Why Is Fringe’s Folly So Annoying? Or, What Happened to Me Along the Way.

Well, FF is going to be on a bit of a break for a while.  I’m broke, and took a job that is putting me deep in the backcountry of Sequoia-King’s Canyon National Park from June 10 until September 12.  As a final post before the break, I wanted to share sort of a state of the union for Fringe’s Folly.  Something that gives a little bit of background to the site, a bit of a description of my experience over the last 7 or 8 months of running this blog, and a preview of things to come.  This is the story behind Fringe’s Folly.  I hope you enjoy.

In 2012, I quit one of the most amazing jobs anyone could ever have.  I was a climbing ranger on Mt. Rainier.  I got paid to save lives, and climb the mountain.  I rode around in helicopters, lived in the middle of the park, had an 8 days on, 6 off schedule.  I got laid off in September, and collected unemployment most the rest of the year.  It was not a perfect job though.  I didn’t just leave because of Nick Hall’s tragic passing in the course of duty – although that was a big part of it.  I also left because I wanted to chase my dreams of becoming a writer, of working in the climbing industry, of working towards conservation of climbing areas.  I felt poised to do all those things, and since they had been most of my life prior, I thought my dreams would be handed to me on a silver platter.

They weren’t.  I have toyed with the idea of trying to compile a list of places that wouldn’t hire me, following my departure from the park service. But I don’t even think I could.  Let’s say this, if the company has anything to do with climbing, chances are I applied for work there.  Some jobs I was qualified for, some I wasn’t.  My first summer in the “private sector” was eye opening, and actually kind of terrifying.  I made it work by roofing, painting my friend’s grandmother’s house, working for a moving company, and browsing craigslist for gigs.  I also wrote, and more and more I began to see writing as my only marketable skill.  Having climbed for 14 years, holding a current EMT cert, three years of trail crew, a college degree, past experience farming, years doing every job there is to do in a climbing gym, establishing ground up big walls in southern Chile, past publications in every American climbing magazine, and fluency in Spanish didn’t seem to mean squat.  I had no retail experience, no restaurant experience, and no higher education.  All I got was no.

Near the end of the summer, I got two breaks.  First, my friends asked if I would help them open a new branch of their guiding company in Seattle the following summer.  Second, I started to get a steady writing gig with a company called Switchback Travel.  I was psyched, and thought I might be able to actually start piecing things together.  I went back to Chile, then returned to Seattle.  Fringe’s Folly still doesn’t exist at this point.

Summer 2014 was rough.  I wasn’t very good at my job with the guiding company in spite of my best efforts.  I worked tons and tons of uncompensated hours.  Switchback gave me work as they could, but because I was so busy with other things, they couldn’t fully rely on me – so my income there was limited.  I somehow scrapped my way into a rigging gig, which helped pay the bills – but this was my third job, and I was also working on a guidebook for Index at the time – so it was really my fourth job.  And I only got a day every week or two (which often paid about as well as a full week of work with the guiding company).

But there were rad things on the horizon.  My friends and I had won a Copp-Dash Inspire award, which I saw as my springboard into the outdoors industry.  We were getting fully supported for an expedition to southern Chile in the winter.  Media production was a large part of the grant. Okay I thought, I’m a writer, I’m a climber, I’m trying to make it… I had worked with climbing magazines long enough to know you can’t make a living doing that (I just recently learned that magazines used to pay $1/word, or sometimes more – now you’re lucky to get $.25/word).  I had a lot I wanted to say, a huge backlog of work that magazines I had worked with before had either rejected or never even responded to.  I decided to start a blog to try and tell those stories, and other stories that I thought were worth portraying but typically get sidelined by the mainstream climbing community.

I started Fringe’s Folly with two intentions: 1. produce content that was anathema to “Click Bait”… Create an outlet for amazing stories that the climbing media says no to…  FOCUS ON THE FRINGE… the stories and characters that the climbing industry at large couldn’t be bothered with because they are convinced that the people they sell their wares to don’t care.  2. Try to make money off the site so that you can pay yourself for that work, and pay others to contribute.  Kind of like a magazine.  If you can get paid for it, you can put more time and energy into it, and make it better.  I called it Fringe’s Folly because the idea of trying to make money off of focusing on the fringe seems inherently foolish.  If you want to make money on a blog, you need to get advertisements = you need to get clicks.  An advertisement is only as good as how many people see it.  If your blog doesn’t get clicks, you won’t get paid for it.  Plain and simple.  

