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The Dead Internet

"The internet may be a wasteland, but there's a whole world out there that isn't dead yet." -Josh "Bearheart" Hawk

A polar bear shaking water off
A polar bear at the Columbus Zoo living his best life

There's a hypothesis out there called 'The Dead Internet Theory' that claims the internet is made up of mostly bots and bot posts. While I don't exactly think this is fully true, it's hard to deny the premise based on my own personal experience.

See, I've been working for the past few years to grow an online presence. Trying to make a living making YouTube videos, and now as an author. While there are those out there that will say I've just not followed the right path, the truth is that making a living with anything online is based mostly on luck and timing, and it's nearly impossible if you're starting now as opposed to 10 years ago.

Back when the internet was young, in the yesteryear of 2013, you could grow organically with a little bit of effort and practice. Not as many people were trying to do it, and more importantly, companies didn't yet know the potential that the internet held to make money.

Then there was the boom of the mid-2010's, where many of the stars known today were forged. This was the time where the money was flowing freely and new 'content creators', as they were coming to be known, were blowing up seemingly weekly.

Then came what would come to be called the 'adpocalypse' on YouTube.

This was a time where the content creators were being dragged down left and right based on content that was less than family friendly. People who had been making millions were brought to their knees by the very system that created them in the first place.

But this didn't kill the industry. In fact, it made it even stronger.

Creators who lived through this dark era would find even more money to be made, in the form of paid sponsorships. It was also during this time, as the world started locking down for Covid, that kids who'd grown up watching these big names started chasing their own dreams.

Kids aspire to be famous content creators. It's not unlike when Hollywood blew up with movies in the 1930's-1950's, when movie stars started gaining a status as household names. Kids used to emulate people like John Wayne or Clark Gable, now they yearn to be the next PewDiePie or Mr. Beast.

With this massive influx of potential creators, the industry has seen the swing towards supply that was always on the horizon. Companies like Google or Bytedance (as long as it's still around thanks to anti-free speech legislation) have taken advantage of this new boom, making more off ad-revenue than ever despite the content getting seemingly worse to the average viewer.

While the quality of the content can be debated, the difficulty in becoming a known commodity on the platform, or the internet in general, is a little clearer. There are countless "gurus" out there, all giving you the one solution to growing an audience online. These kinds of people are nothing new, they crop up whenever there is an influx of people wanting to do something in-line with 'get-rich-quick' or some other difficult or impossible to do thing. They prey on people looking for information on things like building a YouTube channel, investing and other ways to make money (or pick your favorite activity).

So, this is where we come back to the dead internet.

As I've worked on growing my business, I've started focusing on in-person events rather than my online presence. That's not to say I've stopped doing anything online (you are reading a blog post on my website after all), but I've realized something that I think more and more people are waking up to these days. The internet will never match being in-person for a business.

There are one-off examples you could point to as businesses that are online only, but many/most of those used paid advertising to get their name out there. Many small businesses, especially those focusing on physical products, don't have a huge advertising budget to start out. Paying for ads just isn't sustainable, but it's really the only way to grow online in 2024.

Not to mention the fact that people online don't really share things they find good or enjoyable. They'd rather share that article that angered them, or that meme that made them chuckle as they sat on the toilet.

Over the first year or so of calling myself an author (I didn't want to use the term until I'd actually published something), I've managed to sell 13 books online, mostly to people who knew me and wanted to support me. A few went to strangers, but getting any traction has been almost impossible. And I'm not the only one struggling with this.

I've got several author friends I follow over on Facebook who deal with the same thing. They share things about their work and get a little interaction, but they see the most interaction when they share unrelated memes and other posts not related to their work. I can attest to this on my own page, and it even holds true on other platforms like YouTube, Instagram and even TikTok.

That's not to say people aren't interested in the work. They seem to really love my books when they do find them but getting them in front of people who are willing and ready to buy is the tricky part.

Now is where we venture offline.

