…and other musings on what it means to run an ethical online business right now.
Last week I shared about my recent depression wave, and a whole bunch of you responded to say it made you feel less alone.
I love those kinds of emails. Because even though I wish so many of you didn’t relate to my story, that kind of response is the whole point of being so transparent in these emails.
I discovered a long time ago that sharing my truth has the power to help people feel less alone, and that helping people feel less alone is one of the reasons I was put on this Earth. And this sense of certainty around my purpose has driven the direction of my business for over a decade.
Lately, however, I’ve been grappling with it quite a bit, as I try to figure out how to bring my business back into alignment with my deeper self and truth.
Because here’s the thing: I used to love content marketing. I loved posting on social media, I loved writing programs, and I loved connecting with people on the Internet. I never particularly enjoyed doing program launches, but I was still able to view them as an interesting challenge in service of my higher purpose. (And I do love challenges.) When considering a program launch or enrollment period, I would just think about how I could best connect people with my offer, while staying in alignment with my integry, my available resources, and my values. Then I’d just throw stuff at the wall and see what stuck. :-D
This internal alignment is why people have been drawn to me as a business mentor, I think.
People would see me throwing away the business “rulebook,” and doing things in a way that worked for me, and they saw that it worked. Maybe it never worked in a smash-success or going-viral kind of way, but my business has grown steadily since it started, and I’ve never had to cross any internal boundaries to get here.
Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve often turned down opportunities and strategies that I know would have made me more money or gotten me more visibility, because I wanted to grow ethically, sustainably, and without compromising on what was most important to me. So I’ve been an extremely patient and dedicated creator, always seeing the forest through the trees, and keeping my eye on the end game: cultural revolution.
I’ve often wished things would move and grow faster, of course. It’s annoying to watch other coaches fill programs that I know have less value to offer than mine, and it’s frustrating to see people go viral for being “inspirational” or “motivational” in spaces where I’m offering actual solutions. It would even really hurt sometimes, to see people going viral for things I found stupid and superficial– or even unethical/probematic–and think goddamn it, why is that popular, but my work isn’t??
But given my ultimate purpose, there was really no point in spending energy comparing myself to others, or worrying about whose messages were more popular. I just allowed myself to be curious about what people were needing and connecting with, and kept my eye on the prize. Everything was a learning opportunity, I had a thriving client practice, and I got a ton of positive feedback from the people who did follow my work, so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
I have to say, though, that things feel different lately, and I’m not sure what to do with that yet.
Part of the issue is social media itself.
I’ve had about the same amount of followers on Instagram and Facebook for the last like…5 or 6 years. I ammassed a decent following pretty quickly when I was doing fitness stuff and silly movement tricks, but since switching my brand over to self-worth and body image, I’ve pretty much stayed stuck.
And that’s ok, because there’s really no point to having a big social media following in and of itself. Instagram is where most of my clients find me, and it’s where people have historically learned about and signed up for my programs and products, so as long as I have enough people paying attention there to keep my business running, there’s no real need for a huge audience.
That said, since Tik Tok took off with the teen demographic, Instagram has desperately tried to turn itself into TikTok, and now the entire algorithm is based on the preferences (and brain development patterns) of a bunch of fifteen year olds, which means it’s gone from a platform to share and connect, to a platform to learn and grow, to what it is now: a platform to entertain and shop.
I don’t get to see the content of any of the creators I used to love, because even though I still follow them, the algorithm doesn’t show their stuff to me. Likewise, people who signed up to see my content don’t get to see it, either. The app now takes away our agency to see what we want to see, and instead overwhelms us with an addictive and endless stream of new people and mindless reels, keeping us trapped in a dopamine-and-FOMO loop that drains us of our energy, motivation, and joy. It’s become, in other words, a toxic sludge-fest that makes us feel like we’re filling our connection tank, while actually draining it, and making us feel more alone.
I hate spending time and energy on social media because it’s bad for my own mental health, and I’d love to get rid of my accounts, but I need them for business. Plus, I hate knowing that by using these platforms to run my business through content marketing, I’m contributing to the deterioration of the mental health of the people I’m trying to connect with and help.
It’s frustrating, and icky.
On top of that issue, we’ve all come through a major change as a population over the last few years, and people are struggling and suffering more than ever before.
