How To Identify An Online Writing Cult
All of the headers in this article were sourced from Cult Research, which seemed to provide a broad overview of cultish behavior based on anecdotal evidence. I am not a researcher of cults, but sometimes evidence presents itself.
Have you ever had a friend who is in the worst relationship you’ve ever seen in your life, but at lunch they wax poetic about all the good things their partner brings to the table? Sometimes there are things only outsiders can see. Because people get too close and can no longer back up far enough to see what’s right in front of their faces.
Have you ever had a friend who is knee-deep in a multi-level marketing scam, but insistent that they are just trying to sell a good product and don’t understand why you don’t want to sell the same product on the side and also name them as your sponsor by calling this number in the next thirty minutes?
From Cult Research, as it relates to the headers I’ve used in this article:
Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale,” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult; this is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.
1. The group displays an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
In an online writing cult, this might look like writers writing articles about the leader, for the leader, or in praise of the entity or publication run by the leader. If the leader is challenged, the underlings may revolt and defend, and write about it, send emails, send private notes and private Instagram messages to those who question said leader.
Excessively zealous in an online writing cult would be characterized by telling friends about how great something is, encouraging them to join, and generally becoming a perpetual evangelist for the leader and the entity in online forums and on social media.
An unquestioning commitment in an online writing cult would be the tell-tale sign of someone lost in the forest who can’t even see the trees. That commitment shows up in obvious signs of cult-like behavior that are rationalized as growth scaling or writer-friendly communities open to all.
2. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.
In an online writing cult, this can be presented as other opportunities to help grow the entity when it is really part of the multi-level marketing strategy. As in, you should all make a post on Instagram about me or us. As in, you should be interviewed for our YouTube channel. You should all help the entity in its growth out of the goodness of your heart.
In an online writing cult, it’s not that there is a mandate, but your “success” in the group is always tied to how much you are willing to do for the group for free. How much you are willing to share their message with more people. As in, you get out what you put in, and then we all “succeed” together, with the same message, about ourselves and about the entity.
3. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (e.g., the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar — or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
In an online writing cult, this can take the shape of excessive articles about numbers, metrics, curation, growth, and status of the entity. The cult is always seen, in print, thanking the leader for all of their hard work and dedication over and over again.
You will see stories like Amway is #1 Again! or We Just Reached 25,000 Fans or We Are Doing What No One Else Can. You get the picture. Actually, you’ve probably seen the picture. You will see the entity talk repeatedly about itself in the third person as if that wasn’t the most circular and biased thing to do on the face of the earth.
In an online writing cult you will see article after story after article after story with the name of the entity of publication in the title or subtitle and also featured in all prominent positions on the entity’s homepage. It’s also quite common for an online writing cult to chastise all publications that don’t allow all members in as elitist. Reverse elitism at its finest.
4. The leader is not accountable to any authorities.
Leaders of online writing cults know that the effective policing of websites, as it relates to the terms and conditions and the rules and regulations, are widely unenforced. So, even though the leader is aware that spamming and creating groups to bolster their own metrics is against the terms of service, they also know it is not something that most websites or larger businesses have the time to prosecute or even worry about.
By creating an intentional, but scattered hierarchy, the leader tries to reduce the amount of blowback on themselves by having so many other people do things for them, thereby leaving them less accountable when the cards fall.
5. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.
In an online writing cult, previously ethical members tend to get lost in the cycle of multi-level marketing and decide that the numerical growth is more important than the means by which the entity gets there.
This may result in spam sham behavior which includes, but is not limited to:
- excessively and perpetually tagging other writers in posts to get them to read and share and cheer and back pat
- creating subgroups on Facebook, Twitter, and Slack with the sole intention of spamming their own work
- flooding other publications with submission requests based on the false prophecy that everyone should be allowed to write everywhere
- clapping, scrolling, and sharing with no discretion, as long as the writer is part of the same entity
- redirecting a complete lack of curatorial integrity into inclusiveness
- hatching plans behind the scenes that focus on numerical growth first and quality second (or third, or fourth, or not at all)
The group becomes almost irreverent with their “success” and loses all sight of how they got there, ignoring the same behavior that they used to know did not justify the “reward”.
6. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
This is the ultimate goal of the online writing cult because in multi-level marketing funnels your job, as the middle person, is to bring more people into the funnel at the bottom because as you do, you rise higher to the top of the pyramid (scheme).
In addition to the leader repeatedly touting the numbers and followers and reach, the members also start to write and share metric-based alarms as if quantity was better than quality in a writing group.
In private groups, members and leadership are always working on a way to pull people in from another channel or a way to use a different platform to get, you know, more exposure for the writers.
7. The group is preoccupied with making money.
You know an online writing cult when you see it because they will leave comments in your stories that say things like, “we do this for the money,” forgetting that virtually no writers in the history of the world ever earn a cent from their writing and that most people do it because they have to (meaning being compelled creatively, not for work).
Even when the online writing group talks about how well they are doing, they really mean how much money they are making through the complicated Ponzi scheme of MLM and shamanistic overlording.
Courtesy of Investopedia:
“A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investing scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors. The Ponzi scheme generates returns for early investors by acquiring new investors. This is similar to a pyramid scheme in that both are based on using new investors’ funds to pay the earlier backers.
Both Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes eventually bottom out when the flood of new investors dries up and there isn’t enough money to go around. At that point, the schemes unravel.”
8. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
In an online writing group, work for free is synonymous with help the entity grow to its potential and reach as many “fans” as possible. Members often find themselves spending ludicrous amounts of time writing about the entity and other members of the entity and then lose focus on their own writing.
Members who don’t consistently fluff the entity with warm wishes, social media shares, and gentle petting fall lower on the pyramid and become less valuable to the leader. This is the point where the member may start to see the light.
The Things Only Outsiders Can See
Almost everyone who has ever been in a real cult will tell you that they didn’t think that they were in a cult at the time. When you transfer that to an online writing cult, the obliviousness is magnified because there is no real danger in being in the cult, other than reputational.
The online writing cult convinces its writers that they are always looking out for the best interests by doing whatever is necessary to assure more numbers come their way. What the online writing cult forgets to mention is that those numbers and fans and metrics are all fake. Results created by multi-level marketing ploys always fall in on themselves.
Outsiders see it, plain as day. They talk about it in non-cult writing groups and try to give the leader and their people the benefit of the doubt. But the entity makes it impossible to keep that up because the spam sham never, ever stops. It’s the hamster on the wheel for six consecutive months who doesn’t even realize there is a wheel anymore. The hamster can’t see what we can from the outside of their cage.
What we see when we identify an online writing cult is a swath of creatives hoping to get noticed who all bought in on a plan to do just that. But what none of them realize is that the plan goes against all realistic creative earmarks of success.
The member of an online writing cult is convinced that their following, both on their own and collectively, actually means something to people outside of that tiny bubble. I hope someone on the outside lets them know that it doesn’t. I hope they listen, someday.
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