What happened to breadth, versatility and universality?
There is nothing eyebrow-raising in the fact that Béla Bartók wrote ballets, dissonant string quartets and pretty piano pieces, that Beethoven wrote symphonies, piano sonatas and folk song arrangements, that Goethe wrote tragic plays, lyric poems plus a weighty Theory of Colours. Some classical composers admittedly specialized; Chopin composed almost only piano music, Wagner only overlong operas.
But generally it was very normal for artists not to work in a niche, a specialized market, but to do most everything. The fact that composers once upon a time were performing musicians (often virtuosos), teachers, conductors, music critics and even impresarios was nothing strange.
Esther Vilar has some harsh words to say about specializing and limiting yourself — especially if you are a man. In the name of recognizability, I suspect — photographers often do this same self-limiting act, i.e. taking images that are so alike in style that one immediately recognizes their originator.
Where did surprise, novelty and some healthy hide and seek go in all this niche-thinking?
I am sure some photographers do this for honest reasons; this is what they like or do, who they “are”. But I suspect many others bow to the god, I mean goddess, of Praise.
“Take a man like Samuel Beckett. For twenty years he has produced a
series of Godot replicas – and surely not for pleasure. After all, he is an intelligent man. He avoids risk the way an alcoholic avoids a cure. Yet if only he could free himself from his conditioned behavior, he would probably do something quite different. Perhaps he might design planes – the reliable construction of his plays hints at a scientific talent – or grow rare plants. He might even, perhaps, just once, write a comedy. Surely so much success is bound to drive away the depths of despair. It might even turn out to he a success with the public. But no, the risk is too great for a carefully manipulated man. Better go on writing plays about the absurdity of the vital instinct – then, at least, he can be certain of praise.“
Ah, but we have so many fine words for this predictably conditioned behavior. We call it consistency, integrity, being firm and uncompromising. It may even bring us a Nobel Price.
Specialization and niche thinking got even worse with the Internet. Now we are told that if we want our website to be successful — and what is our success? The same as the success of a store-owner or a used car salesman: many visitors / clients /buyers — we must create a niche website. We must think narrow and narrow down our product to fit the imagined niche audience.
This is fine for certain purposes. My site Provsjungning.se is very niched, and straightforward; it addresses singers who want to do better auditions. The site is also trying to sell a book, so the visitor IS a potential buyer.
But my new site, the one you are reading right now, it not niche. I usually say it´s about philosophy, music and photography, but really it is about most anything. And philosophy, music and photography is already very much. This, according to current SEO (search engine optimization)-thinking, is a problem and a difficulty, since I am not targeting my niche audience.
But what if the SEO-thinking is the real problem? (I am not talking about business sites now, but private sites like this one.) What is SEO-thinking? What likes behind it, really? And how deep are we prepared to gaze into the well of our psyche when trying to answer those questions?
“Once a particular field of work has brought a man success and financial security, it is rare for him to test his abilities in another sphere, attempting to satisfy his curiosity. His supply of praise may be dangerously reduced. Like Miro with his dots-and-lines technique, Johann Strauss with his waltzes, and Tennessee Williams with his plays about psychotic women, he will stick firmly to his successful technique. The risk of attempting to be the measure of his own success is too great for him to take.”
(Both quotes from “The manipulated man”)
As a parenthesis, I´ve always wondered myself what would happen if somebody like Tom Waits woke up one morning and his voice was, lo and behold, pure and clear as a newly washed window? Would he sing Gounod´s Ave Maria, or drink a whiskey and have a smoke to get back into /out of form?
So — “success” seems to be not just a question of the number of visitors. Deep down it seems to be a question of acceptance and praise. And mainly from women, according to Vilar.
Ah, the things we do for love, the things we do for praise, we manipulated men!
Two things stand out from those Vilar quotes. First, if we go where our fancy leads us and not where we have found earlier success, our supply of praise may be dangerously reduced.
Secondly Vilar gives us, especially men, a desideratum to aim at: to be the measure of our own success. I decide what my success is, not the “world”, not my friends, sweetheart or admirers. Not women.
Trying to understand the SEO-impulse in depth, we can turn to the old adage “cherchez la femme”. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) = Mommy Engine Optimization (MEO)?
A fitting soundtrack can be the symphonic sketch “La Mere”.
Postscript January 28.
I find it both funny and somehow comforting that after I posted a link to this text on Twitter, somebody added me to a list of “SEO-experts”. (I see myself more as a MEO-explorer.)