The internet was the single most important part of my early teenage years. I know, it sounds a bit dramatic, but I'm serious when I say this.
I have always valued freedom. From a young age, the endless constraints of "real life" felt like a burden to me. So many rules, restrictions, authority, legacy – everything felt like it was pushing down on me, and nothing made sense. While much of it still doesn't, I was also a teenager transitioning into adulthood at the time. Being lost was part of the experience.
Then the internet came along. No rules, no authority, a fresh new canvas in a new world seemingly made just for me. I was immediately hooked. I could be myself, explore, experiment and build without all the red tape and nay-sayers in the way.
Then it all changed.
The internet grew up, and has slowly become the opposite of what made me fall in love with it in the beginning. The freedom and feeling of "ownership" from those early days is disappearing.
Our new boss is the algorithm. We are governed by the platform, its rules and authority. Today you can build an audience over many years on Facebook or Twitter and it can be gone within a second. You can lose your account in an instant because of some arbitrary violation of terms. I've experienced it myself and have seen it with many friends. Accounts banned at the whim of a bot, and good luck contacting a massive corporation to get it back.
The audience you are building on other platforms is never truly yours. Perhaps you spent the last several years creating and selling a successful product on Amazon. Only to see, a year later, that Amazon is now selling the exact same product in their "Amazon Basic" line. Naturally, their product now ranks first when you search in your product category.
Or perhaps you spent the last year building an app for the iPhone that everyone loves – only to learn that Apple copied your entire app and made it an iOS native feature for their next update. Your app is immediately rendered useless. (Pro tip: don't build apps that Apple/Google can just integrate as a feature.)
Or perhaps you spent years building an audience on Instagram with your passion for photography, only to learn that the platform's new algorithm now favors video reels instead. You suddenly notice that very few of your followers are seeing your work in their feed. You still have your audience. You just can't speak to it anymore.
What it teaches us is that nothing we're building is truly ours. Our accounts can be taken away within a second, willingly or by accident. Or they may be taken away indirectly, through slow down-ranking of your work. Often it's just a side effect of larger platform changes. It's nothing personal, but it will feel personal.
I've long been an advocate for email lists. It is perhaps the last place where you can "own" your audience. And with owning I mean, you can more or less guarantee that what you're saying will be read and heard. But even with email that isn't fully true anymore. There's quite a large percentage of people who subscribe to my newsletter, yet their email still lands in spam or Gmail's "Promotions" folder. They'll never see my email, even though they signed up for it.
The best guarantee when building an audience is using tools you can control, and building a brand/product people love – one they won't forget if it suddenly disappears from their feed. One they will seek out on their own.
Because in this new world, something you loved or enjoyed might be gone from today to tomorrow. Either gone for good or just out of sight. Unless you make an effort (click the right icon, move the email into your inbox, give it a tag, or manually navigate to a profile on social media), you won't see it again. Today we have to actively seek out what we care about. Otherwise, it will be determined for us.
The irony is, I now imagine the real world to be the place of freedom and possibilities. The new internet feels more limiting.