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Everything You Know About Audience-Building is Wrong

And what you should do instead.

For a long time, I really wanted to build a huge audience. I constantly felt bad watching objectively dumber people build massive audiences. It was textbook mimetic desire, but nonetheless, I was trapped in it.

Today, I can proudly say amor fati. It seems that my fate is to have a modest but sophisticated audience, big enough to build a unique and beautiful lifestyle business I’m proud of, but perhaps never big enough to be very famous or very rich.

Today’s post below is about how I stopped worrying and learned to love my fate as a humble, middling, hard-working, independent scholar.

There are reproducible ways to grow a large audience pretty fast, but what can be built quickly is often lost quickly.

In the business world, what others cannot replicate is called your "moat." If you don't have a moat, you'll be replaced or washed out by a sea of competitors. Many individuals have amassed huge audiences by identifying a certain type of content that performs well. With discipline and skill, they produce this content daily for months, like they’re working an assembly line. This method can work, but the way of the independent scholar is different—and I think it’s better, for several reasons.

To grow fast, one is often forced to reduce oneself to a specific concept, to become known as an X guy: "The walkable cities" guy or the "the egg slonking" guy or the “traditional architecture” guy. But then there's copycats and you're in a sea of "guys." I don’t know about you, but I did not set out to be an X guy in a sea of X guys.

Also notice that many high-growth accounts utilize pseudonyms and avatars. The reason why pseudonymity is disproportionately prevalent among high-growth accounts is that they are either using tactics that are embarrassing (they don't want to be associated with what or how they are publishing), or the person behind the account does not quite live up to what they are projecting. I don't envy either situation. I don't judge, or begrudge, anyone who's found success with these approaches, I just don't think it's ideal for the modern, independent scholar. Something is being separated, shielded, but what is it?

A real person is complicated; real thinking is complicated. Although complications hinder branding efficiency and therefore growth rates, your complications are, advantageously, impossible to fake: They are a moat. Being messy, honest, and real is not for everyone, but, in addition to creating a moat, it brings several other advantages as well.

I write to express and cultivate myself. I write to seek the truth, but just as importantly, to integrate it with the details of my own life and experience. Following Montaigne, the independent scholar studies and writes to answer the question: Que sais-je? What do I know? What do I really know?

Figuring out what you really think, what you really know, is simply not a high-growth strategy. This is true by definition because you have to question what grows fast. If you are not occasionally floating hypotheses that incur growth penalties, you’re not really searching and testing the parameter space. My growth is way slower than many people who traffic in ideas, and perhaps even my ultimate ceiling is lower than it could be. But I learned to be content with this fact because I’ve come to appreciate how many different games it is possible to play with words.

The game of long-term cultural impact is demonstrably a different game than the game of quantitative audience-building. I certainly make no claim whatsoever to be winning that game, either! But I do claim that that is a game worth playing. For that has always been the ultimate game of Arts and Letters, and everyone can take solace in the fact that its results are only very weakly correlated with fame and wealth in one’s lifetime.

There is a kind of divine egalitarianism in the ultimate significance and long-run value of creative work: Nobody can be particularly confident about what will be most respected and influential 100 years after one’s death simply because so many of the greats were minor figures in their lifetime. Of course, most minor figures recede into historical oblivion, but so do most major figures! You have no idea how many major writers were only major writers for one decade long ago. I’ve come to embrace my mid-career arc as an unimportant scribbler-hustler not because I have any absurd delusion that minor-status today portends major-status after my death, but because the correlation is so weak that it just doesn’t matter. To care one way or another is vanity, and a distraction from the work.

People relate and connect with other people, not so much with conceptual brands. We admire and respect real, strange, and wild people, more than we respect people who purchase material success by shoehorning their soul into optimized categories in order to deliver standardized text-products on a virtual assembly line. No one will ever hold the latter individuals in the same esteem as they do their favorite writers of old. If you're maximizing your audience at all cost, you're essentially bracketing your soul. You're growing one metric, which is a kind of power, no doubt, but precisely at the cost of writing's greatest power. Call me crazy, say I’m “coping,” but this approach strikes me as short-sighted and unlikely to succeed in the long run.

The recent acceleration of AI threatens to commodify any kind of text production that is maximizing a specifiable, objective function. Seeking to maximize “the ultimate truth as I am able to ascertain it through the details of my own perspective” might only grow an audience slowly, but at least you can sleep easily knowing that no man or machine will ever do it better than you. In the not too distant future, the best “writers” could very well be differentiated not by follower count (scores on one objective function), but in their very ability to constitute and maintain a unique and original function. Taste, in other words, might be the only differentiator left, when everyone and their mom has 1M followers (thanks to equally perfect machine assistants). Knowing what to train your models on, and training them in a unique way, will matter more than anyone's ability to generate "performant" text products.

