The Internet Lottery™

The publishing gamble for content creatorsImage by Rudy and Peter Skitterians

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.

The Internet Lottery™ was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Publication date: 
03/18/2019 - 17:56