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The Freedom-Specificity Tradeoff

6 minutes read

A theory of branding for internet writers.

When it comes to internet writing, a highly specific brand will grow faster than a vague or mysterious brand.

However, the more specific your brand, the less freedom you'll have. This is nearly tautological, but it's worth exploring because there are many non-obvious implications.

The way that brands on the internet grow is by offering some thing, thereby attracting the people who like that thing; and then delivering that thing, over and over again.

The more specific your brand, the more narrow will be the selection effect that your content has on the pool of people who subscribe. This requires you to continue delivering content that conforms to the specific brand in order to resonate with your subscribers, but it also means a higher percentage of your subscribers will like any given piece. They will also like it more passionately and share it more fervently. You know exactly what they want, so you can give them exactly what they want, and you can do it with industrial efficiency. On many social platforms, the specificity advantage is probably multiplied by algorithmic knock-on effects, if high-engagement content triggers additional algorithmic pushes, as is likely.

The easiest way to see how this works is to look at what I call "concept accounts" on Twitter. There are many accounts that gain +100k followers by posting extremely specific content. Examples:

One can also observe the specificity advantage with writers as well.

Consider David Perell. David understands the internet game as well as anyone I've ever met, and he's done a masterful job building a clear and specific brand. He tweets about writing, writes essays about writing, and teaches writing. He also writes about larger ideas, but his public-facing brand is ruthlessly specific and all of his internet properties are aligned accordingly. This is one reason he's on a runaway growth curve. As "the writing guy" on Twitter, he's got a cool 318k followers, and his latest tweets gain about 54 followers per tweet.

The payoff to specificity is tremendous, but there is a cost. The cost of specificity is that you really can't go outside of your box. Well, you can, but when you do leave your box, your punishment will be much greater than it would be with a less specific brand, in terms of negative responses, subscriber loss, and (if you're monetized) revenue. The punishment for deviation is greater than it would be otherwise for the same reason growth is faster than it would be otherwise: Everyone subscribed for one precise thing, deviations from that one thing are more likely to be noticed and they're more likely to offend expectations.

I often find myself envious of faster-growing writers, but then I remember the freedom-specificity tradeoff. I always catch myself thinking... "Maybe Other Life should be strictly about [insert one of my top interests you'll find in these pages]." But that would never work for my personality. I've opted for a more open and mysterious branding because, given my psychological constitution, it's the only way I can imagine myself still publishing vigorously in 20 years. If you aspire to greatness, you better have a way of working you can sustain for 20 years, or else you need a rocketship that will get you there before you burnout.

The key is to understand that specificity trades off against freedom, and then to consciously choose for yourself a location that best suits your personality and temperament. For instance, some people feel oppressed by too much freedom and they can't be productive because they get overwhelmed thinking about all their options. Some people feel oppressed by committing to a narrow brand, and they can't be productive because they just can't stay on brand. You have to know yourself and position your brand and strategy accordingly.

Personality and Preferences

Writers navigating the freedom-specificity tradeoff may find a useful heuristic in the form of indifference curves. An indifference curve just reflects a line along which someone is equally happy, for different combinations of two goods. Every person has a "budget" of time, let's say, which they can "consume" on specificity (call it x1) or freedom (call it x2). I'm glossing over some things, of course. The curves illustrate the intuition that for any amount of specificity, someone could theoretically give you some amount of freedom (reducing your specificity) that would leave you equally happy (or productive, or successful, whatever) as you are with your current level of specificity.

Example indifference curves

Thinking in terms of indifference curves, there are a few observations we might make.

The first is that you always want to be on the right-most curve that intersects with your budget (labeled the "optimal choice"). The right-most curve that doesn't intersect with your budget is a fantasy, you'll never operate there. The left-most curve that intersects with your budget only at high levels of one or the other good—you don't want to operate there either. Why? Diminishing marginal utility, i.e. additional units of anything are decreasingly valuable. The quotidian takeaway on this point would be that you want to find the right "balance."

The next question you should consider is the shape of your indifference curve, given your unique temperament. How much satisfaction and motivation do you take from audience growth, relative to the satisfaction and motivation you take from freely tilling the wilds of your mind?

If you're the type of person who is extremely energized by external appreciation and numerical growth, your indifference curves would be shaped differently than how they are depicted above (you would need to see tremendous creativity benefits from freedom to justify reducing the specificity of your brand).

If you have my kind of anarchistic temperament and you're most productive with a wide degree of liberty, then you should mentally redraw the curves above such that you'd need to see a massive growth benefit from specificity to reduce your freedom.

Longevity

Assuming equal levels of quality, you can probably grow an equally large audience on the back of specificity or freedom, the key difference is how long it will take. Specificity lets you grow fast, with the caveat that you'll probably tap out when you're sick of the box you've built for yourself. Freedom buys you longevity and lets you play a longer game, with the caveat that you better have an authentic calling that will really last you a lifetime.

You probably won't want to post 10 pictures of dystopian architecture to Twitter every day for 30 years in a row. If you maintain a newsletter that promises nothing in particular, however, you could very well publish a newsletter consistently over 10-30 years, so long as you're interested in something, anything, at any given time.

I tend to believe that opting for freedom and working consistently for 10-30 years may unlock a certain kind of qualitatively distinct power level. I'm not so sure about this, I'm only hypothesizing, but this is how I tend to read someone like Joe Rogan, who managed to build a large audience over many years despite low specificity. For many years he talked about whatever he felt like; he always had core interests but he had several of them, and together they were a fairly random hodgepodge. But thanks to this freedom he was able to publish aggressively over a very long period of time, such that he did not merely catch up to more specific, faster-growing podcast brands but rather surpassed them. His freedom and personality eventually became a unique differentiator and moat such that, when he did eventually hit escape velocity, his ceiling was higher than normal.

Perhaps the early part of the growth curve for specificity is steeper, and more reliable, but tops out faster. Whereas the growth curve for freedom has a long, slowly rising section at the beginning—where a lot of people give up—but then it gives way to an even steeper curve with a higher upper bound.

Thanks to everyone in the April-June cohort of IndieThinkers for inspiring this post. If you're thinking about these kinds of things for your own project, you might consider joining the next cohort.

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