You stand out online by having a “thing.” A certain style, a specific voice, a schtick or a skill that catches the eye of a few people and eventually snowballs you into notoriety.
It’s how YouTubers rise to fame, how artists gain an audience, how social media influencers grow their community. You zero in on something niche that draws a circle of people around you among the masses.
Then you have the audience, and they are waiting for more. They first saw your pranks on YouTube and they want more pranks. They started following you for your 3D brushwork and they expect more of it. So you do what you did the first time. The audience applauds for an encore. You do it again. You release another prank, another piece of art, another UX tutorial, another video, just like the ones you promised your people from the beginning.
Time passes. Your audience has grown and your persona has solidified. You’ve built yourself a bigger stage, but the performance is the same. You started out doing your “thing” from natural interest and pure passion, but now you have to feed the machine. Churn out the videos, the artwork, the jokes, a mile a minute. This is what we came for. Give us what you advertised or we’ll chase you off the stage – or worse, forget about you altogether.
"To get ourselves in the door, we have to flatten ourselves to one dimension. And once we’re inside, it’s hard to get back out."
When you’ve developed a persona or brand online, your audience is your client. Whether we pay you for what you do or not (and we likely don’t, at least not directly), we are the patrons of your work. Your clients or patrons don’t come to you because you seem nice, or because they want to do you a favor. They come because they saw something you created before, and they want something else just like it. You start out by slowly building your platform, laying the bricks over and over again, until you look around and see you’ve walled yourself into a prison.
As humans we are colorful and multifaceted, with varying interests that grow or wane over time. Yet when we create an online persona for ourselves, it’s typically focused on just one aspect of who we are. In the effort to grow that persona, we suppress our many other interests and dimensions of our personality. To get ourselves in the door, we have to flatten ourselves to one dimension. And once we’re inside, it’s hard to get back out.
Ultimately, we become bored, tired and disenchanted with the thing that brought us attention at the beginning. But starting from scratch doesn’t seem feasible. Introducing a new side of ourselves would surprise or even upset our audience. Reinventing our persona altogether now seems forced and disingenuous to the people who have watched us from the beginning. Stepping off the stage entirely is terrifying. So where do we go from here?
For newcomers, the answer may be to share your many interests and keep your persona fluid from the start. Make the unexpected, the expectation. But for those who have been feeding the machine so long it’s swallowed them whole, that solution comes too late. Maybe you've doing the same schtick for so long, you’ve forgotten how to do or be anything else. Or even if you tried, maybe your audience doesn't want to see that other thing from you. Maybe you’ve aged out of the game. Maybe you've outgrown your audience, or your audience has outgrown you.
An audience can quickly become a mob. They may cheer for you today and chase you off the stage tomorrow. And yet, whether they're clapping from their comfortable seats or not, the only audience there when the curtain closes is you.