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Cover image for The Internet Lottery™ for content creators

The Internet Lottery™ for content creators

mortoray profile image edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y Originally published at mortoray.com ・6 min read

Your cursor hovers over the post button. This will be the one. You researched it, you checked it, you got the graphics, and you have the audience. Today you'll have that successful post: thousands of views and followers. Finally, you'll be on your way to internet fame. You click the button, and it goes live. Within minutes you get two downvotes, and your precious content is relegated to internet obscurity.

It's a reality that faces content creators every day. They didn't just publish content; they bought a lottery ticket. And they need to win to get an audience. Usually, they'll lose, or get the pacifying minimal prize. The success of content depends on many factors, but a significant aspect is luck.

Call it timing

A lack of views, likes, and reposts is an unfortunate story that plays out every day, thousands of times, for many individuals. At times it feels like content, which was laboured over for hours, or even days or weeks isn't given a fair chance. The whims of the internet don't even taste it as it's swallowed whole.

There's a good chance the author did nothing wrong. Dumb luck plays a significant role in what becomes popular online. Those first few viewers have enormous sway over who sees what. It may depend on the network, but generally getting early downvotes is the kiss of death. For sites without downvotes, missing out on those first few likes is about the same.

The volume of content posted amplifies the problem. Social sites get thousands of posts per day. This gives an article only a slight chance of breathing before it's relegated to page two, or worse. Many people won't even bother scrolling through new content lists, waiting for popularity to push it high enough in their own feed. Any piece of work could have a significant audience, but if it fails to get the initial bump, it's out of luck.

I've been hit by this many times, and it's something that's easy to get bitter over. An initial post may go ignored, and I think the article isn't any good. Sometime later, somebody finds it and posts it elsewhere, and then it gains a significant number of views.

Other than having a lot of eyeballs in the first place, there's really nothing one can do to affect this luck.

Niches and global competition

Often overlooked is the value of niches. Content competes on a much larger scale than it ever did before. Online, we don't have a lot of regional, or local niches. A post to Facebook competes with content from all over the world. Even the feeds of friends and followers are dominated by other popular things.

Local niches do exist, in the form of private boards, smaller sites, and circles of friends. These are valuable tools in getting initial feedback. They don't hold the same allure as the vast internet though. It's easy for creators to get caught up in the big prize instead of competing for a more reasonable one.

I'm not going to blame Facebook here, or Twitter, or Reddit. They all have different algorithms, and all suffer from the lottery effect. All content needs to hit some threshold of popularity before it gets noticed. If that sounds like a Catch-22, it's because it is.

Because of this, gaming the system is common. If a business depends on the success of a campaign, it can't let this luck get in the way. Vote pods or outright buying votes is a real option. It is a way to get those precious first few likes, helping the content get over the initial hump of popularity. Whether it's ethical or not doesn't change how it works. The more complex the scheme, the harder it is for social networks to catch.

As sites attempt to block gaming, it increases the difficulty of the game for everybody else. Creators, trying to post or vote on their own content, risk getting banned. Friends, or followers, who legitimately like the content, may or may not help. Many sites filter out votes from people who continually up-vote the same sources. It'll definitely help on Twitter, but there's only a small chance the author's followers actually see the post.

Having thousands of followers does nothing to ensure visibility -- I've got over 7000 on Twitter and my posts often get only a few hundred views.

Numerous software vendors love this game, offering tools to manage and optimize posts. These track timing, response rates, and take care of reposting over time. They aren't free, and they still take time to use, creating a barrier to entry for individuals. Corporations with more resources are better equipped to promote their content. This isn't the free internet we were hoping for.

Content and quality

But we do see original user content become successful, so surely there must be some way to make it work? Again, the lottery effect. Some people will be in the right place, at the right time, with the right content. They'll have drawn a winning ticket.

Content is the ticket. You can't play the Internet Lottery™ unless you buy these tickets. The more tickets one buys, the better chance they have. The more followers they have, the better the potential each ticket has. But, until they reach stardom, there is always luck involved.

