Why Most Stuff Online Sounds Exactly The Same

Photo by B.J. Mendelson on New York City's UES

Do you ever find yourself reading something online that sounds a lot like other stuff you just read? Like the tone, sentence structure and tempo are completely indistinguishable from each other? I notice this A LOT. Sometimes I think I’m on “The Truman Show” and people are just regurgitating stuff because we all know Jim Carey can’t read. Of course, he can’t! All of his fellow students in that movie were actors pretending to be interested in him, and all his teachers ever did was tell him he’d die if he left town. You wouldn’t want to read either!

Then I remember that, although this universe very well could be a simulation, I’m not on “The Truman Show.” This is depressing because that means that the sameness is not my imagination. A lot of things published on the internet all look and sound the same. And it’s not just restricted to Geek Culture websites that I read every day. Although I swear to God if I see another video of some writer for a Geek Culture site wearing colorful sneakers, cargo shorts, a graphic tee, and a beard, I’m going to have to rethink how I dress. Seriously white guys in our thirties, get it together. If we all look the same while trying to be different, we ain’t different.

The media, mainstream and otherwise, also suffers from the same homogeneity problem, so don’t think I’m flinging feces exclusively at my fellow geeks and marketers, it’s a problem system wide across the internet. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is think back to the 2016 presidential election and how wrong the media was on Trump. The reporters are creating the news for us just didn’t pick up on key trends and attitudes. Why? Because they’re all pretty much the same — coming from the same parts of the country (NYC, LA, SF, D.C.) with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and degrees from the same Ivy League institutions. I joke about this a lot, but it’s true, for most people who live in New York City (and this includes a whole lot of journalists and media outlets), the world ends at the Lincoln Tunnel.

And so the content produced by those people looks and sounds the same. Another example: Marketing blogs and think pieces written by marketers. I dare you to read any marketing blog, or even the latest guest column in Adweek, and not look at who wrote it. Believe me, man or woman, you’re going to think it’s the same one or two people writing all those columns.

This is hilarious to me because marketing is about standing out from the crowd, and here we have an entire industry of people who sound like they’re all the same. How does that even work?

OK. OK. One more example. A lot of you might not care about marketers and journalists/bloggers. I know, because every time I pitch a book about those people I get the “Who gives a shit?” response from my agent, and he’s right! So here’s an example you will care about: YouTube Voice. Check out a lot of the stuff uploaded to YouTube by YouTube creators and close your eyes. The voices themselves may differ, but how they speak won’t. I’m not the only one to observe this. Linguistics professor Naomi Baron analyzed the properties of YouTube voice in a great piece in The Atlantic little ways back. “YouTube Voice” is essentially the overemphasis of words that hold people’s attention. And now that I’ve told you this, you won’t be able to unhear it. I’m not sorry.

It’s time to declare war on sameness

I’ve believed that smart marketing and using internet platforms effectively can bring you to a certain point of success, but you don’t need me to tell you there’s a glass ceiling you’ll eventually bump into after that. The odds are good most of you have smacked into that ceiling by now. Cracking the damn thing is going to take a lot more than one blog post, but I can give you a bit of advice here to get you started. And that advice is that you can’t sound, look or present like everyone else. The second you do that, what’s the point? You’re just another startup with some dumb corporate looking “me too” blog, you’re just another brand copying someone else’s gimmick, or you’re just running around shouting “me too” in some other way.

So “Don’t do what Donny Don’t Does.” Or if we’re pulling from the ‘90s well of confusing slogans, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.”

The thing that sets people and brands apart are personality, and yes, brands should have personality. Don’t listen to the echo chamber of marketers who are all intent on building upon only what works instead of taking risks and encouraging uniqueness. (See: The ongoing discussion from marketers telling other marketers that the way Wendy handles their Twitter account is bad and you shouldn’t copy it.)

And don’t listen to the risk averse MBA and alleged startup gurus who don’t know how to quantify personality and marketing, and therefore want no part of it. History has proven again and again and again that multi-billion dollar companies, both in and out of tech, become multi-billion dollar companies because of great marketing and great PR. Uber, Amazon, Apple, Airbnb, Snapchat, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Nintendo, all say otherwise, and the list goes on. This “We don’t spend any money on advertising” / “marketing is stupid because we can’t quantify it” thing needs to die. I’m convinced this belief is why so many tech companies and startups tend to wipe out or just get bought by someone else as the end to their run, but again, that’s a different blog post. Maybe even a book. Or maybe a book I ghostwrote that’s coming out soon. Hint hint.

Now let’s say you’re not a company, but a person. What example can I give you? Take a look at Brain Pickings. The website is a masterpiece. But conceptually, few marketers would endorse the idea of a site that analyzes and curates from classical literature and philosophy. “No one has a concentration span for that,” they’d say. Don’t believe me? Just remember that the “conventional wisdom” from marketers is that nobody reads long articles. Or that nobody reads. Wrong.

On Brain Pickings, articles on the website often go way over the standard 500-800 words — The site has a strong following and has received several accolades, including being added to the Library of Congress permanent web archive. It’s decidedly not like anything else on the internet. It’s an honest reflection of the work and evolution of its author Maria Popova. In an interview on the podcast OnBeing, Popova said, the site “is really a record of my becoming who I am. And I started so early in my 20s.”

Only Popova can become who she is, which is why the website has such a fresh voice and feel, and really we are all better off when content is a true reflection of who we are and what we’re becoming. It doesn’t matter if you’re a person or a company. Bland business (and bland marketing) spells death. The content should be emotional and real (which often means NOT SAFE) because anything else is soul-crushing. It doesn’t help the reader, and it’s not elevating the content creators. So what’s the point?

There isn’t one! If you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re wasting your time, and that’s the most valuable resource that you have. So stop doing that and follow Maria’s lead.