So I decided to do more than just write and share stories, I started promoting the blog, as well.  I wasn’t worried about my intentions – I still think they are perfectly reasonable.  People have hated on my site, on my work.  That’s to be expected.  It’s easier to hate than love, especially on the internet.  I’m trying to make a living by telling stories that don’t get told because they are not as digestible as an instagram post.  Does that make me hopelessly antiquated and outdated? Probably.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Probably not.

But I kind of went wrong with Fringe’s Folly shortly into it when I started paying attention to my site analytics.  I also compared around and got click numbers for competitive blogs (one that I spoke with gets 250,000 clicks per month…. That’s more than I’ll get all year).  I became obsessed with clicks, and that meant promotion.  If I didn’t promote my blog posts, nobody clicked.  If I did promote, people did click.  Plain and simple.  The results were night and day.  We’re talking 5 clicks versus sometimes as much as 1,000 on the first day of a post.  Polar opposites.

I wanted to get noticed so that somebody would financially help to support the project.  So I kept trying to get people to click.  Nevermind that each time I promoted my work I hated myself a little.  Nevermind the fact that my most viewed post ever – The Dawn Wall piece, blew up largely because I subjected it to the disgusting troll town that mountainprojects forums are (I can also see where my clicks come from – and more clicks came on the Dawn Wall piece from mountainproject than any other source before, or since).  I was committed, and I figured, what the hell – other people are doing it.  Sink or swim.  I was just trying to tread water.

I also started to notice that some pieces and stories generated clicks better than others.  There was a definite inverse relationship between how much I liked the piece, and how many clicks I got – a certain confirmation of the ironic intention of Fringe’s Folly.  The stuff that got the most clicks was, predictably enough, click bait.  They were argumentative pieces, articles about well-known people or places, and gear reviews. The standard shit.  The articles I worked hardest on, and gave my most attention to, by and large failed to raise an eyebrow.  This was all very disheartening, and made me hate my site, my self, and the industry.  I was trying to swim, but I was trying to swim upstream.  Salmon don’t swim upstream until they’re real big fishes coming home to spawn and die.  When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to start out against the current.

I will look back on 30 as the computer year of my life.  I’ve never spent so much time in front of a screen – not even as a child watching saturday cartoons.  Here’s what I learned.  Everyone’s attention is a commodity.  It is something that can be bought, and sold, and it is part of a commerce we only somewhat knowingly participate in.  Every time you jump on the internet, it’s a vicious teeming ocean of feasting fish fighting for your attention.  The click – the almighty click – is a form of currency.  It’s kind of like a penny.  One click isn’t worth much, but a million is worth a lot.  Anyone will do anything to get you to click…  And I was no exception.

Before I started Fringe’s Folly I had a dumb phone and a Facebook account, and a website that was kind of like an e-business-card.  Now I have a smart phone, an instagram account, a twitter account, and two Facebook accounts.  I participate in things like Reddit, and Pinterest – obscure attention sucks I had never even heard of before I started Fringe’s Folly.  I’ve become utterly obsessed with clicks.  And the way that translates is, I’ve become utterly obsessed with other people’s attention.

From the age of about 10 to 21, I refused to share my writing with anyone for a very simple and obvious reason.  If I shared my writing, and people liked it, I would be incentivized to write because of the attention it would bring to me.  This felt dirty, and impure.  Writing is an art form, and art should be done for itself, because you must.  So my thinking went.  Most writers eventually succumb to the ultimate truth of needing to make a living, though.  You have to eat to write.  You have to make a living to eat.  If you’re obsessed with writing, you’re probably better at that than anything else you do. 

