Curating Our Complexity (How Influencer Culture Ruined Blogging and Everything Else)

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It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. Not because I decided to give up on it, but because I really haven’t known how to proceed with it.

I first imagined this blog back in 2012. I believed (and still do) I had really good, creative ideas for “content” that some people could find interesting or relevant. Also, I like to write. I like writing so much I got an overpriced degree in it! I was active in the LiveJournal days where blogging was an anonymous, fringe endeavor, not a commercial one. You just kind of wrote about whatever was going on in your life. You hoped somebody in the cyberverse cared. In 2006, like many people, I had a solid following on Blogspot just from writing about embarrassingly personal, utterly inane things. Also like many people, I’m VERY glad no record of it exists for public consumption.

When I finally got around to launching The Wild Well in 2020, the blog world was (obviously) different.

Blogging isn’t really a personal endeavor anymore. It’s a business.

It’s all about SEO, social media followers, engagement rates, sponsorships, #ads, aspirational content, building a “personal brand,” and, maybe worst of all, making sure your blog posts are providing a solution to someone. It use to be a raw, intimate , abbreviated window into the life of a stranger. Early blogging had voyeuristic appeal because early bloggers were’t performing or content creating–they were simply sharing. They were aspirational because they weren’t trying to be. Once a strangely transcendent form of human connection in a digital world that threatened to isolate us, blogging has become a way to turn ourselves into a product.

We now approach the narrative of other people’s lives the way we approach a Target trip.

We expect certain things from Target. The cat litter needs to be in the same place every time. The home section should have the same watered-down on-trend faux vintage crap we expect it to. There should be a Starbucks. If Target tomorrow became Walmart, people would be abandon the brand. Brands have to keep themselves consistent. Now sharing our lives with others brands them. And we react with the same indignation when bloggers or influencers choose to “betray their brand” by doing what every human does: shift their interests, location or relationship status. Their personal evolution makes us feel ripped off because it isn’t the version of their life we “bought.” I absolutely can’t stand Rachel Hollis, but must suck to have your whole identity and brand built around your “aspirational” marriage and then get a divorce. Or be a vegan influencer who suddenly gets death threats for eating a fish sandwich. We’re still waiting to see if anyone cares about Love Taza now that she doesn’t live in New York anymore.

Being eclectic and diverse is a strength. But in influencer culture, complexity is a liability. It dilutes your brand recognition, your ability to be easily pitched and absorbed by a consumer. You must find whatever you is most marketable and run with it, amplify it, curate it, give it a color scheme and hashtag, build a shiny caricature of it to suit the needs and wants of your followers.

The internet makes it seem like whole people and whole lives don’t exist; it’s too hard to curate complexity. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there are blogs out there providing endless how-to manuals and advice. And I’m glad they’re making money. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to write about focused topics and blog for the purpose of providing information to others. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with profiting off that work. Bloggers and influencers have helped me learn to do everything from vent sexing a duckling to French braiding my own hair to changing my spark plugs. I’m frequently more than happy to be “influenced.” It’s just not my style.

I struggled with calling this a “wellness blog.” While mental health and wellness is literally my career, it’s also one small part of who I am and what my life is about. To keep it narrow as a wellness blog with the goal of making it successful would require me to follow a lot of the same formula other wellness blogs do. And frankly, a lot of that stuff feels, to me, obnoxious and phony.

I don’t want to be constantly writing “1,000 lifestyle hacks” or “5 Ways to Practice Self-Care.”

I also don’t want to only crap out unoriginal, predictable, bland, SEO-friendly knock-offs of the same content everyone knows gets click$ (still click on my affiliate links though so I can pay my web hosting bill though k thanks.) 

Join any blogger group and you’ll find that the #1 advice for being a successful blogger is “find a niche.” The #2 advice is “solve a problem for the reader.” This is great if you’re writing an article explaining how to cook a turkey. But when you apply it to a person’s lifestyle, their health habits, or anything else that bloggers and influencers share, it becomes a set up for failure on both ends. The very act of sharing your life and thoughts online, you’re asserting you have authority, expertise or knowledge. In the wellness industry especially this has frequently become toxic.

In the internet’s fledgling days, we shared our failures with strangers. That’s what made early blogs relatable and readable. Now we can only share the successes–even to a fraudulent degree. Most of the early blogs that blew up with massive success– Sea of Shoes and Cupcakes and Cashmere for example–weren’t created with the idea of telling anyone else how to dress or live. They were simply young women sharing their own lives, interests, experiences for fun. The readers were the last thing on their minds. I wonder a lot why we can’t share our lives like this anymore. Blogging use to be fun. Now it’s exhausting.

A while back, I joined a Facebook group for bloggers just starting out. Everyone seemed to dream about quitting their job and blogging full time. I suppose if that’s your goal, it makes sense you’d want to stick to the formula that’s made others money. Naturally, the group was started by a blogger who was making money off others wanting to learn how to blog, which is pretty much how it goes. Her content wasn’t particularly original, she just figured out how to drive a lot of traffic through Pinterest. The goal isn’t originality anymore, it’s just about getting page views. Page views mean clicks. Clicks mean money.

