Building a more beautiful internet (part 1)
Growth ideology, 1,000 true fans, and a vision for the future of artisanal digital business
If there's a central theme that ties together all of my work, it's building a more beautiful internet.
It's not just my own work at Ungated, either. Increasingly I find myself wanting to collaborate with others who are on the frontlines of this fight. For years, I've seen myself as a lone wolf who would only write for others when money was tight. But in 2022, I started working with the Foster Collective, and with Sari Azout over at Startupy. Foster's about building a more beautiful internet for writers and their stories. Startupy is building a more nourishing digital landscape for ideas and knowledge. And man, I fucking love writing for both of them.
All of which is to say, the pursuit of a more beautiful internet brings me alive. I find this work infinitely energizing and resonant. "Purpose" is an overused and fluffy concept, but it seems to fit here.
Anyhow, the ills of the modern internet are vast and wickedly complex. But there are two ways I see my work at Ungated contributing to a more delightful digital world. First is the spread of 1,000 true fans as both a business and cultural philosophy, and second is the propagation of digital oases.
Today's essay and tomorrow's will explore these two themes respectively. Let's start with 1,000 true fans.
Growth ideology, and the roots of our hostile internet
The most radical thing about 1,000 true fans as a business philosophy is that it's explicitly rooted in the pursuit of enough.
So much of what's wrong with the internet (and modern society as a whole) can be traced back to the meme that all businesses have to grow infinitely, and that anything else is tacit failure. Just as people become hungry ghosts, consuming endlessly to fill some ill-defined inner void, so do businesses. Chasing growth is the default path for entrepreneurs. It's become an ideological mandate, with many entrepreneurs and creators basing their entire sense of identity and self-worth upon fulfilling it.
At some point I'll do a deep dive into all of the gnarly downstream effects of economic growth as an ideology, and how it dehumanizes us and destroys everything we hold sacred. But for today, there are two effects I'd point at that contribute to the internet feeling like a hostile wasteland of commoditized nonsense.
First, growth ideology holds that any behavior that leads to growth is justifiable, so long as it's within the bounds of the law and cultural norms. This leads to businesses operating in all sorts of corrosive and coercive ways. It leads to businesses that treat us like datapoints on a spreadsheet, instead of humans. We are but impersonal objects with resources to be extracted in pursuit of growth. It leads to marketing and sales strategies rooted in hijacking our psychological and emotional wiring, thus robbing us of our agency. It leads to messaging that inhibits our ability to trust ourselves, and trust others, leaving us ever-more atomized, which makes us even easier to sell to. And it's so easy to rationalize this way of running a business. After all, everyone else is doing it, and it really does make the numbers go up. So it goes.
Second, growth ideology leads to a creative landscape that's becoming ever more homogenous, stagnant, dead. Growth ideology long ago infiltrated the "creator economy" and became the default path there as well. Creative people and artists are constantly bombarded with the story that success as a creative means going viral, and going big. As a result, there are few creative artisans and craftsmen on the internet. Instead we have an endless sea of Creators™ whose work exists to please The Algorithm™ so they can 10X Their Audience™. I believe that creativity and the arts are integral to human flourishing and joy, so it's hard to understate how tragic it feels that this is becoming the status quo in creative culture and media.
I dunno about you, but my heart yearns for something better. Something real. I want to spend my time on the internet interacting with businesses and creative works made by humans, for humans.
1,000 true fans as a countercultural movement
At its core, 1,000 true fans is a wholesale rejection of growth ideology. It's a rejection of go big or go home. It's a rejection of commodification and races to the bottom. Instead, it's a celebration of what makes us human.
1,000 true fans is about doing the work that brings you alive. It's about being unapologetically yourself in your creative and business endeavors, then finding a small handful of people who resonate, and building an economically sustainable life around those two variables. It's about designing an infinite game that allows you to keep doing what you love and connecting with people who care. It's about doing the difficult work of knowing who you truly are, beneath the stories industrial modernity hands you, defining what "enough" means for you, and having the courage to live accordingly.
