Let me start by saying I won’t mention his name. With 25,000 followers on Medium alone, He gets enough pub as it is. You’ve probably seen him in your “Top Stories,” or “Featured Stories,” or “Recommended For You,” or “You Might Also Like.” That’s how I found him. That’s how I found this:
How I Became A Viral Blogger: It’s Not What You Think.
I started blogging in 2014 with the intention of using social media to inspire the world. It took me only three blog…
A growth-hacking entrepreneur and self-help guru — precisely the kind I talk about here — published the story “How I Became A Viral Blogger: It’s Not What You Think” on April 6, 2018. Perhaps you’ve read it. It has 2,300 claps, one could assume that more than a few of you did.
It’s a fine story. In it, the author pens a story of his years spent failing, committing to writing things, failing at that, losing (or almost losing) most of the creature comforts he used to enjoy, failing at romance, living hard, taking unnecessary risks on social media and tuning out distractions before finding accidental success after years of toiling in the trenches. It’s the kind of breezy bootstrappy beauty that, at least on the surface, flies in the face of conventional life-hackery that makes the rounds on this site.
But, I assume you’re not new here, and thousands of posts are published to Medium daily, so it’s entirely possible you’ve read something like this before. Indeed, you probably have. Because I wrote almost this exact essay six weeks ago. Here it is:
I published “How to Gain 5,000 Medium Followers in Less Than A Month” on February 22, 2018. Many of you read that piece; It garnered 9,300 claps and 127 comments.
It’s a fine story. In it, the author pens a story of his years spent failing, committing to writing things, failing at that, losing (or almost losing) most of the creature comforts he used to enjoy, failing at romance, living hard, taking unnecessary risks on social media and tuning out distractions before finding accidental success after years of toiling in the trenches. It’s the kind of br — , no, you know what it is? It’s my life. It’s literally the last 10 years of my life, written in my trademark trailblazing clickbait-and-switch format that’s unexpectedly caught fire on Medium in the past 90 days. No less an authority than the founder of Medium, the Osiris of this shit Ev Williams himself, highlighted it. Which passage? This passage:
Now, I wasn’t going to waste precious pixel space addressing him in print, as I have much better things to waste precious pixel space on, and I prefer to answer bigger questions and confront bigger people. In fact, I very privately tried to get him to apologize, admit or at the very least acknowledge the astonishing ways the two pieces intersect:
The private note went unreplied. Of course, this could be explained away by him not being on the platform in the past four days, but he’s already posted four additional columns since. Or maybe he’s buried under a deluge of private notes and comments, and just hasn’t had time to take a look at it, but that’s not exactly true, either. Not if you do a quick comparison with the number of comments I receive on my pieces — comments that I largely make time to respond to. (Yes, even the private notes. Especially the private notes.)
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that since this platform is so vast that this is all mere coincidence. Now, I’ll outline the reasons it’s entirely possible that the author did not outright copy-paste something elemental my identity into a blank draft, and change just enough of the words around to make it look like something just different enough to be his own creative piece of work. But, also, let’s cover the eerie similarities:
#1 : The Title Formula
Mine: “How to Gain 5,000 Medium Followers in Less Than A Month: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong”
His: “How I Became A Viral Blogger: It’s Not What You Think”
I mean, I guess you could argue that my hyper-specificity and his curiosity-gap vaguery aren’t technically the same, but you’ll see this is a theme that recycles itself throughout the piece.
#2: The Intro Paragraph
“I started 2018 with the intention of growing my Medium followers to 10,000 by the end of the year. It took me less than seven weeks. In this post, I will walk you through how I did it, step by step.”
“I started blogging in 2014 with the intention of using social media to inspire the world. It took me only three blog posts to have my first viral article about how I transformed my life.
I’m going to tell you step-by-step how I became a viral blogger and achieved online success.”
I mean, maybe he did start blogging in 2014 with that mission in mind, and maybe it didn’t take him very long to achieve notoriety, and maybe he really did transform his life. These could happen to anybody. They happened to me. But, even if we unwittingly share a common backstory, it’s a little less possible that we unwittingly share a common sentence structure and setup of it.
#3: The Coincidental Use of Eerily Similar Steps!
Look, this is Medium. Let’s not pretend like nobody’s written a fucking listicle before. They’re the platform’s bed of rice, upon which all the curries, kebobs and arroz con pollo sit. That said, my listicle was satirical. All the steps are terrible and not recommendable to the average human. That’s a little less repeatable.
