What the Young House Love drama tells us about blogger burnout and reader entitlement
Anyone else read Young House Love?
If you do, you probably already know about the comment section drama last week, which culminated in bloggers John and Sherry announcing they’d be taking an indefinite blogging break. For those of you who DIDN’T spend last weekend reading Young House Love’s comment section from behind your open fingers, this is a blog which had previously stuck to a pretty rigid posting schedule. Last week, however, YHL only managed to publish one new post, which they later updated to ask their readers if, during times when it was difficult for them to post their usual content, they’d prefer to see a small post, or no post at all.
I always think it’s brave to ask for feedback on the internet. No matter how simple, or how specific the question is, it almost always opens the doors for feedback on EVERYTHING – and that’s exactly what happened here. By the end of the weekend, Young House Love had almost 1,500 comments on that post – almost all of them offering feedback and criticism, not just on the “short-post-or-no-post” question, but on every aspect of their lives, their blog, their home, their parenting choices …the list goes on.
While much of the criticism was respectful, and clearly came from people who genuinely wanted to help, getting THAT many negative responses to something you’ve spent years creating HAS to hurt, so I wasn’t surprised when, having taken a few days to absorb it all, John and Sherry came back with a very honest and thoughtful response, in which they announced they’d be stepping away from the internet for a while. They didn’t say it in these exact words, but I suspect they’d hit blogger burnout – which brings me (AT LAST, I hear you cry) to the topic of this post.
My blogs obviously don’t even come close to the level of followers that Young House Love has, but even with my much smaller readership, I have had a couple of experiences in which my posting schedule has slipped for one reason or another, and I’ve had angry emails from disgruntled readers, writing to tell me that this is my job, that they are my customers, and that my performance just isn’t up to scratch.
Those readers were right, of course. When it comes to blogging for a living, consistency is key. People will tell you to blog “for yourself”, to post “when you feel like it”, to NOT blog when you DON’T feel like it, and while that’s all well and good if you’re blogging as a hobby, it just doesn’t work if you want to turn it into a business. Can you imagine running a shop, and just opening and closing whenever you felt like it? Blogging doesn’t have to be quite that rigid: I’m not suggesting here that you need to have set “opening hours” and stick to them, but the fact is that readers DO expect to see new content on a fairly regular basis, and if they don’t get that, they’ll get bored and give up.
They might also get angry. I remember a few years ago, our hosting company somehow managed to crash our server and delete every single one of my blogs. (Yeah, funtimes…) Luckily we had backups, and we managed to get everything up and running again within a few days, but unfortunately I lost all of the advance content I’d written to cover my holiday that year. I worked round the clock, and managed to re-write most of it, but I wasn’t able to re-do the posts I’d written for my beauty blog, which didn’t get updated for a few weeks due to the combination of the crash, the holiday, and then Christmas, which came right after.
I didn’t really think this would be a big deal – it was the smallest of all my blogs, and it didn’t exactly have a frequent posting schedule to start with – but at the end of those few weeks without posts, I got one of the angriest emails I’ve ever had from a reader, who said she was DONE waiting for new posts, that I was totally unprofessional for not keeping the site updated, and that she would be unsubscribing from all of my blogs immediately.
I was absolutely flabbergasted, but then… not really. I already knew by that point that a large part of the success of my blogs depended on there always being something new to read on them, and a few months earlier, I’d had more proof of that, this time with The Fashion Police. It’s hard to believe it now, but at that time I was publishing multiple posts per day on TFP: one morning, my first post of the day was a little later than usual going up, and as soon as it did, it started to get comments from people complaining about it. I remember one person asking, “is this SERIOUSLY going to be the only post of the day?!”, and freaking out a bit, because at that point, yes, it WAS.
Experiences like those thankfully aren’t the norm for me, but they do happen, and they illustrate an important point about professional blogging, which is that when readers start to see themselves as your “customers”, they also start to feel you “owe” them something – and to have no hesitation in complaining bitterly when they feel you’re not meeting your side of the bargain.
This kind of situation can be really difficult to deal with, and can very quickly lead to burnout. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d guess that many people who get into full-time blogging do it because of the flexibility it offers. I know I did: as I said in this post, I badly wanted to be able to set my own schedule, to be my own boss, and to not have to answer to anyone.
It doesn’t really work like that, though, because as soon as you start to feel like you HAVE to publish a new post every day (or even a few times per week) in order to keep the visitors coming, or that your readers will be angry if there isn’t something new for them to read at 10am on the dot, that flexibility rapidly disappears, and so – if you’re not very careful – does the quality.
No matter how passionate you are about your subject matter, once you feel under pressure to post something at X time on X day, blogging can really start to feel like a chore – and if you know that failure to produce that new post might get you some angry comments from annoyed readers, it’s tempting to just post ANYTHING, purely to please those readers. And that, of course, is when the quality drops, and you end up losing them anyway.