Before I leave you thinking that luck is everything, don't assume that quantity alone is enough. If the content is bad, then it won't likely succeed. Unless it meets some minimum quality threshold, it'll buy a junk ticket. Those precious few initial votes will never be affirmative for lousy content. And if it does get over the initial hump, the second round of faces will look more closely and liberally downvote anything that isn't good. Of course, there are ways to game the content itself: think of click-bait and cat pictures.

Quality content is a requirement, but not a guarantee of success. There is a lot of luck involved. It can seem unfair, but nobody knows of a solution for this yet. There is an abundance of content, and viewers have limited hours. Not everything can be seen.

Entrenchment

There are two significant dangers of the Internet Lottery™. It significantly demotivates lesser known content creators, and it entrenches the position of corporations. These both limit the variety and originality of content that everybody else ends up seeing.

Dealing with demotivation is a significant personal issue for creators. If they wish to post content online, they'll have to deal with disappointment, rejection, and outright hostility. Buying a winning lottery ticket doesn't necessarily help -- the increased feedback can increase stress.

Corporations are more of a problem. They've bought into the game big time, and love hiding their corporate status by masquerading as ordinary users. Compared to individual users, and indie creators, they've got enough money to buy an infinite source of tickets and optimize their strategy. They also lobby politicians, introducing laws that make it harder for original content to be seen -- consider the debate around upload filters.

If you've been wondering why I keep adding the trademark symbol to The Internet Lottery™, it's because of the corporations. It often feels like the system is owned and operated by somebody -- and I should note that corporations like Facebook and Google are accomplices to this mess. We aren't given the rules, but they are there. My choice of the name and trademark attribution is an indication that you are fighting a system -- in addition to your own motivation. Plus, I'll claim the name as my own now because it never hurts to buy another ticket.

Though the monopolization of content by corporations risks ruining the internet, it is one of many things that will demotivate creators. Though I don't think we can fix the Internet Lottery™ as a whole, keeping corporations in check is crucial. As long as individual tickets still have some value, we should be okay. Finding a way to create local niches would be a way to reduce the luck factor, but it'll never go away.

Think about this the next time you see original content you like. Send the creator a thank you. It may not seem like much, but it's a big reward for their ticket. It helps keep them motivated and keeps them posting content to break up the corporate cruft.


If you enjoy my writing, then read my book. Your support allows me to keep writing and creating original content. Thank you for reading.

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mortoray profile

edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

@mortoray

I'm a creative writer and adventurous programmer. I cook monsters.

Discussion

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I agree with this a lot. At DEV we do things to try to make this right—we also do a lot of things that are more of the same in terms of what you've described.

This is an open conversation I'd love to have whenever possible. We've done a few things lately to make progress on this front.

I'm excited by some of the concepts you've laid out and articulated well.

 

I guess you're already facing the problem that all niches do -- you're growing out of your niche and becoming widely popular. This puts a huge strain on whatever algorithm you're using.

It's a difficult battle between showing people highly rated content, and ensuring the new content is exposed. You don't want to entrench currently popular authors, but at the same time, you do want readers to see quality content, especially from people they follow.

I've see a lot of different strategies, Medium, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, they all take a different approach. I think about it a lot as well, and I don't know if I have a good solution. :/

 

Quality content is a requirement

It is up until the point where quantity of viewers comes into play. There's a tipping point where, no matter whose algorithm is running the show, popular users get more power to write low-quality content.
Once they reach a certain point, people will see them more often and upvote them regardless. And that compounds the problem because people have a finite attention span and don't have time to devote to other, potentially far more interesting content.

I've mentioned it before, but it's one of the things I like most about this place - if you see something in your feed (however it got there) you can't see how popular the author is, so there's much less of a bandwagon effect with following someone simply because they already have a ton of followers.

It's not perfect, and I'm sure that posts which already have a lot of little hearts next to them would do better than the exact same post without the signifiers, but it's a better balance than places like Twitter and Facebook and Quora and and and...

