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Advice on the Internet is usually people trying to sell things.

My friend Anthony has started a podcast with his business partner in which they critique stupid marketing tweets. I’m not a marketer, but it’s pretty entertaining.

In the most recent episode, one of the tweets they call out for ridicule is by guy with a bunch of bland and generic advice about how to achieve success as an online marketer. My take is that they are entirely too generous, taking the tweet at face value and engaging with the points the guy seems to be making.

A few years ago, I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It’s not the sort of book I typically read, but it showed up in the “Available right now!” widget of my library’s Overdrive service, so I decided to check it out. I found it entertaining and somewhat helpful, and I appreciated Rubin’s kind of crazy approach to understanding happiness, even if it was not the one that I would take.

Had the story ended there, everything would be fine.

The story did not end there. When I finished the book, I went to check out Rubin’s website to see if she blogged. Of course she blogged. And tweeted. And made YouTubes. And a podcast. And there were happiness journals for sale, along with lots of other merch. What had been a decent book with an entertaining premise and some interesting insights was clearly turning into a cottage industry to keep the income coming in long after the book dropped off the bestseller lists.

I get it, and who am I to begrudge a writer trying to make a living? Still, it felt kind of disappointing, and it made me feel a bit suspicious of everything else she had to say.

It is through this lens that I view stuff like the tweet Anthony is rightfully calling out in his podcast. There is no use trying to actually figure out what the tweet’s author is saying, or whether there is any value in it, because that’s not the point. It’s a way to draw attention, build a brand, get people reading the rest of his stuff and probably sign up for some course or buy some merch.

Pretty much every business, pastime, hobby, and craft is being gradually ensnared by the insidious tendrils of hustle culture. As that happens, the purpose of any piece of online advice—whether it comes in form of tweets, YouTube videos, or blog posts—is increasingly likely not to be communicating information about the ostensible subject. Rather, more and more of this stuff is primarily about promoting the brand or business of the person who created it.

Does that mean it’s all wrong? Not necessarily, and the situation is less terrible for something like technical walk-throughs; even if a tutorial on setting up Wordpress Multisite is actually an attempt to get me to buy your plugin, I still end up learning how to set up Wordpress multisite (assuming the technical details are correct).

When the subject is something less technical—marketing skills like the tweet Anthony cites, or creative writing prompts and practices, or the bottomless pit of journaling techniques on YouTube—it is an entirely different story. These are the posts of which I am most suspicious. The guy who writes books about how to “unleash your creativity” may publish a bunch of blog posts with tips, but he is mainly interested in getting you to buy his books.

This stuff is advertising, and we should approach it as such, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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