“If you die and go to Heaven, thousands of people up there will be better than you at anything you try. Think your life down here is depressing? My friend, you have no idea.” – The Parking Lot is Full

I take a moment to read one of a few web serials that I really like, and sort of despair that I could ever produce something as good. I play Cave Story, or something from Touhou – both one-man affairs – and realize that some people are just more awesome than me. Watch Lindsey Stirling’s fantastic Legend of Zelda medley? Same deal. In fact virtually every creative endeavor I pay more than passing attention to is way the hell above and beyond what I’m capable of.

My brother once commented – while adding that he felt like an asshole saying it – that he and I tend to get good at anything we tackle pretty quickly. He was right. Mere competence is usually well within my grasp, and I suppose I should be grateful for that. But it often doesn’t feel that way, because I can always jump online and find people who are so much better at anything I try that I feel embarrassed to invite the comparison.

Today that thought crashed into a remembered quote from PLIF, shown above, and I thought: Of course there are, because The Internet. It would be surprising indeed if the worldwide best creator of X was not at least three levels above me, for any given X. Today, the relevant group from which the best are pulled isn’t one’s local social group; it’s everybody. The quote’s scenario has already happened.

On the Internet, no user ever needs to settle for second best. So everyone goes for the best, or at least the most popular. For users, that’s a good thing, because today they have easier access to better stuff. For grandmasters, it’s also a good thing; they get more readers/viewers/listeners/whatever. For non-grandmaster creators – the modern, generalized equivalent of midlist authors – maybe not so much?

Reaching your users is easier than ever. Getting their attention is exactly the opposite, because your competition is the best in the world. Do these two factors cancel out, or does one dominate? Information consumption has become more rewarding simply because that which is easily available to consume is better. But creation may be ruled even more by a power law than it already was. It may be less rewarding, if not on average, then on median.

There are a few ways that proposition might be wrong. It assumes that acquiring readers is a zero sum game, that the gain at the top is offset by loss further down the ladder. If creation is a positive sum game instead, then we could see people read or look at art or play games more. It seems to me that question depends on whether artistic creation behaves like a saturated market. If people are already consuming as much artistic Stuff as they’re going to, then you have a zero sum game for creators; otherwise not.

Let’s assume it’s really zero-sum. There might be a couple ways for a non-grandmaster to still make headway. One way is to serve a niche. I write fanfiction for old video games. That is a niche. A smaller pond leaves a better chance to be a bigger fish. And…actually that’s the only thing I can think of at the moment. Hrm.

Obvious objection #1: It’s not like there’s a limit to the amount of art in the world. Someone else having access to a wider audience doesn’t limit what you can do. I answer: Of course not, but there’s a limit to the number of art-appreciators in the world and the time they’re willing to dedicate to it. If they’re all sharing more and more of the same stuff, then they will have fewer hours to split among the midlist, and the midlist will grow proportionally as the group at the top gets smaller. More eyes focused on fewer things.

Obvious objection #2: You don’t even write for pay. Why do you care? You don’t have to try to compete, because you’re not making your living that way. I answer: I don’t know about you, but I mostly write to be read. I don’t need a huge fanbase but I do want enough readers to have a conversation with.

I should fix that and then check back on this subject.