-hooping website with twenty years ago. She sent a link to this NYTimes article: Is There Life After Influencing?
As she said:
It made me think of you — 1) because you were the first person I knew who was “performing your life for content” (direct quote from the article), over 20 years ago when influencers were still stardust, and 2) because I know that you recently took a full-time job after many years of “influencing.” I don’t even know if you ever saw yourself as an influencer.
Her observations are legit! As someone who’s made my living creating personal content online for decades, who’s now working a day job for the first time since 2009… am I now experiencing life after influencing?
The answer is an absolute yes — but also not at all.
Let’s start with how I might seem like an influencer. Yes, I’ve been sharing my stories online since 2000. Yes, I’ve written three books, all of which contain at least some memoir. Yes, I supported myself full-time as a digital publisher for 15+ years.
But I’m not really the kind of influencer that this article is about.
- Starting with the obvious: I’ve never had a ton of Instagram followers or made most of my money via social media. That’s a small but significant difference. I built on my own platforms, not social media platforms. I’m more of a slave to Google than I am to Instagram.
- Through luck or subconscious smarts, I created an emotionally safer platform for my influencing. Sure, my first book was a memoir/service hybrid about my 2004 wedding, but the website I launched to promote the book was about advice and validation for other people. Quite simply, my revenue wasn’t directly tied to my life.
- My influencing platform was a cluster of publications mostly dedicated to other people’s writing. I was never a mommy blogger who made thousands of dollars for writing about my kids, or a lifestyle photographer who made money off of pictures of my living room. Sure, I wrote posts for my websites, but the vast majority of the content was produced by editors or UGC.
- My attempts at what I’ll call “direct influencing” (just me, talking about myself, being paid to do so) never quite worked out. Some cold hard numbers: The book deal for my third book, From Sh!tshow To Afterglow, netted me a whopping $10k. My career as a memoirist has never been the stuff of six-figure book advances. The Afterglow membership program I launched in conjunction with the book never found an audience of more than a couple hundred people, most of whome were longtime readers. (Secretly, I suspected many subscribed because they felt vaguely sorry for me.)
So, while I have influenced folks with the Offbeat Empire, I definitely wasn’t the kind of influencer the NY Times article is about.
The vast majority of my company’s revenue has been made from people reading wedding advice on a website produced by a team of editors, not me monetizing my life on social media.
Not that I haven’t shared my life on social media and made some money from it, but it’s never been where my salary came from.
Maybe another way of saying this is that I made my money from relatively traditional digital publishing (third-party ads, business directories, affiliate revenue), and being an influencer was just a hobby.
Let’s be clear: my validation-chasing ego wanted to be an influencer, but I was also grossed out by it, especially once my third book ushered me into the self-help industry. Even coming from the wedding industry (which is nasty), the the guru/charlatan vibes of the self-help world were just so deeply repulsive. I’ve wondered if Afterglow failed in part because I could never quite vibe with the industry.
At its worst, the product was about monetizing first my trauma (read my book about how I rebuilt after my life fell apart!), and then monetizing the trauma of others (…and then buy my content to help you rebuild YOUR life!).
Thankfully, I don’t relate to the pressure of being a full-time influencer.
But I DO relate to this article’s take on content creator burnout, and the surprising joy of working for someone else after decades of self-employment.
I deeply understand the challenges of content production grind culture and burnout. And I super get how, after dealing with that for decades, going to work for someone else can be a huge relief.
Having a day job feels like a vacation, by comparison. I start work in the morning and wrap it up around 5. No responding to comments at 10pm. No more waking up early in a panic about my biz dev strategies. (Secret: I had to stop myself from working through my first weekend, but I did it!)
I’m also learning daily how my standards for myself and my tiny little biz were insane. I don’t mean insane in a hyperbolic “like, totally insane” way, but rather a literal mental illness kind of insane. Unhealthy “I physically injured myself” insane. Compulsive workaholism insane. Using work to avoid existential angst insane.
I’ve had moments at Medium of wondering why my boss was being so nice to me, because my boss at the Offbeat Empire would NEVER.
(Reminder: I was the boss.)
I’m having to calibrate myself daily to take my foot off the gas, ease off, work more sustainably.
So yeah: having a day job is making me understand what an immeasurably cruel boss I’ve been to myself for decades. How the endless hustle of entrepreneurship and content creation and publisher grind has affected my mental health and physical well-being.
…But parts of me might be sorta stuck like this.
As someone who’s journaled since 1982, blogged since 2000, and written several memoirs, I confess to having “main character syndrome.”
For actors, all the world’s a stage and we are merely players; For narrative nonfiction writers, all the world’s a page, and we are merely authors.
Seeing my own life as a narrative is both a blessing and a curse. It allows me to see myself and my foibles with relative clarity because I’m always viewing my story through the lens of other people’s eyes. But it’s also an icky trap where I worry that I unconsciously keep myself unhappy because it makes for a more compelling story… What kind of page-turner is success and contentment?
This is how you can tell I wasn’t a typical influencer: the personal brand I sold wasn’t based on flaunting my success; it was about my outsider status. As an offbeat influencer, my market was folks that loved to play “one-lowsmanship,” not luxury.
The smaller your wedding budget, the cooler you were. The more DIY your house, the closer the god. As an offbeat influencer, my market was never about mainstream brands or success. Part of the unspoken brand agreement I made with my readership was that sure, maybe I was successful enough to get your attention — but not too successful. I was still relatable.
Once I posted a video of me dancing in a friend’s kitchen, and a follower chewed me out for charging for my online dance class when I had a Viking Stove. Where-as some influencers want to show off their fancy lifestyle as a sign that they’re worth following, my followers would ding me for my proximity to a marble kitchen island.
