Platforms are Casinos for Artists

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I won Twitter four years ago. A little bit. This was back when Twitter was merely a hell-site and not X, a post-apocalyptic-wasteland-ruled-by-mutant-marauders site. It was a small win, but after years of barely getting any response on my tweets – and for a while, I was tweeting daily – I casually posted a tweet that went viralish.

The rise of this tweet took me completely by surprise. I didn’t think it was my best tweet, or my funniest tweet, or even my most helpful tweet, but suddenly it was my best performing tweet by far at 13K likes. The response was overwhelming. I was getting constant pings to my phone. Comments that needed to be answered. Retweets from people sharing my joke – people I admired, people in other countries! It was a rush, like the whole world was applauding one of my okay-est ideas.

The high lasted a few days as the tweet bounced around different corners of Twitter like a pinball, lighting up my brain with dopamine. And then, when the tweet’s ride around the platform was over, the pinball went into the gutter and I crashed. In the aftermath, I noticed that I got few if any new followers. No signups for my newsletter. Nothing real changed. It was a fun few days! But I started questioning how spending a lot of time and energy writing tweets I thought would “do well” was going to help my writing career, which was the main reason why I was doing it.

Online platforms are like casinos for artists. We exchange our time, energy, and artistic talent on content chips, then upload our chips into the slot machine. The artist pulls the handle and the algorithm determines whether you win the ultimate prize: attention! Ding, ding, ding! Oooh, flashing colors!

Maybe you’ll get lucky, like the artist three slots down who’s getting so much attention it’s spilling onto the grubby casino floor. Or maybe you’ll be like the vast majority of the other artists seated around you: mesmerized by a screen, feeding chips into their machines, hoping to exchange their artistic gifts for likes, retweets, and subscribes.

By the way, I think casinos – and making art for platforms – can be fun! It’s fun when you win, as I found out. It’s fun when you don’t care whether you win or lose, you just like the excitement of being in a room with a bunch of slot jockey grandmas. But the frustration I’ve had with platforms is one I believe many artists share. You create work intended for success on the platform, like tweets or YouTube videos. You put time and effort into making something great. You release it and… crickets. Crickets aren’t fun! I hear they like to eat cotton and other fabrics? Stay away from my Vaporwave hoodies, crickets! Meanwhile, a piece of content you think is unworthy of attention is racking up all the views. Why did that artist win and not me? I think sheer luck is part of the answer and the odds aren’t in an individual artist’s favor.

Do I think some artists have better odds than others at winning? Absolutely. Just like a professional poker player is more likely to come out ahead at the end of the night, I think a very talented artist has better odds of attracting attention for their art via social media than a beginner with less polished craft. A very talented pixel artist is more likely to create stunning work that’ll stop me from scrolling for a moment. A hilarious comedian is more likely to write a Tweet that I’ll laugh at and share. But their talent is no guarantee of success, and I would argue their network is a greater predictor of whether they’ll win attention. The extremely talented artist with few followers will most likely get out-gamed by a beginner artist with 1.2 million followers acquired by memeing about crypto.

Like casino games, I think platforms have different odds. For example, my wife Amanda and I are making a mobile visual novel for Dorian. We’re engaging with Dorian primarily as a publisher, but they’re also a platform. Dorian is a platform hungry for new content. I can tell by the focus of their website being geared towards creators and that their VP of Content reached out to me directly to collaborate. The early days of Substack were similar, where I knew members of their community team by name and they sent me a tote bag full of swag. That’s potentially a good sign. It means there won’t be as many creators competing on the platform for the user base’s attention. However, if the platform is brand new and only has a tiny user base, even if you technically “win” by getting spotlighted by the platform itself, you might not feel like you’re winning much attention at all.

Whereas “winning” in games like Instagram and Twitter mean the algorithm chose to feature your content over thousands – millions? – of other pieces of content. Those are long odds. And the quality of the attention you get might be fleeting or even toxic.