Even already, an absurd number of people have more than 1M followers. You’ve only even heard of a few, you respect even fewer. The most interesting writers you read and talk about with your friends, even the “biggest” ones, are small compared to any moderately successful TikTok dancer. This is all the proof you need that audience size is not the name of the game.

Another point to always remember is that there exists a tradeoff between quantity and quality when it comes to followers. Attracting a million followers quickly with efficiently standardized content means the average intelligence of that audience will be lower than if you attract a smaller audience slowly with unstandardized soul. This seems likely because the work of evaluating and deciding to follow unstandardized content is more cognitively taxing. When the decision to follow is easy and obvious, it jacks up the number of lower-IQ folks coming on board. That’s fine, you just have to discount for it when you assess the value of any given audience.

Writing one important piece that makes a difference to someone like Elon Musk is arguably worth one million low-IQ followers, if not more, in the realest sense of economic, social, and cultural power. The problem today, which confuses a lot of people, is that such power is far less liquid. You can sell to an audience of 1 million low-IQ folks a random product for $50 and score a pretty nice payday. In terms of shaping the culture, earning the respect of Elon Musk is almost certainly more powerful, it’s just hard to cash that out—it’s hard to prove it or benefit from it. But if the game of high Arts and Letters is, ultimately, long-term public impact, then it’s a no-brainer. If given a choice, the independent scholar will prefer a small elite audience that respects his or her work over a large audience of average people.

The realm of Arts and Letters is an agora, a competitive arena where success is determined not by mass approval but by the genuine discernment of quality by a minority possessing intelligence and taste. It is true that everything now takes place on the internet, outside of institutions, but it does not follow that the world-historical selection process is therefore suddenly a democracy. The intrinsically elitist and aristocratic nature of cultural competition has always been, and always will be, a relatively insular affair among a relatively small number of people. What's different now is just that anyone has a chance to earn their seat at the table, through an open and decentralized arena with no formal gatekeepers. Confusing audience size for success in the transhistorical agora is as good as suicide for the independent scholar.

Someone who grows rapidly by committing to a specific type of standardized content often believes they can later evolve into something more dynamic, significant, and mature. Perhaps they can and will; all of this is still very new. I fear that such a transition is likely to be harder than one might expect. Once you're accustomed to growth, any slowdown feels like failure. The hedonic treadmill and lifestyle creep commit one to keeping growth rates high. My approach has been to focus on constructing the ideal model and lifestyle organized around independent scholarship, biting the bullet of lackluster growth and just-barely-scraping-by income growth. I make principled decisions to create the ideal model for a modern, independent scholar, then I scramble like a madman to somehow drum up enough growth and revenue to pay the bills. That has been incredibly stressful, to be honest, but the advantage is I no longer wonder nervously if or when I’ll be able to transition my career as a “content creator” to my vision of being an independent scholar.

In the couple years where I was thinking in more mercenary terms, where I was really just trying to grow, and I was testing all kinds of “content creation” in the hope of unlocking faster growth, I always told myself I’d return to focusing on scholarship later. But I hated myself, and I was often quite miserable, because I knew that, with every passing day, the chances of actualizing a real scholarly life diminished. One is what one does on a daily basis, and the older one gets, the harder it becomes to reinvent oneself. Having our first kid was the last straw; it became brutally clear to me that if I did not simply focus everything on a slow, patient, dedicated submission to great reading and great writing and great teaching (even possibly, in the worst case scenario, at the cost of all growth), then I would never, ever achieve my mission and the life I set out to build when I quit my academic career.

I've lived a wild life (for better and for worse), and I’ve tried to bare my soul at every turn. I can’t yet claim to have achieved very much, but I have managed to remain a free man; I read a lot, I write a lot, I teach what I learn, and my current audience growth seems good enough to pay the bills. My audience includes smarter and more influential people than I ever would have hoped for when I first committed to this vocation 17 years ago, at the age of 20. I’ve met and in some cases befriended people I never would have through my former institutional career.

I certainly intend to keep growing my audience, but what’s different about my model is that everything else has already been achieved. The core requirements of my ideal lifestyle are in place. Now, I can keep working hard to grow the business side, but from a position of deep inner contentment. My life is hard but it’s beautiful to me; I now do, every day, the type of work I initially set out to do. I have to hustle pretty hard, but I have found that I’d rather scrap for cash in one tight month, from the base of a daily lifestyle I’m proud of, than keep the bank account buffered comfortably through a daily life that betrays my calling.

Write with your blood. Burn yourself at the stake and signal through the flames. As Deleuze once wrote in reference to Heinrich Von Kleist: “Bring something incomprehensible into the world!”

If you’re not called to be an independent scholar, then I wouldn’t recommend my path. I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies. But if you are called to chart your own course as an independent scholar, certainly do not fall into the trap of believing that your primary job is to grow your audience. Perhaps it is your number one secondary job.

This was an excerpt from my short, free book: The Independent Scholar.

This document collects all of the key lessons I’ve learned over 4 years as an independent scholar working full-time on the internet.