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.