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The Problem with Platform
A Writerly Confession on Integrity & Attention
Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Nietzsche or been doing this Internet stuff for far too long. I don’t know, but here it is: Platform is bullshit. Or at very least, it’s overrated in the life of an artist.
Yes, I have one. Yes, a good friend of mine wrote a book about the subject years ago. And yes, publishers want you to have a presence on social media and a large following before they will publish you. But who cares? Platform won’t make you happy. It won’t fill that hole in your soul that only pure creation can cure. And it certainly won’t make you a better writer, creator, or person.
What platform will do is give you an inflated sense of ego and make you a little more greedy. At least, that’s what it did for me and a lot of my friends. “When people think of this word,” an entrepreneur once told me, “I want them to think of my name.” He wanted to “own” a single word in the English language, and he very well may end up doing so. But like so many who want so much, does he know what he is getting himself into?
When people recognize your “brand,” that will feel good—it always does. A chemical floods your brain and fills your body, and that shit gets addictive. You go to the well of confidence and get a hefty dose only to find yourself crawling back to the same source the very next day, surprisingly thirsty. So you keep filling your cup, each time plunging a little deeper into the world of significance, losing another piece of your soul in the process.
Here is what platform is like.
Recently, on a trip to New York City while visiting a client, I stepped out of a five-star hotel right into the middle of the rain. As I collected myself under the awning and wrestled with the decision to walk a dozen blocks to my next meeting without an umbrella, someone walked up and said, “Hey man! I just wanted to say, I love your brand. The whole thing? Love it. You doing good? I know Covid affected everyone differently, especially a lot of businesses. How’s business? Everything good? Oh, man. So good to see you. Keep up the good work.”
I nodded, smiled, and thanked the man. And he walked away, reeking of alcohol. I couldn’t tell if he actually recognized my work or thought I was someone else. During our conversation, I felt a familiar part of myself light up inside as soon as he started talking, a flurry of emotional bubbles. I remembered that rush. It didn’t matter if he was confusing me with someone else. It didn’t matter if he was just some drunk, babbling the same spiel to every passerby on the street. He could have had no idea who I was. All that mattered in that moment was that I was recognized. For a fleeting moment, there was a sense that I belonged to world, that I was something more than a small, separate self. The thrill subsided, and I stepped out into the cool autumn rain, wondering who might recognize me next.
Platform is like that.
Part of the work I do these days is with individuals who have “followings” and need someone to help distill their thoughts into marketable pieces of content they can sell—to a publisher, to an audience, to themselves. A client once told me a reason they wanted to publish a book is to “get that little blue checkmark.” He admitted his own egotism but said, if he was being honest, he did want that. We all do.
I don’t disparage this work, but it does cause me to wonder if this whole game is a little misguided, if what we’ve been building as a culture—an obsession with certain individuals and what they think about everything—is good for any of us. Why should I care what kind of diet Joe Rogan is on right now? Is it necessary to know what Elon’s morning routine is? And how did I come to find myself googling Taylor Swift’s relationship history? We care about these people because are told to distinguish them from the rest of humanity. So we do, and somehow strive to be like them.
But none of this makes any sense to me, anymore. Maybe I am having a middle-aged Holden Caulfield moment, but this old playbook feels so foreign now. I don’t understand why. All I know is that what I set out to accomplish ten years ago—to become a person of significance—holds no appeal. Mostly, because it didn’t work. I’ve been recognized in public places more times than I can count, and not once did such an interaction leave me feeling fuller. It only ever stirred in me a deep, dark hunger for more.
An author recently told me he wanted to hit a bestseller list and was willing to do “whatever it took” to get there. He wanted to know how much money he should spend to “game the system” and end up on a bestseller list. I objected, telling him my own experience, and he said, “I know this won’t make me happy. But I want my ego trip.” I appreciated his honesty.
I guess we all do. You can’t tell a person to not pursue what they think is going to make them feel more important. We all have to find this out for ourselves. But I’ll say it, anyway. No, you don’t need platform—I wouldn’t even recommend it. It won’t settle any internal conflict for you. If anything, it will likely make you more anxious, highlighting the things about yourself you still don’t like. And yet, here I am, saying this on the very thing I’m telling you that you don’t need. It’s so cliche that it just might be amusing, like a John Mayer song about a long-lost love, wondering what she thinks about him when she sees his face in a magazine. What a funny, beautiful, narcissistic thing to think. Good art, John; I respect how meta you made that.
Fame is never the friend of a creative soul. And yet, we are so often the last ones to know. We conflate satisfaction with significance, imagining that the more people who know us, the better we will feel. But the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us we have to become a “someone” at all. You don’t. You don’t have to be special or interesting or anything. You can just be you, and that can be enough or not or whatever you want it to be. In a world where everyone is trying to be something other than themselves, it is a wonderful thing to realize you already are what you need to be. But this is easier said than done, and most of us would rather trade our truest selves for a little attention.
Personally, what I want is to let go of what I’ve made so that I can be what I know I already am. I want to tear down the structures and strictures of human approval and see what my art is really made of, to be fully and unequivocally me.
But instead, I wrote this.