 

I totally agree with this. Also, I think there is a phenomenon in general where a piece of content can get popular without being particularly good: There are things that are easy to agree with, easy to like, and such content can get lots of upvotes, even if it doesn't have much substance.

Here on dev.to, if something is more technical, then only the people who really go through the thing and make the effort to confirm it makes sense are likely to upvote it, so by definition it will get fewer reactions than something general and immediately digestible. I think this is a particular challenge for a site like dev.to, where this could lead to good technical content getting swamped by click-baity titles and listicles.

I don't want to be mean, but I do find that there is more of the latter in my dev.to feed than I would personally like... It's a tough problem though. If you don't measure people's reactions, then what do you measure?

 

I find there're few enough click-baity titles here that whenever I see one it really jumps out at me. It's difficult what to do about it to discourage the practice though - a "downvote" option would probably be self-defeating in the long run and there's often nothing actually wrong with the articles themselves.

 

Ah yes, the sellout effect. If one becomes entrenched as a popular creator, it's possible to turnout more quantity at a lower quality. I believe YouTube has this problem. It's hard to begrudge those people as well -- once monetization is involved, it's understandable that people choose money over quality.

The bandwagon effect is really high on places like Instagram and Twitter. If you don't have followers, people won't follow you. I'm sure it happens here as well with likes.

Even without showing them though, using them to decide what is shown makes a big difference.

I kind of like how Netflix attempts to show a matching rating. Instead of absolute scores, a score relative to you personally. It hides the likes, but also keeps the content relevant -- well, maybe, based on my Netflix account it's horribly broken! :D

 

I have noticed a lot of my content go unnoticed until a key player retweets it. Then it blows up. If I don't reach those key people, then the engagement fizzles out.

If you don't reach a certain momentum in the beginning, then your content can fall onto the 2nd page and you'll never be able to crawl back out.

DEV.to has been good for me, tweeting out many of my articles. The effect is noticeable.

On medium, submitting to a publication like Hackernoon has helped my articles a lot as well. They would also be retweeted by @hackernoon.

If you don't get that retweet by someone with a large following, your article won't be successful.

This is one of the reason i have been hesitant to move my blog back to my joel.net domain. I don't have a good channel for syndication. I still may do it.

Cheers!

 

Yes, getting noticed by the "influencers" definitely helps in promotion. That's part of the lottery. They also only have so much time and cannot see everything that might interest them. As they become more influential the amount of content pitched to them increases.

 

Great article!
I joined DEV.to a couple of months ago and I’ve since realised you need to get your content to your target audience for it to be seen. Posting a link on twitter is just competing with so much other noise, but a site like DEV.to offers an audience of developers wanting to learn and read more about development.

 

Thank you for sharing this!

When I first started blogging many many years ago, it felt way more easier and I used to say that if you have quality content, the audience will eventually find you. But since social media started to be the default method of discovering new content, this started to not render true anymore. With the abundance of content and, more importantly, the advent of "digital influencers", it gets increasingly hard to create quality content because you know at the end of the day quality won't pose as such a big factor in "getting viral".

 
 

I disagree Reddit is much of a lottery. Hacker News sure is.

The Reddit incentives forces you to participate in the community and post links from other people that may be useful to that community. Once you post a considerable amount of useful content, you get trust and therefore the community will be better inclined to read original content that you share.

There's still a trace of lottery in it. However, if you post a lot of interesting stuff your link will stay in the front page for a while, even with negative upvotes. If after that "while" your post falls into oblivion, then that's an indication your post was not a fit for that community in the first place.

If you're using Reddit for self promotion, you're doing it wrong.

 

Whatever the outcome of this article's lottery ticket, you got my view, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

 

@mortoray , you might enjoy this (long) essay which really dives into the dynamics of social networks and "status" — eugenewei.com/blog/2019/2/19/statu...

 

Thank you. I'll try to read it when I have a chance... it's long. My brain keeps thinking: Wow, they could have broken that up and bought multiple lottery tickets. :D