I was tweeting because I wanted attention. And I wanted attention, so I could build a platform. And I wanted to build a platform to get the kinds of writing jobs that require having a large following, such as professional novelist or TV writer. And I wanted those particular writing jobs because they’re prestigious and come with respect. And I wanted respect because there was a part of me that felt like I needed to prove something to my father and grandfather who didn’t support my aspirations of being a professional writer when I was a kid. And that hurt me deeply.

Just like casinos prey on our gambling addictions, social media preys on our attention addiction. We want everyone to know we’re smart, talented, and beautiful, so we feel like it ourselves. What actually made me feel better about the lack of paternal support I got when I was young was… drumroll, please… therapy! As an artist, social media has largely been a distraction for me, and success bias aside, I’ll bet it’s a distraction for most artists looking for success on a platform. If you’ve ever stopped yourself from working on a dream project because it wouldn’t share well, like I have, maybe the platform is the problem, not your idea.

In a casino, the house always wins. When you make art for your own satisfaction, you increase your odds.

🎲 Your Turn: What social media sites are you on regularly these days? Do you enjoy using them?

🔌 Plugs: I’ll be speaking at Narrascope in the Museum of Play in Rochester this Sunday! My presentation is called First Person Talkers and it’s about games that focus on simulating conversation. If you’re planning to attend, I’d love to see you there.

📨 Next Week: I’ll give you a sneak peek at the VR and console games I’ve been working on…

Image by macrovector_official on Freepik

Geoffrey Golden is a narrative designer, game creator, and interactive fiction author from Los Angeles. He’s written for Ubisoft, Disney, Gearbox, and indie studios around the world.

13 responses to “Platforms are Casinos for Artists”

  1. If we only saw the excellent stuff, the ads would be less enticing. Coupled with the fact you only get that dopamine hit when good content feels like a novelty; it creates an inherent bias in the social platforms to show as much ‘just good enough’ content as possible.

    TV seems to be having the same issue. We’ve been through this second golden age of amazing shows, and it’s only losing money for streaming services. They’re all seemingly pivoting back to safe bet affordable mediocrity, peppered with ads, and actively cancelling well-received shows to keep up with our demand for the illusion of choice.

    I read emails and substacks from people who write well, like yourself 😉

    I occasionally log in to Instagram and immediately (after 30-500 minutes of scrolling) feel cheated of my time.

    1. I get that calculous. And of course, the algorithm is also serving content designed to enrage, which is fun.

      Thanks for reading, Glyn! I’m similar. I’ve pivoted away from Twitter, et al, and mostly read newsletters.

  2. Oh, and speaking of the algorithm… Thank Turing the primary place I share my amateur fiction writing doesn’t have that malware and instead just has a very good tagging system you can search and filter against to find stories to your taste and by defaults sorts results by date update in most recent first order(though you can also sort alphabetically, or by things like word count, number of hits, number of reader comments, or by number of kudos(the site’s equivalent of upvotes).

  3. I avoid modern social media like the plague and prefer oldschool social media like forums and mailing lists… Sadly, Forums have become kind of an endangered species and it seems like everything is a Facebook Group, Discord Server, or subreddit these days, with all 4 of the forums I’m currently on being downright ancient in Internet terms(one of them, I’ve been a member of for 20 years, and another states in it’s page title Online since 2002). Closest I come to touching modern social media is being an active commenter on the Kickstarters I back and occasionally posting a comment on a YouTube video.

    Interestingly enough, of the four, three are primarily dedicated to low tech computer games.

    The Forums I’m on include:

    Sonic Retro, a Sonic the Hedgehog forum focused primarily on hacking the older games with a secondary focus of archiving the history of Sonic and the rest of Sega’s catalog(This is the one I’ve been on for 20 years)

    The Twisty Puzzles Forum, which is what it says on the tin. It’s a forum dedicated to Twisty Puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube, though there are discussions of other kinds of mechanical puzzle on there as well. This is the one that’s been online since 2002, though I joined in 2008.