In trying to become a professional writer, I grew and changed into a form that I basically despise.  This has had a major damaging affect on my psyche.  In a great shift of dramatic irony, Fringe’s Folly has succeeded in transforming me into something more mainstream, more capitalistic, more obsessed with attention than I have been in my life.  That all makes me very sad.

So why is Fringe’s Folly so annoying?  Because I care what you think, I care if you click, because I’m begging you to come back again and again week after week.  I’m sorry.  It annoys me, too.  I’m fixing to make a change.

My solution is not to write less, but to publicize less.  I’m giving up on click bait.  Screw it.  I am working for the National Park Service again, and I am so freaking excited to get a steady pay check I don’t feel like I’m fighting for with my every breath, that I could do a little dance (sometimes I do).  I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me feel just to be a public servant again – just to give MY attention to others, instead of asking others to give THEIR attention to me.  It soothes my soul just to type those words.

I’m not giving up on Fringe’s Folly, but I’m giving up on trying to sell it to the masses by cramming it down their throats.  I’m not going to force myself to do a blog post a week (my new job would make that impossible, anyway).  I’m not going to publish the crap that gets the most clicks, just because I know it will.  I’m going to keep writing the stories I like – the stories I care about, and I’ll keep sharing those with anyone who cares to read them.  For anything else, keep surfing the web.

For everyone who does continue to click, and for all the people who have encouraged me since I started this project – Thank you.  There is a reason other than trying to make money for sharing your art.  That reason is you.  Artists make art to share with the world – whether they like it or not.  And art makes the world a better place.  Is sharing your work somewhat narcissistic?  Perhaps.  Do most artists suffer over that?  Certainly.  Sharing art requires audacity and selflessness.  You have to diminish yourself in your own eyes to bring to the world what you are bold and brave enough to believe will improve it.  Each time someone thanks you for doing so – yes, you hate yourself a little bit less.

I look forward to catching back up with Fringe’s Folly in September.  I hope you guys will still remember me!  If you know where I am this summer, you should come visit.  I’ll be the guy camping in the yurt, writing, smiling, and living the dream.

9 comments

  • Thank you for sharing the history of Fringe’s Folly and your insights from writing this blog. I am not a climber, but enjoy reading your posts and reflections all the same. All the best on your new plans and I’m glad to hear that you plan to continue writing…

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  • Love this Chris!!! It speaks to me a lot. Also, I love that you and Matty are both living in yurts this summer!!!

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  • It’s tough to be fuzzy.

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  • It’s tough to be fuzzy

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  • Honest and vulnerable – refreshing words to read. Good luck this summer, and I look forward to some fresh FF content in the fall!

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  • Well, for as frustrating as its been for you, I certainly appreciate your efforts, and not just because it has been my first experience working with an editor and (sort-of) being published. FF is exactly the sort of thing climbing media needs right now: people who are willing to play the clickbait game but aren’t happy about it. It’s the same paradox politicians seem to face: take the money and corrupt yourself, or don’t and remain irrelevant. No one notices when you step out, it’s why not reporting FAs or rejecting sponsorships is never going to catch on. I heard somewhere that the trick to success as a writer is just to be good enough that they come to you, but it seems like getting noticed on the virtue of shear quality is just about impossible with the volume of new material being put out there, but maybe I’m wrong and if so: Katie Ives, Jeff Jackson, Luke Mehall, et al, I await your calls.

    Sometimes I think that I have about the same relationship with blog site analytics as heroin addicts have with needles. It’s an endless battle: If I link this piece to MountainProject it will get 500 hits, if I don’t, it will get 5, and 3 of those are from my nuclear family. The really depressing thing is when you consider how many of those people are actually reading the piece start to finish, instead of just skimming and looking at the pretty pictures. It’s easy to get all up in arms about shortening attention spans and general shallowness, but then I certainly don’t read long-winded blog posts by people I don’t know or know of, so there’s some serious hypocrisy going on.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I don’t think you should give up on trying to write things that people actually want to read (and there is a big difference between this and what people click on, basically the difference between Climbing Magazine and The Climbing Zine). Clickbait is lame, but frankly, I’m not sure anything on FF really qualified, and until you are posting “You Won’t Believe That This Groundbreaking Route Was Chipped” or “This V14 Boulderer Eats Whatever He Wants And Breaks All The Rules” I think you’re fine.

