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Ad crunch epiphany: What I have learned during coronavirus lockdown

In recent times, it has become popular to analyse what we have learned during the coronavirus pandemic. News programmes run endless segments about personal growth. Radio stations host debates about startling realisations. Every day, we are bombarded with phrases like new normal, unprecedented times and when this is all over. The world is keen to measure the efficiency of its own enforced hiatus.

What have I learned in lockdown? Well, more than anything, I’m finally coming to terms with just how ill I was through most of 2019. Even while writing and speaking about my recovery from periods of mental ill health, I was nowhere near as close to cured as the narrative suggests. In fact, I never reached psychological equilibrium. I merely replaced old issues with new ones, shifting from one extreme to the other.

My battles with mental ill health

In 2018, I was racked by depression, cyclic vomiting syndrome and suicidal ideation. For years prior to that, I was ravaged by shyness, introversion and pervasive low-level anxiety. Through a mixture of medication, therapy and making essential life changes, I pulled through those competing illnesses in early-2019. That is when another condition took over my life and dragged it into a sickening vortex. That is when obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) ate at my soul. 

Attempting to dissect nature versus nurture with regard to mental ill health is notoriously frustrating. Some say we are born with certain predispositions, receiving a dubious genetic lottery ticket without prejudice. Others believe psychological disorder is but an outgrowth of our circumstances, personality traits morphing and mutating with pressure from environmental factors. It is plausible to respect both perspectives, and a hybrid of the two is likely responsible for the development of long-term problems. 

In this regard, you could say I have always had OCD. You could also say it has developed over time, worsening with the proliferation of other experience-based maladies. I have always been preoccupied with words, strategies, ideas, plans, schemes and roadmaps. As a kid, that was kinda cute, manifesting itself in collections of autographs and scribbling my own name on the back of Tranmere matchday programmes. As an adult, though, the stakes are a lot higher, and the fallout is often a lot grimmer.

My mental breakdown throughout 2018 was exacerbated by unsupported exposure to workplace stress and the excesses of capitalism. In 2019, after transitioning from that autocratic world, I thought things were better. I thought I was better. In fact, I was living through a crippling overcorrection that drove me crazy in other ways. I rebelled against the machine, but the machine kicked back a lot fucking harder.

The problem with influencers and OCD

From February 2019 through to early winter of the same year, I became vaguely obsessed with the idea of working from home in a desperate plea for independence. I discovered cyberspace clerics like Gary Vaynerchuk and Darren Rowse, energetic disciples of self-employed expressionism. Turn your passion into your job, they chanted repeatedly. Make passive income using your phone. It was heroin to an iconoclastic obsessive-compulsive like me.

I listened to every ProBlogger podcast. I watched every Gary Vee vlog. I put their tips into action, dedicating hours to my side hustles in the lonely gloom. Every day, there was something new to discover, master and weave into the fabric of my hair-brained strategy. First, it was search engine optimisation (SEO). Then, it was selling t-shirts online. Later, I explored the murky world of social media branding, listicles, affiliate marketing and selling your soul on Fiverr. None of it worked. None of it.

Looking back, I do not know how people lived with me during that time. I must have been insufferable. So many grand ideas spewed from my mouth, but inside I was dying. Again. A new kind of death, this time, but death nonetheless. I’m so thankful that loved ones are able to identify and tolerate my psychological downturns. Without their unwavering support, I would be totally lost.

I do not blame the influencers for this. Vaynerchuk, Rowse and the entire roster of talking heads promulgate their message, and we choose whether to act on it. All inherent responsibilities therefrom belong to us, not them. We have to exercise caution. However, public figures in such powerful roles must also be mindful of how their spiel can impact impressionable people with mental health disorders. One size does not fit all, and a more nuanced approach to personal development is encouraged.

The dangerous symbiosis of coronavirus and capitalism

Gradually, I saw the errors of my ways. Perhaps it was the crowded whiteboard in my office, screaming messages of inadequacy. Perhaps it was my chronic failure to sell Planet Prentonia merchandise. Perhaps it was something more human, like the realisation that my weekends were suddenly consumed by bullshit. But whatever the driving force, I had a timely awakening just before Christmas last year. Something just clicked, and I began seeing writing as a beautiful hobby again, rather than a reverse-engineered method of extracting profit.

In the ensuing months, I have tried to live by that edict, and happiness has been much more plentiful. I made key decisions true to my soul, such as scrapping my affiliate marketing accounts and deleting a bunch of webpages that were fashioned with the wrong intentions. Everything happens for a reason, and those decisions were validated and underscored as correct - at least in my mind – by the pernicious pandemic we are currently enduring. 

The coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the flawed economic models that rule our modern world. Once again, the whole globe was overleveraged and underprepared. Capitalism seems oblivious to its own fallibilities, always expecting the same relentless level of production. We lurch from one bubble to another, relying on credit in unsustainable ways, adhering to ridiculous conceits that are inevitably exposed, and ignoring our own intuitions that such behaviours are crazy. If we all pretend our monopoly game will never be interrupted, perhaps it actually won’t.

How the coronavirus ad crunch is hurting sports journalism

I came dangerously close to joining that rat race when attempting to turn my passion into my job. You see, to an overwhelming degree, the world of contemporary sportswriting revolves around a fatally flawed business model: total surrender to advertising dollars, accessed via clicks, facilitated by traffic. Insiders have questioned the viability of such a concept for years, but when an international virus comes along, forces the world into lockdown and stops the capitalist treadmill, victims are quickly strewn across the internet.

Right now, my beloved world of sports media is trapped in chaos. Specifically, my niche specialism of baseball writing is suffering a period of trauma unlike any in my lifetime. With mass unemployment, widespread lockdowns and extensive furloughing of staff, the US economy has flatlined. In turn, budgets have been cut, with marketing and advertising being especially hard hit. Affiliate bonus rates have been slashed, while the overall number of potential ads to display on websites has also diminished. Throw in the fact that almost every sports league in the world is currently suspended, creating a lack of news about which to produce content – and, well, there is a perfect storm whirling through the industry.

This problem is affecting traditional legacy media and new-age websites alike. Newspapers have laid off beat reports and columnists, while large online conglomerates such as SB Nation have furloughed vast swathes of their workforce. Great independent guys like Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation have seen a 65% decline in traffic and, by extension, a precipitous fall in revenue, conjuring a bleak landscape with little sign of immediate sustenance.

It sucks that, when this pandemic ends, some truly excellent writers will no longer have the jobs they adore. These guys have worked so hard and been far more consistent than me. They have made it work, while I have routinely failed to monetise my dream. I’m now at peace with that notion, but I know how hellish it can be while ensconced in that myopic bubble. I wish these people well and hope they can pull through.

Still, I’m struck by just how fortunate I have been. Make no mistake, I dodged a massive bullet by nixing plans to become a professional blogger in favour of embracing my stable, full-time employment elsewhere. I have discovered newfound levels of gratitude for the things I do have, rather than focusing on what I want next.

The sportswriting ad crunch has taught me a lot and reinforced many of my values. Firstly, the capitalist model of professional blogging is insecure and should be avoided at all costs by people who share my personality and my mental disorders. Relying on website clicks to put food on your table now seems absurd to me, when those clicks can so easily be denied by forces outside your control.

Similarly, I have learned that sports do not really matter so much in the first place. Now, do not get me wrong – I have not become soppy about the moral bankruptcy of footballers earning millions each month while the NHS struggles to find protective gowns. I would still hurdle the advertising board to celebrate a last-gasp Corey Blackett-Taylor winner at Shrewsbury. I have not gone totally mad.

However, we do ascribe inflated meaning to sports, and they occupy an artificial space in our hierarchy of concerns. For instance, the idea of playing Premier League games behind closed doors, without fans, merely to capitalise on television revenue, is abhorrent. Really? Can we not get our shit together for once?

Finally, I have been reminded that, as far as reasonably practicable, we should avoid becoming indebted to external forces, schemes, programmes and concepts to modify and sustain our existence. Whether it be website traffic, advertising clicks, ecommerce sales or relying on a physical office, we need to take back control of our own lives. You see, in the end, a self-employed blogger is not self-employed at all. He or she just works for search engines and consumer personas. Slavishly chasing money strips any semblance of independence from a project.

Accordingly, turning your passion into your job actually makes you less independent, not more so. As soon as you introduce money into the equation, all power falls from your hands into those of faceless, nameless potential customers. Once that happens, it is impossible to claw back any sense of enjoyment because life becomes an exercise in merely trying to survive.

Just as capitalism is fuelled by anxiety, business is driven by the manipulation of truth. At its core, marketing is a relentless attempt to convince people about the virtues of a certain product, project, ideal or brand. Consciously or otherwise, convincing anybody of anything relies on deception, subversion of fact, airbrushing of perception and outright lies as tools of progress. Those techniques are intrinsically linked to insecurity and narcissism, which often trigger anxiety, which in turn is the root of psychological meltdown. In a capitalist context, turning your passion into your job actually turns your passion into your nightmare.

The quarantine memoirs of a failed perfectionist

Around this time last year, mired in the bog of OCD, I listened to an episode of the ProBlogger podcast in which Rowse explained SEO audits and the process of revitalising your website archives. There is gold in your archives, Rowse said. And, just like that, I was off down another rabbit hole.