But, damned if they weren’t repeated. He used steps as subheads (okay, okay, I used a pound-sign before my numbers, and he didn’t, so that’s different). In fact, let’s compare them:
Mine (10 out of my 10): Fail Early, Fail Harder, Lose All Hope and Dignity, Decide This Is How You Want To Make Your Money, Keep Showing Up, Join Medium, Get Really Fucking Lucky, Fail Hardest Ruin Your Career Drink Yourself To Death, Write Your Feelings Even If They’re Mostly Despair Anger Rage Fear Darkness And Apathy, If At First You Don’t Succeed
His (11 out of his 15): Begin With No End In Mind, Fall Flat On Your Face, Refuse To Do Anything Else, Never Give In To the Haters, Keep Going, Post on LinkedIn Despite The Fact That It Could Ruin Your Career, Overcome Mental Health Issues And Talk About It, Succeed With Something That Took 30 Minutes to Produce, Have A High Volume of Failed Romantic Relationships, Release Anger That’s Built Up, Never Give Up
It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, possibly even fact, that this is how his life went. Perhaps we are two kindred souls who became notorious scribes on the same publishing platform out sheer serendipity, and we both walked similar paths to get to the same destination. That would, in fact, make a degree of sense. What also makes a degree of sense? Someone who prides themselves on being a growth-hacking guru analyzed a formula for something that’s already been successful and then mimicked it to a T.
#4: The Content, Tone and Cadence
Start every sentence with a verb. Have someone close to you tell you they like what you say and that you should be a writer. Write for a blog no one remembers. Do it for free. Lose all your material possessions. Work in a call center. Eat shitty food because you’re poor. Write every day. Spend a disproportionate amount of effort trying to find the perfect photo for your posts. Accumulate an extensive back-catalog. Make enemies. Watch nothing pay off for years. Feel like you have nothing to say. Get promoted. Work from home. Get risky on social media. Try to inspire people. Develop mental health issues. Overcome them. Go to therapy. Go through a process of self-discovery. Write about your mental challenges. Go viral with something you didn’t work all that hard on. Meet women who break your heart. Realize you hurt because of something a parental figure did to you years ago. Decide you only want to do something you love, and make sure that something is writing. Sit down. Be humble. String loosely thematically and chronologically-aligned sentences under the same subhead. Fucking cuss where it makes sense. Repeat the command to “keep writing.” Make sure you change it to “keep blogging” so as not to raise suspicions. Draw your audience in with rhythmic prose. Do this ad infinitum. Do this for exactly an “8 min read.” And when you’ve finished with that …
#5: End with “Moral of the Story” but make damn sure it’s not quite the same “Moral.”
Mine: “Moral of the Story: Overnight Successes Don’t Happen Overnight”
His: “Moral of the story: Being a viral blogger is about more than just blogging.”
The sentence-case was a nice touch, too. After his header, he then proceeds to summarize my paragraph that summarizes my story, again:
Mine: “Sweat. Cry. Sacrifice. Suck. Embrace it. Love what you do. Do what you love until people stop asking you to do it. Then, keep doing it anyway. Fail early. Fail often. Fail hard. Fail hardest. Fail. Fail. Fail. Be down and out. Be drunk. Be destitute. Be depressed. Achieve your dreams. Fall in love. Get your heart ripped out. Return better and wiser. Never stop improving. Tell comeback stories. Trust the process. Stop setting goals or giving a shit about success altogether. Be authentically you. Drop eff-bombs if you have to.”
His much neater synopsis: “Through all of the struggles, your blogging career will eventually happen once you find out who you are and the value that you bring to the world. Life experience only makes your blogging better and there’s a story in almost everything that happens to you.”
I mean, I suppose we just happened to have exactly the same ideas, eerily similar life experiences, presented in almost the same way, for exactly the same length, in nearly the same tone, with some of the same words, in a comparable order. This is all still very possible. Medium is a big site, after all, and this fella lives in Australia and probably couldn’t care less about a foulmouthed Texan who’s largely anonymous to anywhere outside the blogging echo chamber.
#6: The closing list inside the list.
- Live a full life.
- Distill that full life into stories worth telling.
- Be prepared to write for nobody for as long as it takes.
- Keep living.
- Keep writing.
- Keep writing for so long that you can’t help but get marginally adequate at it.
- Conquer your nervous breakdowns.
- Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Remember the following from now on:
- Be proud of the struggles
- Never fall for the delusion of overnight success [author’s note: hey! I’ve seen that somewhere already! like in my moral of the story!]
- Focus, succeed and focus again
- Keep blogging and make it a habit
- Don’t ignore everything else that surrounds your blogging like your health and family
Now, surely it’s possible that this fella’s never, ever read the story I wrote six weeks before his.
Surely, it’s also possible that maybe he did read the story I wrote and decided to use it as a template for something he wanted to write. After all, there’s tons of stories that sorta read the same all over this site, and even I have been known to get clickbait-y with my formula.
