Remember those early innocent days of social media. We happily overshared on Facebook. "User Generated Content” became a common phrase- ugly language that suggested a truth about our exploitative relationship with big tech platforms.
The scales fell from our eyes much later: the platforms did not care much about the nature of this content, so long as The Serfs of the Internet (that’s us) clicked and shared. The uglier sides of human nature and commerce came into plain sight.
The content gig economy.
Creators emerged who saw an opening to do their own thing. The dream of being a famous Youtuber and making big money was sold. A few made it big and were on the lips of even middle-aged marketing directors – like PewDiePie and Zoella. It was a difficult gig to pull off, requiring constant broadcasting (often from the intimacy of their own bedrooms), talent, personality and a whole mini media ecosystem to drive traffic and engagement.
(Declaration of interest –I spent a couple of year at Google trying to persuade brands that they too could do this)
Next came platforms offering creators a better deal- such as Onlyfans (video), Substack (Newsletters) and Twitch (gamers). Some do well (and we hear a lot about their stories) but most have become the Uber drivers of the Internet. They are stuck on a conveyor belt of producing “content" to feed the big tech monsters who still a) take most of the money b) own the customer data and c) can change T&Cs at the drop of a hat. Liberation and wealth are a chimera for all but a few. (Actors and writers may nod in recognition at this point)
A third phase is now emerging. There is already way too much content (and thousands of hours added every day). What there is a shortage of is human connection, belonging, fellowship.
The big idea is not yet more content, but community.
In a way the APG is the model. It is a small community of like-minded souls, with shared passions/interests, who connect to each other as well as the APG. APG sits at the centre of its community-hosting, connecting, a voice that stimulates further conversation. It does not see its members as an audience to be sold to with daily emails.
Much flows the community idea - owning your own data, multiple revenue streams (membership, training, events, books, sponsorship), growth through community word of mouth. In other words, it is about people and relationships first in which tech platforms are the servants (and not a beast that must be fed with content) This is a form of liberation from just being ‘a user’ to be milked by Zuckerberg.
You feel in control. The human connection is satisfying, enriching and rewarding.
You still need lots of energy (just not churning out content), scaling is difficult -and not a good idea if it diminishes community- and you don’t make a lot money
So, who is doing community well and who could do it better?
All passion categories have the potential to be communities. My personal story: -
I am a history nerd. My favourite podcast is about a year old -“The Rest is History” (TRIH). TRIH already have followers who post questions and observations in a friendly way on twitter, which the hosts – Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook – read out on the pod.
By contrast, Dan Snow, who started his “History Hit” podcast years ago, is in a mode of producing daily content for his audiences. He really wants to be a platform for history content (a kind of Netflix for history with a stable of other podcasters).
TRIH have twice weekly pods full of questions posted by their followers. I have had one of my questions read out - it felt great. I am thinking of attending a TRIH event. I even listen to the ads – which are a bit amateur and read out by the hosts. That’s two revenue streams – more will follow if TRIH stick with being at the centre of a community of history nerds. I feel a part of Holland’s/Sandbrook’s pod: Two witty middle-aged men enjoying each other’s company and the “friends of show” who post well informed questions. Dan Snow’s podcasts are good. But I am on the outside of his world of professional historians.
There are lessons here for media brands like The Spectator and The Guardian who are moving in this direction (with events, training, publications) but are not fully committed to community. They are still elite journalists with readers who are very much outside the inner circle. I have pitched ideas to The Spectator (they have a dedicated email for this) and got no reply. Not even a polite “nice idea but no”. I tweeted the editor asking if they monitor their pitch email address - no reply. Boy did that make me feel small.
Community then is not easy for all.
You have to commit to it and enjoy it. It comes naturally to Tom Holland, Dominic Sandbrook and the APG. And there is something else that is really worthwhile: relationships, human flourishing and the better angels of our nature. When you feel recognised as part of a community you don’t feel the need to send out anonymous, abusive messages on social media.