Social media didn’t start with Facebook; the network of blogs that rose to prominence after 9/11/2001 predates it. For many of us, the September 11 terror attacks became a red pill moment when we realized that what we’d been told about the world and our place in it was less accurate than anyone let on. (Prior to the rise of the blogosphere, Livejournal was the blogging platform of choice, typically the province of angst-ridden teenage diarists.) Once political blogging took off, particularly during the run up to Gulf War 2, everyone with an opinion and an internet connection had access to a soapbox in the public square. Free to publish, free to read, blogging helped build the idea that everything online should be free.
That few blogs were worth the cost of subscription rarely factored into their popularity.
With social media came social forces, and cliques were formed. The early bloggers, possessing a relative monopoly on readers hungry for free content, linked most frequently to their friends. Qualitative considerations were not a factor. Like in everything, it wasn’t what you knew, but who you knew. The most popular bloggers weren’t necessarily the best writers or thinkers: they simply succeeded in networking. You’ve no doubt followed a link from a popular blogger who claimed that the piece linked to was amazingly insightful, only to be disappointed. If you’ve been around for a few years, you’ve no doubt followed hundreds of such links. That’s the power of networking.
This turned out to be a gigantic boon for conservative media, which until then was comprised of two things: Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Now the right had the blogosphere, where thousands of under-served conservatives and libertarians could read opinion pieces that bolstered their outlook instead of having to swallow progressive boilerplate disguised as conservative opinion by writers like David Brooks of The New York Times.
And they could do it for free. No paywalls, no monthly costs.
Then social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter popped up, and with this new form of communication, many blogs shut down. Why go through the rigmarole of logging into your blog and writing a post about what made you angry when you could do it on Facebook, with the benefit of a captive audience of your friends, family, and former high school classmates? Facebook’s free, too. You get the same dopamine hits from Likes and Shares and comments as you did with your blog, but with less hassle.
This made many blogs go under. Some got bought by millionaires and became part of Conservative, Inc.: the network of opinion sites that operate much like blogs, but aren’t blogs, because they’re a little more professionally coded. These opinion sites were, for the most part, run just like the blogs of yore, because the people in charge of them had little to no experience running anything but blogs. Like blogs, Conservative, Inc. sites are free to read, and the majority of writers on them do not get paid. (Some sites do pay writers per click, which encourages clickbait and shallow screeds.) The quality is inconsistent. Some columnists have been grinding out the same piece week after week for years, but still have fans. Others are there simply because they’re networked from the early days and got grandfathered in. There are a few sites that are consistently quality, in both content and writing, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
(I described why Conservative, Inc. is the way it is, ideologically speaking, here. Take a look at it. They have a business model they have to stick to, and most of them aren’t conservatives, but libertarians.)
The problem with making everything free is that your readers aren’t customers, and hence don’t value your content. They haven’t purchased it. They’re not invested. They only value you, and only if you’ve turned them into fans. A fan will read whatever you write, and pay for the privilege. A fan will become an evangelist for you. Turning a free reader into a fan is a difficult process. It’s not an “If A, then B; if B, then C” proposition. Once you make enough fans, you’ll get more fans. But to succeed in content creation, you need to make fans. Quality doesn’t matter. Your network matters. Once you’ve got enough fans, they’ll stick with you no matter how mediocre your product may be. They’ll make excuses for you.
It’s impossible to overstate the difficulty of transforming free readers into customers. Many online columnists turn their skills to writing books, and find, to their disappointment, that their internet popularity doesn’t translate into dollars. They have readers, but not fans. Not customers. This is because the internet has trained the public to expect everything for free. Why should I buy your book when I can just read your columns and Tweets gratis? I Shared your latest piece on my Facebook wall: I’ve done my part to support you. I’ve given you exposure. Now you want me to pry open my wallet, blow out the dust, and give you my hard-earned cash for something I might not even like? Are you crazy? You’ve got thousands of Twitter followers and write for a big site anyway; aren’t they paying you the big bucks?
So it’s difficult, but not impossible. Some people have made it, and you probably know their names. Certain creators had fan bases before the Politicization of Everything, so delving into political commentary made perfect sense as another revenue stream, or as a source of income once their political leanings alienated them from their industry of choice.
People get funny when it comes to money; ask George Thorogood. It explains why almost none of the big names in conservative media take risks, particularly to help other conservative content creators. Money trumps ideology. Money trumps culture. If you’re outside the network, you don’t exist. The thinking is if you’re any good, you’ll earn those fans, and when you’ve made it up here with us big boys, then we’ll notice you. That so many of them are there because of networking instead of quality isn’t something they consider, and for good reason. Who wants to think of himself as a recipient of internet nepotism? The Peter Principle applies everywhere, not just in government and large corporations. Longevity helps. Most of success is showing up. Parlay your one semi-viral success into a regular gig and keep your head down. Let it ride.
This ossification isn’t limited to conservative media: the conservative audience also suffers from the same condition. What’s easier, endlessly whining about the rot in our media culture, or doing something about it? If you can’t be bothered to shell out five bucks for a book that doesn’t spread its cheeks and spray woke agitprop all over your bad-attitude face, what will you do to change your culture? If you don’t support the content you want to see, it will go away. What will it take to move you? You’ll keep paying Hollywood degenerates and SJW book publishers to produce content specifically crafted to advance a social agenda that’s destructive to your ethics, but you won’t invest in alternative media? Maybe it’s true what they say: if it ain’t Space Marines, post-apocalyptic Dystopias, or Heinlein, the right’s not interested. (I know: most conservative fiction is awful. Don’t buy books that are awful. Don’t go see movies that are awful. But maybe step out of a comfort zone created by woke progressive gatekeepers every once in a while. You might find something you like!)
Outside of being funded by a libertarian rich guy, there’s very little money in conservative media, and trying to get your slice of that tiny pie is a bad investment in time, money, and energy. Everything, including the conservative media industry itself, is against you. You either have to do it for love of content creation or the pure desire to change the culture, knowing that you’re alone. Attempting to appeal to the right by creating cultural content amounts to indulging in an expensive hobby. Do you really want to hustle for hours every week just to get an occasional review, sale, or mention on a mid-to-low-level opinion blog? Is that a good use of your time?
Your best bet is to create content that appeals to everyone. It’s a lot like winning the lottery, but at least you don’t have to pretend to like a bunch of substandard writing by self-important mediocrities along the way.