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  • maybe you could think about your writing in a different context – memoir or stories rather than a blog (cliché? but I’m thinking of Edward Abbey or Joe Hutto). I started looking at FF because of the Index post, which I loved, but I also like index. I did read the first part of the Dawn Wall post (the only thing I read about the Dawn Wall). I didn’t finish it because it was mostly a story about you and your girlfriend (if I remember correctly). I find that your writing in the blog context is somewhat long – you take a long time to get to the point, and you share a lot about your personal experience in a way that for me distracts from the content. I usually feel like I am listening to a friend talk – one who needs to talk.

    I don’t read climbing magazines, and I’m not generally a “clicker.” I don’t subscribe to any blog but yours, even when my friends go on travel adventures. I do read books about climbing. I read “Kiss or Kill” not because I had any idea who Mark Twight was or cared, but because a friend who picked it up in a free bin and didn’t like it gave it to me since I’m into climbing. I got a lot out of it because of the unabashed honesty in the book and his discussion about his struggles with depression (something I could relate to). Also his emphatic (dogmatic?) insistence on eschewing mediocrity even if you utterly fail to achieve your goals.

    As an artist in constant career crisis, I sympathize a lot with the personal struggle you are describing in this post, which is why i read it to the end. But I also happen to be procrastinating this morning. As mentioned above, it may be too much to expect computer attention to be high quality. Would it be another option to shoot for a book? Would that be a more satisfying relationship with your reader? Could you self-publish it with a crowd-funding campaign? It might be a 10 year project.

    So I don’t want to discourage you, because I know that’s the last thing you need. It seems like you are doing and have done lots of interesting things. Maybe it’s a matter of embracing that personal story even more? I’m sure it’s hard to publish a climbing book (and have people want to read it) if you’re not Lynn Hill (i.e. famous). On the other hand, it sounds like you are an amazing enough climber to be an inspiration to most of us amateurs. Maybe you can bridge that gap? I would love to read a book about a not-famous climber. (of course since I’m reading books out of free bins I might not be the audience you are looking for). Of course you will have to write well, whatever that means, since people won’t just read it for your famous name.

    Maybe having a job again means you can write unrestricted and not worrying about clicks. You can give yourself new assignments – like collecting stories from your park service work – things that are immediate and personal.

    For me one of the greatest challenges is making the personal universal. I have made a tremendous effort in my own work to examine my personal pathos so that I can produce something broadly meaningful and not just navel-gazy. The art world (+audience) can have a very high tolerance for narcissism, so you (and I) probably don’t need to be so afraid of it. I think realistically the narcissism that is part of being an artistic producer is always trumped by the narcissism of the audience – they will like your work because it reflects something they are already interested in or care about or have experienced and your attention to that same thing makes it feel more profound. You are reflecting them, not the other way around. I imagine for you the process of making the personal universal comes through lots of editing.

    We are in an unfortunate age where everyone is supposed to be an entrepreneur. We’re all supposed to be able to start our own blogs and figure out how to make a living off them. Just like the American dream, it is a cruel myth. On the other hand, less than a year is really not a lot of time in the scheme of your life, though it feels that way when you’re living with constant uncertainty.

    You don’t really need my opinion anyway, it sounds like you are doing a good job at making the most of your life and pursuing the things that you care about, and you will continue to do that. If what you really want is a successful blog – you’ll make peace with the self-promotion bit. If that really leaves you feeling that you have sold out you’ll find another outlet.

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  • For what it’s worth, I bookmarked your site a long time ago and have visited every few weeks to see what new stories/thoughts/posts you’ve put together. I totally support what I can see is a major time and energy investment.

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  • Hey Chris, miss you this summer, built Tas a tree fort and Simone an art studio so the property is looking
    and feeling loved. Keep on the path and thanks for the inspiration. My goal is to make a home where
    monkeys are loved and creative expression nurtured. Charge, take lumps, do ding repairs, repeat.

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