I listed every historic blog article on my website – all 217 of them. I then vowed to revisit every single one, stretching back more than eight years in parts, to enrich the content for SEO purposes. New formatting, new subheadings, new keyword targeting, new photographs, new metadata, new everything. That project quickly destroyed me, and it took me a year to unstick the psychological mess that ensued.

It was only yesterday that the penny finally dropped and I retired the ridiculous scheme forever. It took me 12 months to overcome the fear of not finishing something. That whole time, the SEO audit was stuck in the back of my mind, jabbering and stammering. My entire life was on hold until I finally finished polishing all of the old blog posts. A dark cloud covered my existence, but few understood.

As with most problems, I literally sat down with a notebook and worked through the trauma. I analysed the original purpose of enriching my archives for search engines: to get more traffic, and thus to drive more revenue from affiliate marketing and ecommerce sales. Following the trail, I challenged my own misconceptions. If I was no longer motivated by money, seeing it as a pawn of capitalist dissatisfaction, then my SEO audit was redundant. If I no longer cared about the opinions of other people, then fine-tuning articles from 2015 was a waste of time. If I no longer believed in the politics of my original decision, then admitting that change was a brave achievement.

I’m a socialist. I’m a libertarian. I’m a writer. Sure, I want my website to leave a good first impression, but airbrushing historical articles for financial gain is ludicrous. Revisionism is a sign of insecurity, whereas imperfection is a hallmark of beauty. There is more socialist artistry in embracing teenage typos than in rewriting prose to earn 56p from an Amazon Associates link. There is less stress and more freedom in the former, too. Therefore, I have been released from my own toxic drive for perfection.

In recent months, I have not published much new content. Why? Well, because I was focusing on the damn SEO audit, in truth. In my obsessive-compulsive mind, I felt unable to write anything new before all of my earlier blogs were improved and purified. For a natural-born writer, that is bonkers. Utterly bonkers. But such is life amid the contradictory cesspit of OCD.

Thankfully, I came to my senses in the end. Fortunately, I always seem to do so. Often, it just takes time to make sense in my head. Loved ones coach me on these things, offering logical advice, but sometimes it takes months or years to seep in and make sense. Sometimes, I have to figure things out by failing and melting down.

Coming to terms with mild PTSD

During the coronavirus lockdown, with more time to think, I’m becoming aware of the tics, mannerisms, obsessions and obligations that have been subsumed into my unhealthy daily routine over the past year. It has been a daunting, somewhat embarrassing realisation. I cannot believe some of the projects I attempted during 2019. I was unbearable, man.

At risk of straying into hypochondria, I have recently contemplated the mechanics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some of the characteristic symptoms are compatible with my quarantine ennui. While I’m unlikely to be formally diagnosed with PTSD, very mild elements of the disorder are present in my personality.

Since 2017, I have never given myself genuine time to recover from the myriad problems that have been diagnosed. I responded to the agony of workplace stress by pursuing self-employed stress. I’m still haunted by some of the moronic campaigns I embarked on during that period, and it will take time to vanquish the memories.

Democratic socialism in the post-coronavirus age

Paradoxically, during quarantine I have also learned the importance of supporting quality independent ventures in their fight against the corporate elite. In the world of journalism, for instance, I’m now far more likely to take out paid subscriptions to quality publications, helping sustain them away from the ad crunch hysteria.

If you genuinely like the work that somebody does, seek out their Patreon or buy something from their store. Embrace paywalls if they allow publishers to negate egregious advertising overdrive. Rather than wringing our hands and signalling our virtues, let us take real, tangible actions towards changing this world and streamlining its economic algorithms.

Indeed, if you associate with any of the thoughts, feelings or sentiments captured in this blog, please take some time to study Bernie Sanders and the democratic socialist movement in America. I have taken a keen interest in politics from an early age, but my beliefs have been turbocharged in adulthood, especially during lockdown.

Right now, we cannot escape the fact that, while capitalism did not necessarily cause COVID-19, its thorough mishandling of human priorities certainly contributed to our lack of preparedness for such a pandemic and compounded the consequences thereof.

As we return to our regurgitated discussions of altered futures and new ways of working, then, let us put genuine change on the agenda. Let us put people before profit, and let us create cultural infrastructures that allow creative people to express their talents without capitulating to the degrading mores of capitalism.

We can extract positive transformations from our current global pause, and we cannot go back to the same old systems. I’m ready to fight for a more compassionate future. Together, we can make the world work for us, rather than the other way around.

🌹🌹🌹

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