Revisiting Remarkable Content to Consider Digital Ecology

ball in the image of a globe sets on a green grassy lawn

I consume a lot of content. Like, a lot. At the risk of this sounding like a humble brag, let me give you a taste of what I mean by “a lot.” I’m currently reading 3 books: a sci-fi novella, a book about bureaucracy, and a book about economics. I listen to about 2 hours of podcasts every day. I keep up with the news, read academic papers, and spare a bit of time for social media.

Hardly any of the content I consume is what could be considered “content marketing” or “promotional content.” It’s not because I’m opposed to that sort of thing. I don’t consume that kind of content because 99.9% of it is mediocre at best. 

I read, listen, and watch to discover information and ideas. To gather inspiration. To engage with new perspectives. Consuming remarkable content helps me create remarkable content. Mediocre (or just plain bad) content doesn’t help me fulfill any of those goals. 

A few weeks ago, I asked my Twitter and Instagram followers what they really wanted from social media. Here’s a sampling of what they told me:

A spark of joy, escaping from real life, witnessing people making radically different choices, keeping up with friends, reveling in silliness, learning, meeting new people, expressing creativity…

And, of course, I heard from plenty of people who said things like “market my business” or “grow my audience.”  

With everything that’s been happening online with social media (and, by extension, content marketing), I spend a great deal of time thinking about why social media sucks so much and why so much content marketing is mediocre. Because let’s be honest: that’s the state of things.

As I think about the results of my unscientific survey, I’m left with two questions: 

  1. Do you create the kind of content you want to engage with online?
  2. How much would you enjoy (or at least benefit from) an internet where everyone was creating the same kind of content as you are?

First, let me define terms. By “kind of content,” I don’t mean subject matter. I mean medium, format, intention, purpose. For example, promotional, explainer, hot take, long-form, etc., are all kinds of content.

Now, I’d like to address both questions in greater depth.

Do you create the kind of content you want to engage with online?

At the beginning of 2021, I decided I could do a better job creating the kind of content I valued engaging with online. I dubbed it “remarkable content” and set about creating the intention and systems I needed to produce that kind of media.

My definition of “remarkable” was quite simple: remarkable content provokes conversation or introspection. It elicits a response of one sort or another. It sticks with you beyond the first reading, listen, or viewing.

I committed to only publishing remarkable work that I’d be glad to come across as a consumer. That means I didn’t (and still don’t) publish just to publish. I don’t break out a quote or slap up a graphic just because it’s Tuesday, and I’m supposed to post something

So I thought about the kinds of content I loved coming across online.

I thought about the writers, podcasters, and creators who excited me. I made a list: Anne Helen Petersen, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Michael Hobbes, Sarah Marshall, Ezra Klein, Michael Lewis, everyone at Vox, Jia Tolentino, Willa Paskin, Alie Ward—and many more. The first thing that stood out to me was that they brought a more journalistic approach to their work (many of them are journalists, but many are not). I noticed that they tackled a whole range of subjects—as a group and individually—and yet, brought a unique personal perspective to any subject they worked on. Later, I realized that much of their work involved discourse analysis, media theory, and cultural studies methods. 

Above all, I noticed that every writer and podcaster who I loved created from curiosity and investigation. Even those who were respected scholars in their fields rarely created as “experts.” If this was the kind of content I loved to come across online, then that was the kind of content I would learn to create.

When people started to respond to my question about social media with things like “escape from real life” and “meet new people,” I wondered whether they were creating that kind of content. Some absolutely do! But others definitely don’t. I don’t mean that as an indictment.

I mean it as an opportunity. 

What would happen if you threw away everything you knew about “content marketing” or “promoting yourself” and began to create the kind of work that signifies the internet you want to belong to?

What if marketing and promotion really could be about creating your best work? Or having engaging conversations? Exploring nuance? Communicating solely through silly memes?

My guess is that you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds nice. But that’s just not the internet I do business in.” 

Similar arguments have been made about capitalism. The late great David Graeber, referencing sociologist and philosopher John Holloway, had something to say about that:

“…we all act as if capitalism is some kind of behemoth towering over us, it’s really just something we produce. Every morning we wake up and re-create capitalism. If one morning we woke up and all decided to create something else, then there wouldn’t be capitalism anymore. There would be something else.”

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

The internet is not some towering behemoth, either. It’s something that we produce every single day. Every morning we wake up and re-create the internet. The more people wake up and decide to create something else, the more the internet becomes something else.

Quick aside: I’m now on Post., one of the new platforms launched in the wake of the shakeup at Twitter. It’s extremely interesting to me what internet norms are transplanted to this new platform by the group of people who got there first. And I find myself oddly anxious about what or how to post because I’m hyperaware that I don’t want to bring my own bad habits into this new space.

How much would you enjoy (or at least benefit from) an internet where everyone was creating the same kind of content as you are?

I’ve started to think about the internet—and social media, specifically—as an ecosystem. Like, literally. I spend most of my time connected to some aspect of this digital landscape. My livelihood depends on the way I use and reproduce its resources. I draw sustenance from its bounty.

And as an ecosystem, the internet is subject to resource extraction and exploitation. The story we’ve been told about social media is “grow an audience so you can sell to them.” This is (almost?) no different from “find a pocket of oil and drill.” The downstream effects of millions of people using the internet as a gold mine make it hard to survive—let alone thrive—in this environment. The air is thick with pollutants. The water is contaminated. The climate grows hotter. 