    The Audio Games Forum A forum dedicated to computer games that focus on audio over visuals and game accessibility in general. Only been on this one for about a year-and-a-half and one of the few places either online or in meatspace where I’m not the token blind person.

    The Interactive Fiction Forum. A forum dedicated to Interactive Fiction and classic text adventures. Just joined in the last couple of weeks after our host pointed me their way.

    Mailing List wise, I’m on a few Blind Techie Mailing lists including the Blinux Mailing List(General Blind Linux Usage), The Orca Mailing List(Orca is the dominant graphical Screen Reader for Linux, this is where much of the discussion between Orca’s users and the Orca dev take place), and Raspberry Vi(dedicated to blind and low vision usage of the Raspberry Pi).

    1. These are all great topics, IMO, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the IF forum!

      In the same way vinyl and VHS tapes are making a comeback, I think it’s only a matter of time before forums are widely rediscovered and become popular again. The thing I love about them is the slower pacing. I get overwhelmed on Discord with the expectation that I am there to instantly reply to what’s being said. In forums, conversations sometimes go on for years.

      1. A Renaissance of independently hosted forums dedicated to specific subjects would be great… Wouldn’t mind a resurgence of oldschool fansites either, though at least on that front, I feel like the consolidation of factual knowledge of a particular subject into Wikis instead of being scattered all over the web with any one site only containing data on the aspects the webmaster cares about and often tainted by said webmaster’s misunderstandings and personal opinions has been mostly a good thing, even if it’s come at the cost of everything having the same encyclopedic tone and the majority of wikis being exactly the same with maybe a custom color scheme or a background image relevant to the subject visible in the margins.

        But yeah, I like that most forums let you pop in just once a day or even once every few days, take your time composing replies, and never feel like you’re missing anything. Don’t care for Discourse’s use of Infinite scrolls and lack of a working mark everything read and view new since last visit functionality, but aside from that, I’ve been enjoying the IF Forum…

        Admittedly, I was also not a fan of chatrooms, IRC, or the umpteen dozen Instant Messaging protocols from back in the day… also never cared for texting(it boggles my mind anyone had the patience for typing on a numpad even with all the incomprehensible shorthand that renders textspeak unreadable.

        1. I feel the same about texting. I can’t stand long text threads or Slack message threads. I would much rather talk ideas on a call in person, but I know I’m weird for my generation in that way.

  4. I post on Instagram (@creative_purrsuits) and for me it’s not an attention-seeking popularity contest, but a way to simply share my art and adventures. I’ve connected with numerous creatives there and it’s helped me grow as an artist. I’ve participated in charity events, received art show invites, discovered musicians and authors, and explored new mediums and techniques thanks to the platform.

    Can it be a distraction? Of course, but for me it’s about reaching out to the world, breaking through language barriers and crossing oceans to connect with hearts and minds in a way that is simply… magic.

    1. Elly, I love this! I’m glad your relationship to social media is a lot healthier than mine was IMO.

  5. Well said, Geoffrey. The casino analogy is on-point. Casinos can be fun but the tragedy is that we are here against our will, and playing for all the stakes too!

    1. Great point! We’re lured in with the promise of our friend’s cat photos and we end up as gambling addicts crawling the casino floor scrounging for a like or two that fell under the craps table.

  6. The casino analogy is a good one. To offer another take on it, it’s like if you win a slot machine jackpot and 2 days later all the money disappears from your bank account without you having spent it.

    I’ve been using Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube recently. The first two to promote my work and to meet other writers/artists, and the last one to host my audiobooks to earn some ad revenue. I went down the YouTube videos on how to succeed on YouTube rabbit hole, and it seems like the goal of some creators is to become successful enough on YouTube in their original niche to be able to pivot to teaching others how to be successful on YouTube.

    1. The classic expression is that if you want to make money in a gold rush, sell shovels. In the case of YouTube, sell PDFs.

      I hope your audiobooks find an audience. I know YT has put an emphasis on podcasts recently, so may the algorithm be ever in your favor.

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