Thanks to the pandemic, along with unprecedented social, economical, political, and environmental stressors, people tend to be outside of their nervous system’s window of tolerance all the time now. Anxiety and depression have skyrocketed, along with other mental health issues like substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. Essentially, we lost a huge chunk of our most valuable coping skills during lockdown (like connection and physical touch), while facing seemingly endless new layers of stress, fear, pain, and trauma.
The end result of all of this is that people are now trying to move on with and rebuild their lives, while feeling more numb, exhausted, stressed, brain-foggy, anxious, depressed, burnt out, broke, and in need of comfort.
Put another way, people are generally not looking for education or personal development right now, they’re just looking for comfort, relief, and support.
Who has the energy to dive into scary and hard healing work, or even to just learn something new, when life feels like this? Even the one thing we all know we need more of right now – genuine human connection – can feel too hard, too scary, or too exhausting to get ourselves to actually do.
After all, it might feel deeply comforting and nourishing to connect with an old friend over coffee, but it also might come with the anxiety of going out in public, the fear of feeling too tired when the day comes, the stress of debating whether or not to cancel, the shame of not being as “fun” as you used to be, and the exhaustion of trying to act “normal” while struggling to be present.
This overarching cultural shift can be seen in our personal day-to-day lives (like how I constantly wish I talked to my friends more, but never seem to have the energy to schedule a call), and it can also be seen in the patterns of content creation and consumption on the Internet.
Think about it this way: people are seeking comfort and connection, but without spending any energy. And do you know what’s really perfect for that?
Parasocial relationships with people on the Internet.
We were already moving in this direction as a culture, to be sure, as our daily screen time has been increasing, and our in-person connection has been decreasing over the last decade. But the pandemic really amplified it to a catastrophic, and even desperate, level.
Instead of seeking out content that challenges and educates them, people are more often now seeking out content that affirms and entertains them. They’re looking for content that makes them feel a sense of belonging, familiarity, and comfort. And more than anything, they’re looking for content that makes them feel like they have company, while alone.
This is the era of people…
…watching other people play video games with their friends.
…listening to other people day D&D with their dad.
…watching famous couples prank each other, and famous families renovate their homes.
…bringing their favorite streamers, YouTubers, podcasters, and influencers into their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, cars, and bathrooms as they go about their daily business of being a person, so that they never have to feel alone.
This is the era of people spending more time on a daily basis with strangers who feel like friends than actual friends, and of people doing anything to avoid ever being alone with their thoughts.
It’s like having friends, these parasocial relationships, but without needing to spend any energy giving to the other person. It’s comfort and connection without obligation. So it’s both our solution to, and increasingly the source of our feelings of being isolated and disconnected.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not special or different. I spend way too long scrolling animal reels for my own good, and I listen to the harry books on audible over and over and over when I’m stressed. (My parasocial relationships are with fictional people, and always have been.)
But I can’t stop thinking about how, despite the fact that I run an online business, what people actually need to feel less alone right now is to… spend less time on the Internet, and more time away from screens. And how could I launch a new program online, when I believe that??
Plus the landscape of creating and marketing has changed, and the content I believe in and create just doesn’t align with this landscape.
I don’t want to make reels, because there’s no depth to them. I don’t want to make commentary or reaction videos, because I don’t want to spend more of my energy paying attention to or thinking about Internet-and-pop-culture events. And I don’t want my personality to be the thing that draws people to my work, I want it to be my ideas.
Ultimately, I don’t want to entertain, I don’t want to inspire, and I don’t want to influence. So where do I fit into this new cultural landscape online?
That said, I also don’t want to coast, or feel stagnant in my business. I want to be creating work that connects with people, and gains traction, and matters. I want to be mentally challenged, and emotionally connected, and I’m happiest when I’m actively engaged in the process of building something new.
But I don’t know what that looks like anymore.
What I do know is that social media, content marketing, and possibly even online programs no longer feel like landscapes where I can do those things.
So I’m taking a little time to regroup, and consider how I can both do meaningful and interesting work, and connect with people where they’re at, in this new era. (You might have noticed that I haven’t put up a YouTube video or podcast in the last few weeks, and this is why.)
Please bear with me over the next few weeks (or months) as I sit with this, and feel free to hit reply and share your thoughts, ideas, or feedback. I’d love to hear from you.