[Aside: I think one of the things a lot of non-bloggers don’t realise is that there’s no such thing as a truly “quick” post. Even a post which is quick to read can take a while to put together, and sometimes you just don’t have that time. I also read a lot of suggestions on the YHL thread that bloggers should “stockpile” posts for emergencies. That’s a great idea in theory, but not only does it require your content to not be time-sensitive in any way, it also requires a LOT of time to create that stockpile. As an example, when I go on holiday, I generally start writing advance content at least two months before, sooner if I can manage it: I can only find time for a handful of extra posts per week on top of what I write anyway. This sometimes means vacations can start to feel like more trouble than they’re actually worth, which is also a fast-track route to burnout…]
The other issue that comes from the “reader-as-customer” scenario is that it can be a REALLY tricky relationship to manage. On the Young House Love comment thread, I saw lots of people comparing the blog to “a real job”, and making the point that if it WAS a “real” (i.e. “traditional”) job, the bloggers would be forced to view their readers as customers, to acknowledge their complaints, and to do whatever it took to make them happy again. The problem is, however, that blogging is NOTHING like a traditional job: that’s both the best thing about it, and the most difficult thing about it, too.
In a traditional job, there are very clearly defined roles, and everyone knows what to expect from everyone else. You’re the customer: I’m the service provider. My job is to provide a service – if I don’t do that to your satisfaction, you have every right to complain, and to demand that I “fix it.” In blogging, however, those lines are very blurry, and it’s not nearly as clear-cut as all that. The issue is that blogging is inherently PERSONAL: even if you’re blogging about DIY, or shoes, or makeup, a large part of the blog will ultimately be about YOU, and that’s something that no “traditional” job can really prepare you for.
As a blogger, your readers tend to see you first and foremost as their “friend”. (This is one of the GREAT things about blogging for a living, by the way…) You give them insights into your life, pictures, stories. In return, they’ll often tell you a little bit about themselves, too, and you’ll start to build up a relationship: it’s lovely, really. It’s one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place, actually, and I expect there are many bloggers who’d say the same. So you have your readers, and your readers feel like friends… right up until the point when you do something they don’t quite like, and at that point your “friends” suddenly start to tell you that, actually, they’re your customers, and you OWE them.
This sudden switch can be really confusing the first time it happens, especially if, as is often the case, you got into blogging as a hobby, and only later transitioned it into a job. Up until then, your readers have expected you to respond to them as you would any other friend: now, all of a sudden, they want you to be “professional”, and to behave like a business, rather than as a person.
And, of course, they’re right: you ARE a business. You SHOULD be professional. And although they may not be paying directly for the content you create, they ARE your customers, in the sense that THEY are what makes your blog successful. Without readers, you don’t have advertisers. Without advertisers, you don’t have a business. It’s that simple.
It’s also that DIFFICULT. I don’t mean that in the “OMG, MY LIFE, SO HARD!” sense, obviously. I mean it in the, “nothing in my life or career up until this point has taught me how to deal with this,” kind of way. And it really doesn’t. For people like me, blogging is a JOB, yes: but it’s unlike any other job you’re ever likely to have, because it’s so very personal. When criticism comes, it’s not JUST about your work: it’s about your SELF – and sometimes about the people connected to you, too, which is particularly hard to deal with.
When I hear people criticise bloggers, I often hear them make the point that, “If you had a REAL job, you’d have to deal with feedback: blogging is no different.” Actually, though, blogging IS quite different. I’ve had a number of different jobs in my life. I’ve worked in McDonalds, in a call centre, as a journalist, as a press officer… In all of those jobs, I got feedback – and sometimes criticism – from both managers and customers. In none of those jobs did that criticism include comments about my appearance, my personality, my family – anything, in fact, other than how well I was doing my job.
(I’m not saying there aren’t ANY jobs in which people receive personal criticism under the guise of feedback, by the way: just that if any of my managers had ended a performance assessment by saying, ‘Also, you look fat in that dress, and your husband is obviously gay,*” I’d have gone straight to HR to lodge a complaint. And if a customer had done it, they’d have been asked to leave…)
Bloggers, however, DO get very personal criticism, as the Young House Love drama demonstrates, and the REASON they get personal criticism is that their JOB is personal. When your job involves sharing your life (or aspects of your life) with the internet, there are some strange consequences to that, and one of them is that your readers will sometimes feel a sense of entitlement towards you. They’ll feel you owe it to them to tell them MORE about your life (or your clothes, or your home, or whatever it is you write about), and they will also feel entitled to criticise you on a sometimes very personal level. They’ll want you to treat them as a friend… except when they want you to treat them as a customer, and it’s up to you to work out how to navigate that.
No, seriously: it’s up to you. Because I don’t actually have a point to make in all of this, and I don’t have any particular wisdom to offer either: I’m really just thinking aloud here, about some of the issues the Young House Love drama highlighted for me, and how totally, unbelievably WEIRD professional blogging can be. I guess my main point – because I really feel like I should have one now – is that if you’re considering blogging as a career, there are three things you really need to consider:
As with any other job, there will be days – maybe even weeks or months – when you don’t want to do it; when, no matter how much you love it, it will feel like a chore. And, as with any other job, when that happens, you’ll have to get on with it, and do it anyway.
There are some aspects of blogging which nothing can really prepare you for: intrusive questions, very personal criticism, even people who can be downright creepy or stalkerish. There’s also a loss of privacy which comes with living your life online, and the difficult balancing act of being professional, while also being personable. In other words: it’s not all posting photos of your shoes on Instagram, and waiting for people to tell you how awesome they are.
Despite all of this, it’s still the best job ever. Or I think so, anyway…
* No one has ever made those comments to me, by the way (or not to my face, anyway): they’re just examples of very personal criticism I’ve seen levelled at other bloggers!