It seems most new bloggers nowadays make money blogging about how to make money blogging. It’s like some weird pyramid scheme.

Not surprisingly, half the girls in the group were also into MLMs. The gospel preached in that group was “narrow your topic for SEO” and “lifestyle blogs aren’t successful because they cover too many topics” and “stay on-brand and give your readers what they want.” Lot’s of lip service was given to “having an authentic voice”, but let’s be real. The blogging standard now (unless you’re already established with loyal readers) is to be as much like everyone else as possible and just produce clickbait drivel. And keep it very focused so Google “knows what your site is about.” Otherwise, you won’t be ranked. You stick with what works. Our world is a world of categorization. The algorithm must be able to define you, or you might as well be dead.

Anyone who knows me knows “what I’m about” is all over the place. Therapy, metalsmithing, painting, travel, interior decor, vintage, fashion, storm chasing, songwriting, politics, crafting, foraging, herbalism, sexuality, spirituality…. I can’t package these things into a wellness blog niche or turn the different facets of myself into a cohesive “personal brand.” And I certainly don’t want to try and amplify only one facet of myself so I fit the standard mould of a “wellness blogger”. I don’t need to be the next GOOP. Niche-friendly or not, this is still a wellness blog.

I believe wellness is about much more than fitness or even mental health. I believe it is fundamentally about living our most expressive, creative, authentic, unabbreviated lives.

Humans are complicated. We aren’t advertisements or images.

It probably seems stupid to people unfamiliar with the blog/ influencer universe I’d even put so much thought or angst into this. But struggling with this blog’s future made me realize what I really struggle with is this late stage capitalistic idea that I have to “package myself” for consumption.

But let’s be real. It’s not just bloggers who have to do this. It’s everyone. Influencer culture has bled into all our lives. We’re told we have to “package ourselves” for our jobs, our LinkedIn profiles, our social media presence. We’re all told our success in business and society relies on our ability to influence others, rather than just our willingness to produce. What good is talent if you can’t market it? There are too many talented people, too many educated people, too many interesting people. It’s not enough to just be an individual, you have to present your individuality in a specific, appealing, marketable way. You have to be just different enough to stand out, but also the same enough to be consumable.

Even the people who try to defend this idea still somehow come of sounding like douchebags.

For example, this Forbes article by Glenn Llopis.

“Managing your personal brand requires you to be a great role model, mentor, and / or a voice that others can depend upon.  For example, when I write a blog or an article – I am extremely mindful that my community of readers expects a specific ‘experience of thought’ from me.”

God.

I get that blogs should not provide garbage content, but this is the kind of buzzword nonsense that makes me think I have no business even trying to blog in 2020. I really don’t know if my ego has the bandwidth to consider how others are “experiencing my thoughts.” But honestly, is this pressure we put on ourselves even real? Have we all just got some kind of dysmorphia that has convinced us we won’t have acceptance or attention unless we are perfectly curated caricatures of our LinkedIn profiles? I simply don’t want to believe that’s true.

He’s not done though.

“More than that, I aim to attract new readers by offering something of value that will hopefully engage them enough to continue reading my work.  Sounds like a lot of pressure and a tremendous responsibility to your audience, doesn’t it?”

Yes. I’m already tired. 

“Well – it is at first – but over time the responsibility becomes a natural and instinctual part of who you are.   This is the mindset you must develop and the level of accountability you must assume when deciding to define, live and manage your personal brand.   Every day you know you must deliver to a standard of expectation that you have set-forth for both yourself and those whom you serve.”

I hate guys who sound like they went to too many Tony Robbins seminars. But the message is everywhere. The internet is not about sharing or connection, it’s about selling and influencing. You, my reader, are not a human soul with whom I am communing through the ecstatic pulchritude of the written word. No, you are my customer. I might as well be selling you a sandwich.

The really fucked up part of all of this, in my opinion, is the idea our very existence has to be a job.

I think most would agree we should all live with basic integrity and strive to be competent and consistent in our professional work. But that isn’t good enough anymore. In influencer culture, every moment of our lives has to be lived in such a way that the majority of total strangers would approve of it. What a miserable, tiring, stressful way to exist. Why are we even doing this to ourselves? We know that being an influencer, even at the micro-level, does a number on mental health. One person who did a story on influencers said most of them reported that they “felt tied to a static, inauthentic identity” and that they “often lamented their inability to put down their phones and laptops.” Why are we still pretending that limiting and commodifying our personal lives to an extreme degree is something we should normalize or encourage? There’s a place in the world for influencers, just like there’s a place in the world for social workers. I love being a social worker, but damn, it’s not for everyone.

When we define ourselves in terms of a “brand”, it keeps us from evolving, from changing, from the very act of being human. It forces us to be inauthentic to maintain the approval of our “followers”, our “network”, our Google rank, our corporate sponsors, our employers, our clients. It also keeps us from being our whole selves and building real, meaningful relationships with others. It wears us down, it disconnects us, it creates dissonance in our souls. If there ever was a time in history we needed to focus on value of simply existing without worrying about whether our existence is “effectively packaged,” it’s right now. We’ve seen the damage living like human inventory does to us. Let’s make being human beings start to trend.

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