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9 Aug

The Curse of Engagement

I have talked about the personal branding trap before. I have also talked about the virtues of depth over engagement when it comes to audience-building before.

But the allure of social media validation these days is so enticing that one finds it hard not to be pulled into serving the kind of content that gets the most eyeballs; the kind of content that gets people arguing in the comment section, while you sit and enjoy the reach you’re getting.

If you’re doing this with full intention, knowing well the consequences of how it impacts your brand in the long run, please continue.

But if you are naively thinking that only the follower count on your profile matters, you might be in for a rude shock.

Follower counts on profiles do matter, there’s no doubt about it.

When someone sees a person with 10,000 followers and blue check on Twitter vs. someone with 23 followers and an anime profile picture, it’s easy to trust the former over the latter.

But that is where the advantages of having a huge follower count end, at least for the discerning ones who are looking for high signal.

With engagement-bait, drama, hot-takes, and tweets secretly meant to polarise people, you’re increasing your reach while lowering the stakes. The high-quality people you ideally wish to attract via your content are put off by it. And the ones you end up attracting are only there for the drama, and they will not help you in any way in the long run — except attract more people like them.

There’s a concept I recently read about, called “vicarious utility.”

Vicarious utility is when you ask for feedback on a product, and everyone says something positive. But they’re all imagining someone else wanting it; nobody wants it for themselves now. And this leads to a false sense of utility and market existing where none exists.

Creating content for engagement over everything else often builds up a false sense of distribution, much like vicarious utility does. You think you will be able to convert your audience one day into buying your product, but when the time comes, you realize that the audience you’ve amassed is only good for buying a $2 toothpaste, not that $3000 course you wish to sell.

To attract the kind of people who will pay for quality, you need to signal quality yourself. You need to increase the stakes and think better, so that people looking for signal are incentivised to engage with you over people looking for drama.

In fact, I now think that “write online to build an audience” is a terrible frame.

It ignores the entire purpose of building an audience.

Not all audiences are made equal. And a drama-loving audience might still be okay if you’re trying to sell a low-ticket size product and are just aiming at brand awareness, but it is a bad strategy to sell high-ticket size products where customers want depth, not superficial breadth.

Leaving marketing aside, creating engagement-bait can also be a curse if you want to improve at content creation. It encourages lowest common denominator writing and creates a context in which all depth and nuance is penalized. And most importantly, creating such content is actively damaging to good thinking in the long run.

As always, intent matters.

If you intend to increase that follower count over everything else, you can shock and surprise people in vastly better and more effective ways than just writing stuff with zero nuance.

But if you don’t intend to sell yourself for likes, you can put some effort in creating thoughtful content that even when criticised, attracts high-quality critiques, not low-quality haters who critique in bad faith.

It’s better for your mental health and it is definitely way more productive and lucrative in the long run.

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