My wife and I recently attended our first in-person event. We had her candles and wax melts, along with my books, a photo print of the solar eclipse photo I made, and postcards. This was kind of a last-minute thing for us, signing up only a couple weeks before it happened, and we really weren't sure how it was going to go.

We showed up, set up our canopy, candles, books, etc. and spent the day greeting people who didn't even know an event was going on. It was being held in the town square of my hometown, and had been advertised online, but every person who came up to us said they didn't even know it was going on and only stopped to see what was happening with all these tents being set up in the park.

Photos of the 2024 solar eclipse, laid out in a single image showing the moon slowly covering the sun and then moving away.
The image I made using the photos I took during the 2024 solar eclipse. It's available as a 32"x16" print in my store online or at events.

I say this to bring some context, because I honestly didn't expect to sell anything. Part of it was imposter syndrome, and part of it was the expectation the event runner had set prior, letting everyone know the first event of the year was a little slow as people would take time to remember the event was a thing.

The day was slow overall, but business picked up a bit in the afternoon as the sun came out and the weather improved. We wound up selling enough to make back the fee we paid for the spot at the end of the day, but what really impressed me was the fact that we were able to sell 2 books among everything else.

That may not sound like much, but 2 books on an afternoon to complete strangers that weren't even planning to buy anything because they didn't know an event was going on shattered what I thought would happen.

We've got several more events planned out for the summer, and I expect to sell a lot more in that time. And that's the difference between the internet and in-person.

On the internet, there is no good way to make that human connection. People don't know who you are to begin with, and they're less likely to want to spend their hard-earned money on someone or something they don't know.

On top of the increased chance to sell to someone face-to-face, it is also a great chance to get real-time feedback on things. We were able to watch body language and reactions in person, whereas online you can't observe reactions. You might get analytics from a website, or maybe a Facebook page, but those don't tell you what a person was thinking when they saw your products.

I watched as people smelled and reacted to our candles, like the smell of fresh cut grass, dirt or campfire, and was able to gauge what a person was thinking by the look on their face. We were able to sell one of the fresh cut grass candles (aptly named "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"), and there were a lot of positive reactions to all of the scents.

And it wasn't just the candles.

I was able to interact with people in real-time about my books and photos, explaining them and answering questions. I interacted with people in a way I would never be able to with website visitors or people coming through my YouTube or Facebook pages.

At the end of the day, I have a lot more faith in the in-person events we'll be doing this summer than I ever had for online stuff. I think that human beings have this innate need to socialize, and that need translates to a better experience for small businesses that have a physical presence in the real world than those who are online only.

To this point, my business, Bearheart Productions, has been online only. Going out into the world is a scary idea, especially for someone with Asperger's and severe anxiety, but it is a necessary step that I think anyone who owns a small business needs to take if you ever want to grow.

I'll leave it on a last point, just because I've had this argument brought up to me before.

You should have your own website, where you have your products available in a space you can control. I've been asked why I don't use something like Etsy or Shopify or even Amazon because "that's where people are shopping online".

The short answer is because even on those platforms, you are competing with a million other people who've had the same idea. If someone searches "candles" on one of those sites, they'll see thousands of sellers. Many of those sellers aren't even small businesses. Why would I want to compete with drop-shippers or the thousand other cookie-cutter storefronts when I could have my own space?

I don't have any sponsorships, and there aren't many I would even consider given the fact that I don't like promoting things I don't believe in, but I would consider one from Wix. That's who I use to host my website, and so far, I've found them to be perfect for what I'm doing. I've got a storefront on my website (you should definitely check it out), and I use that same storefront for in-person sales.

I only bring this up because I don't really hear many small business owners online talk about what they use for inventory management or point of sale software, and I want to share my experience overall in case it helps others. Building your own website, managing inventory, taking payments and promoting yourself is a lot for one person to take on, so anything that will make that easier is welcome, at least in my eyes.

Whatever you do, don't stop dreaming and don't give up on your goals. Anything worth doing requires some effort and sacrifice, and there is not a single right answer for everyone.

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