We know this rate of environmental destruction can’t continue apace. But we continue to say, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Artist Jenny Odell put it this way in her book, How to Do Nothing:

“Just as practices like logging and large-scale farming decimate the land, an overemphasis on performance turns what was once a dense and thriving landscape of individual and communal thought into a Monsanto farm whose ‘production’ slowly destroys the soil until nothing more can grow. As it extinguishes one species of thought after another, it hastens the erosion of attention.”

The good news is that our online spaces can bounce back in ways natural spaces cannot (at least not quickly).

If we want to be part of making the internet a great place to live and work again, we need to take responsibility for the part we’ve played in making it what it is today.

“What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual,” writes botanist and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall-Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass.

I doubt you’re a troll. I assume you don’t go around harassing people online. You’re probably not even a cut-throat marketer or aggressive salesperson. And yet, my guess is that most people reading this would not want to hang out on an internet where everyone was behaving the same way they were.

And I feel confident in this guess because spaces that used to be filled with a diversity of digital flora and fauna are becoming quiet or overrun with invasive species. Apps like Hypefury or Later allow you to strip mine the landscape and gobble up the most easily accessible attention. It can seem like everyone is posting on social media, but no one is actually using social media. Speculators and robber barons are we.

We’re so often presented with unplugging or quitting social media as the morally preferred option. But I wonder what would happen if we were to become stewards of our digital environment.

Instead of moving on to the next unspoiled internet “wilderness,” we stuck around and cleaned up the mess we made. How would we rebuild so that we could live in harmony with each other and the digital environment?

Toward digital ecology and internet stewardship

Ultimately, I think we must stop asking: What can I get from the internet? And instead, consider how we can live and work together, stewarding the incredible resources the internet contains.

Get-what’s-mine-ism online is continually re-inscribed through our actions—in the same way that settler colonialism is re-inscribed through culture, legal structures, and politics. Digital ecology and internet stewardship would interrupt this reinscription. They would call us into relationship with the internet and its citizens rather than domination over.

I am referencing a great deal of wisdom that is not my own as a European American. The indigenous peoples of North America have much to teach us about different ways of living with the natural world. This excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass does a good job of illuminating just how unfamiliar those ways of living with the world can be for those of us who are products of colonization.

And so at the risk of making a major shift in tone, I want to share some very specific ideas about what living with the internet in new ways could look like. And here, I will borrow from my friend Jay Acunzo, host of the Unthinkable podcast and fellow questioner of the ways we create online.

Jay recently posted 5 ways to rethink what you create online—and they’re as close as anything I could come up with to how I think about creating remarkable work today.

Jay’s first suggestion is to ask questions Google can’t answer. 

My one and only commitment for 2022 was “ask better questions.” And it’s served me very well. Asking questions that Google can’t answer goes against most of what we’re taught as marketers or self-promoters. In fact, we’re explicitly trained to answer exactly the kinds of questions Google can answer. That’s a foundational principle of search engine optimization.

But those Google-able questions are generally the least interesting questions one can ask. My own take on this is not only to ask questions Google can’t answer but to ask questions that simply don’t have an answer.

That leads me to Jay’s second suggestion: treat the creative work “as a means to try and understand — not a way to share what you already do.” 

Expertise is marketable, for sure. And that’s fine if you’re aim is “authority,” which is just another way of saying domination. 

Curiosity and openness are marketable, too, in their own ways. Information (i.e., a specific kind of expertise) wants to be free. A subject I’ll be exploring more next year. And so it stands to reason that curiosity, openness, and care are all much more valuable ways to conduct yourself online. 

This year, I’ve endeavored to take as many of those unanswerable questions and explore them from multiple angles and in different media. 

Jay’s third suggestion is to never embark on a new project without first freeing up 150% of the time needed to produce it. 

That extra 50%? It’s not margin. Nor is it because we’re bad at calculating how long projects take. It’s thinking time. And Jay says that if creative work is what you do, then “thinking is the main thing you ought to be good at.”

Taking time to think—creatively, critically, analytically—is a sure way to move away from producing mediocre work. Mediocrity and its effect on the digital world are the products of urgency and hyper-efficiency.

Thinking isn’t efficient. It doesn’t feel productive in the moment. It can look an awful lot like not working. But it’s key to our stewardship.

The fourth suggestion is to consume way less business or marketing content.

100% yes. That. I listened to a small business podcast for the first time in years this morning. It was Jenny Blake’s Free Time podcast if you’re wondering.

Digital ecology and internet stewardship must lead to greater diversity in the ecosystem. Different people participating, different ideas circulating, and different sources of inspiration to build on.

And finally, Jay recommends starting a creative practice. 

That means regularly creating so that the process is the point rather than metrics, recognition, or achievement. And if you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for that,” I bet there is something you’re doing right now that is attempting to move metrics that could be eliminated. Because for all the time we spend on strategic content and marketing, most of it is wasted energy. If that sounds like an overstatement, consider where your results are really coming from—and how much time and energy those things require.

These principles don’t only apply to creating remarkable content. They’re central to creating all kinds of remarkable work. The principle of remarkability applies to any creative work, care work, or information work. And that’s just about all types of work today. And I believe this is one way we can move forward to a richer digital environment.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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