With every fiber of my being, I believe an internet where 1,000 true fans is the default path for creators and businesses is a vastly more beautiful internet. It's an internet where more and more people begin to opt out of the noisy, commodified, outrage-driven mass market media ecosystem, because they're tired of feeling small and disempowered and bored by everything they consume. It's an internet where people begin opting into smaller, more nourishing subcultures populated by people like themselves. It's about finding the others, and immersing ourselves in a digital landscape that makes us feel seen and safe and connected. And it's about finding creatives and businesses you love supporting, because they express their own humanity through their work, and treat your humanity as sacred in how they transact with you.
This is the future I'm fighting for at Ungated. I am hellbent on figuring out how to make 1,000 true fans the default path instead of growth ideology. And I am not naive about it. That's a messy, wicked goal with no easy solutions, and potential pitfalls as far as the eye can see. If it ever succeeds in any real way, it'll take decades. But I'm hopeful, because I know I'm far from the only one who's hungering for an alternative to the status quo.
I believe the most powerful thing I can do right now is to embody this future myself, and visibly model an alternative path through the world of entrepreneurship. I can choose not to chase growth, and be explicit in my desire for enough. I can be vocal about my desire to build something human and artisanal that leaves me feeling proud of how I spend my days. And more than just talking, I can actually follow through with my day-to-day behavior, especially when it's hard, and when the economic and cultural incentives are pulling me in the other direction. If this change is ever going to take root, it has to start with me living it fully.
I'm a sucker for the theories of mimetic desire and bottom-up, emergent cultural change. If I succeed with my business by following a different set of rules, and do it in a visible way, I suspect it will create ripples in the digital world. It will lead to other creatives, in disparate corners of the internet, operating in flagrant disregard of growth ideology as well. And it's not hard to imagine subcultures and larger markets beginning to choose these more human alternatives, thus forcing more traditional businesses to adapt in order to stay alive. And it's not hard to imagine a future where true fan style businesses are perceived as the highest-status entrepreneurial path for people just starting out.
From day one, the tagline for Ungated has been, "the missing instruction manual for 1,000 true fans." There's a way that could be interpreted as, "I'm gonna teach you the same old internet marketing bullshit you get from everywhere else." But now you know what the subtext really is. I'm extending my hand, and saying "let's embody a new relationship to creativity and business, and build a more beautiful internet together."
P.S. A handful of twitter homies have asked me why I have a deer emoji next to my name. If you turn "building a more beautiful internet" into an acronym, you get... BAMBI 🦌
Rob’s Daily Invitation
The Frontier is my membership for creative homies who are ready to make a clean break from growth ideology, and come alive in their work. If you want to become a true fan of mine, and get access to a bunch of dope resources that aid in your own creative entrepreneurial journey, I humbly invite you to join me out on The Frontier.
dude this is a banger. you're an excellent writer, and i love the general philosophy underlying your work. keep it up.
"First, growth ideology holds that any behavior that leads to growth is justifiable, so long as it's within the bounds of the law and cultural norms. This leads to businesses operating in all sorts of corrosive and coercive ways. It leads to businesses that treat us like datapoints on a spreadsheet, instead of humans. We are but impersonal objects with resources to be extracted in pursuit of growth. It leads to marketing and sales strategies rooted in hijacking our psychological and emotional wiring, thus robbing us of our agency. It leads to messaging that inhibits our ability to trust ourselves, and trust others, leaving us ever-more atomized, which makes us even easier to sell to. And it's so easy to rationalize this way of running a business. After all, everyone else is doing it, and it really does make the numbers go up. So it goes." fucking PREACH
"growth ideology leads to a creative landscape that's becoming ever more homogenous, stagnant, dead." - where I used to subscribe to the productivity Youtubers way of growth, now I'm finding it to be stagnant and really unfulfilling especially for my artsy creative self. After completing PTYA (and not getting the rapid increase in subs that I hoped for), it made me question why I am even chasing numbers - if anything, I'm glad I still have a small following for the simple fact that I can do what I want. The only troubling part is monetisation which the creator economy seems to always put pressure on. However, like you said in a previous post, 1000 true fans is a long haul game so I guess I should just stick it out!