This has been true since the mid-’90s when I was writing for and then editing a rave magazine. Unlike our peers XLR8R or URB, Lotus Magazine was free. We were about the underground. We were not sellouts. We were iconoclasts. In actuality, that just meant we were even more dependent on advertisers than magazines sold at the newsstands. In our effort not to sell out, we were held hostage by the rave promoters and record labels that bought ads to pay for the pages to be printed. (LOL. The magazine industry is the sluttiest, seriously.)
Part of accepting the job at Medium was my recognition that, after 30 years, my outsider status and exile narrative have expired.
Somehow, my backstory for why I founded a bootstrapped media startup and ran it profitably for 15+ years was always “I had to start my own company because I was rejected by mainstream media.” Woe is me!
It was a bullshit story from the start: was I actually rejected by the mainstream media, or did I opt-out because I was a strange mix of rebellious, ahead of the curve, hyper sensitive, and arrogant?
But even if the story kinda sorta made sense back in 2002, after a couple of decades, it really doesn’t parse out.
I can’t continue to play some sort of wacky outsider underdog when I’m nearing 50, own my home, and keep my life on short, tight leash.
I’m not some manic pixie dreamgirl who stumbled into success. It was all heavily strategized.
A guy asked me once on a date, “Ariel, are you a chaos vector?”
…CHAOS VECTOR?! I laughed out loud. Don’t let the pigtails and gap-toothed smile fool you: someone doesn’t stay in content creation for as long as I have without endless strategies, scaling models, pipeline plans, and financial forecasts.
It might be all rainbows and platform sneakers on the outside, but 20 years of creating content online has burned Google Analytics into my retinas, and I’ll never get the SEO keyword grime out from under my nails.
I might have a few visible tattoos, but I’m also crisscrossed with unseeable ritual scarification carved in the trenches of online community management.
I’m the opposite of a chaos vector. Anyone who’s worked with me knows I’m ambitious and driven, bordering on rigid and controlling.
I genuinely hope I’ve never sold myself as an offbeat influencer just effortlessly living her life online and accidentally stumbling into success.
Part of me taking a job at Medium was me saying “fuck that” to my own self-imposed career alienation. Let’s face the facts: I’m an educated middle-aged white woman working from her condo. Another word for that is privilege.
My career has been scrappy, but I’ve outgrown the offbeat underdog story I’ve carried around since the mid-’90s.
(It’s hard to be an underdog after a third book.)
I’ve had to recognize the offbeat underdog story kept me isolated and toiling — and I liked it, because the loneliness and anxiety was motivating. It got me out of bed in the morning. Years of what I thought was relational insecurity may have just been my career. Turns out it’s stressful being a self-employed single mother. Whodathunk?! 🤣
Deciding to take a job working for someone else was me saying, “It’s ok to be conventionally successful instead of drilling away in the offbeat mines I dug for myself.”
It’s fine. I don’t need to suffer to create a good story, or make myself more relatable to an invisible peanut gallery.
I can just live my life, pay my bills, and snuggle with my small dog and huge kid. I can just fill my home with plants and art and flowers and love. It’s a wonderful life.
This stuff gets complicated though…
Perhaps the part of the New York Times article that made me laugh the hardest was the fact that the burnt-out influencer was selling an online course for other burnt-out influencers about how to transition out of influencing:
After Ms. Tilghman announced her workshop, criticism mushroomed in the comments beneath her post. She saw a tweet that summed up the negative sentiment. It read, in part: “influencers offering workshop to teach people how to stop being influencers while being an influencer for not influencing.”
Honey, if you’re not influencing any more, stop influencing. Stop using social media to sell things! Just give your stuff away because it was a joy to create and you don’t need the money anymore! Stop hustling and start shitposting!
(My current marketing content pillars for my Insta account include “unhinged affirmations,” “nondualistic musings no one engages with but I love,” and “making myself LOL with dumb filters.” The most popular posts are OOTD pics where I don’t identify any of the products.)
I’m aware of the irony here. I’m writing an essay about influencer burn-out that I’m digitally publishing and then linking via social media. It’s so meta on Meta that I get lost in my belly button. It’s turtles all the way down.
This is where content creation and influencing reveal themselves to be a compulsion.
If a thought happens and it wasn’t captured, monetized, and shared — did it even exist? If I don’t share a daily Instagram story, will I disappear into the abyss? Am I a creator because I love making things and expressing things, or because it’s a compulsion? Is it art or a desperate shout into the ether to see if there’s any sort of ripple? Even when I don’t share my stories, I document everything via a paper journal and 40,000 pictures archived in my Google Photos.
…I stick my finger into existence, and it smells of nothing.
But then I pull myself back to the tangible results of my work.
I’ve had hundreds of profound conversations with readers that have had significant impact on my life… not the least of which is feeling like my readership sees, understands, and holds me in ways that no parent or partner ever has. Parasocial relationships are real, and have real value.
I’ve also lost count of how many times I’ve been stopped on the street by readers who’ve told me the impact my work has had on them. Eyes opened, loves unlocked, identities emerged, suicides averted. Every time, I get choked up, and sometimes I start crying uncontrollably and it’s sort of embarrassing for everyone. Even if I can keep my shit together, I’m always a little overwhelmed by feeling like all my blabbering over all these decades has actually had an effect on folks.
We create because it has an impact.
Thankfully, I don’t need it to have an influence. I don’t need to make my salary from this kind of personal sharing any more. I create online because I see this writing of mine and this reading of yours (YES, YOU) as the universe in conversation with itself.
Feeling like I’m a part of that conversation is part of how I find my sense of place in the soup that is existence.
Thanks for being a part of it.