It’s also possible that maybe he did read the story I wrote, realized it was startlingly similar to something he experienced in his life, and wanted to tell his true, authentic story. He may have been inspired. We’ve all been inspired at some point. And, generally, we give credit to what inspires us, as Kris Gage did when she called me out here:
You’re Not Unmotivated — You’re Afraid
And it’s because you care about others‘ opinions more than yours
(I would be remiss not to mention she inspires me on the regs, and the minute there’s a call-and-response correlation between one of my essays and one of hers, she’ll get shouted out.)
It’s also possible maybe he decided that, after reading my story, realizing it was similar to his life, and feeling inspired to write about his, that he figured the best way to do that would be to crib my writing style, column format, general thesis, tone, setup, structure, bulleted summary, and clickbait-y headline. No shame in that: there’s plenty of cover artists out there. Hell, I’ve played covers in bars on guitar hundreds of times. Just, if you want to put it on record and make money doing it, you gotta pay the royalties. Or, at the very least, give proper credit. You could say, “after reading this piece by John Gorman [EMBEDDED HYPERLINK], I felt compelled to write my own story of heartbreak, failure, and sudden success.” Perfectly fine. Consider it a writing prompt.
Maybe it’s some combination of more than one of those things. I want to believe the best in people. Maybe this is all just one big happy coincidence. So, of course, I asked friends and other Medium writers for a sanity check. I sent the two links — my piece and his — to them with merely the prompt “read these back-to-back.” Some select pieces of feedback I received:
- “Damn, did you call him out?”
- “LMAO wow. Fuck him up.”
- “He followed your same formula for sure. He took your layout and content and updated it with his tone etc.”
- “The flow is similar.”
- “Whoa. Have you reached out to that guy? You know he knows he lifted your shit.”
- “I’m amused to see how this turns out.”
- “It sounds exactly the same!”
- “Yours is 5 million times better. His read like a limp piece of work tbh”
- “They do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You should leave a comment about how flattered you are.”
So I can’t just be sensitive, right? But, then again, these are people who are one way or another in my corner. They probably would provide unsolicited feedback like that without any prompting, after reading both and being able to deduce why I asked them to read both. I would’ve had to have found some kind of evidence that he’s done this before.
Well … remember Kris Gage?
Here’s a post from February 12:
And here’s his post from April 9:
Random Stuff I Love That You’ll Probably Love Too.
It’s easy to focus on all the crap you hate or things that piss you off. Too much of life is spent complaining or…
I mean … they’re not exactly the same, really, at least no more similar that the two pieces we’ve spent the rest of the essay dissecting. He writes every day, and so do we, so it’s entirely possible his mind wanders to the same things other people think about 6–8 weeks later.
And, look, maybe I’m wasting my breath: After all, this isn’t the New York Times, and he has just 25,000 followers, and I’m not really anybody special or worth putting on a pedestal, and maybe I’m wrong, and even if I’m not, it’s not like he wholesale copy-pasted other someone else’s material and hit “publish” without at least moving some shit around and using some words of his own.
But, let’s just say all these things really happened to him, and he really feels these things, and he didn’t read my column, or only coincidentally copied it, or merely used it as a writing prompt, or just so happened to write exactly like me just that one time. There’s plenty of derivative, off-brand writing out there masquerading as the genuine article (no pun intended). Again, that’s all excusable. But is it likely?
How likely is it that someone who credits themselves as being a lifehack machine who’s confessed to experiencing meteoric rise in popularity did it all organically by telling stories that are — in the words of someone who reads him regularly — “just bragging!”
To his credit, he attests to this approach. Deep within the “viral blogger” how-to guide, he unveils his northstar:
“Understand in that moment that imperfection, authenticity and vulnerability are all that matters in blogging”
Authenticity and vulnerability are all that matter. Can’t argue that. In fact, in one of my passages from my piece at around the same point in the narrative, I wrote: “Be authentically you.” It’s true. And, in the comment section of said essay, no fewer than 20 people used the word “real” to describe it (or my writing in general).
So you have to ask yourself, then, if none of the excusable possibilities are true, and the author in question did read what I wrote, and did decide to emulate it in tone, cadence and structure, and did decide to use a lot of the same words, phrases, headers, life events, life lessons, how much does he truly value authenticity? And, without authenticity, how vulnerable could he really be?
Perhaps authenticity and vulnerability are overrated. Perhaps you become a viral blogger by growth-hacking your content with proven tones, cadences, headlines and quips that already worked for other successful writers — but we already have a word for people who do that: and it’s really hard to spell “growth-hacking” without it.