On Being a Creator | My Random Musings On the Last 8 Years

The village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture during autumn when the fall foliage is at its peak.

Whelp… another 365 days have passed. It’s hard to believe that I am now already 38! Where the hell did the time go? Despite traveling 3–4 days out of every week, I’ve barely made a dent in my ever-growing bucket list. What’s more, I am now so inundated with offers (both as a freelance media buyer and as a creator) that I basically live on the constant edge of burnout. Still, looking back at my path and where it’s taken me in the tireless service of Japan, I don’t think that I’d trade it for anything.

For what it’s worth, many moons ago on my 30th birthday I made the decision to become an “influencer.” At the time, I had just launched Spotify into the Japanese market, an ordeal that I barely survived due to the crazy workload involved. My team and I oversaw the big press announcement and also developed all the marketing positioning and messaging that the streaming service would use going forward. It was an arduous task, but one that I am still quite proud of. Unfortunately, client case studies aren’t just something that you can print on the back of a hoodie.

Once I had caught up on sleep, the massive undertaking of the Spotify launch got the gears in my head turning. Wanting to showcase to the world what I knew about marketing, I settled on the idea of putting out content as a means of building my personal brand. As I’ve written elsewhere before, my original plan was to become yet another online marketing guru. You see, there is a dearth of information online about the media landscape in Japan and I reasoned that I could develop my reputation by shining a light into this black abyss.

Osaka Castle set against the backdrop of the fall foliage at sunset

Almost from the outset, though, I knew something was off with my ploy to become a publicly known marketing maverick and quickly pivoted to something else. At the time, I had just exited being the de facto CMO of my friend’s Airbnb empire in Osaka. Looking to develop a standalone identity for the 500+ listings, we envisioned what we called the Mia Project — an online concierge that would bridge the divide between known and unknown, thereby connecting people to the wonders of Japan that they would never have otherwise known.

While the Mia Project never got off the ground (long story short, my friend never should have gone into business with his ex-wife), the idea of funneling more people away from Kyoto and towards Japan’s hidden gems really stuck with me. You could say it was the unique problem that the universe had given me to solve. Realizing that the world didn’t really need another guru talking about social media on social media, I made the conscious choice to instead showcase what I knew about digital marketing by promoting the places in Japan that couldn’t do it themselves.

In the years since setting my sights on becoming a creator, I’ve grown to be one of the top “influencers” in the Japan travel space (for what it’s worth, I loath the term influencer and never use it to describe myself). Thanks to the audience that I’ve amassed both here on this blog and on social media, I’ve had the privilege to partner with local governments to promote what their destinations have to offer. Additionally, I’ve been able to show off my following to prospective freelance clients as a way of sealing the deal.

Contemplating Content

A kimono-clad woman walks through a corridor of trees during autumn

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking of what a “post-creator” life might look like. While I never want to stop writing on this blog and helping travelers discover places they would have never otherwise known about, I am growing tired of the social media hamster wheel. Especially when it comes to Instagram, it often feels like the only reason that I post these days is that it is the channel that most people want to partner with me for. What’s more, the #GramGrind seems like little more than a distraction from what matters most — long-form writing.

For those of you following along at home who have no clue about what I’m talking about, know that Instagram has largely been in a death spiral for the past few years. Unable to properly compete with TikTok, the app’s management has thrown just about everything at the wall and has largely ruined what the platform once was. From Instagram Reels to Threads, the result of their tinkering is a chimeric monster that does nothing well despite being a little bit of everything.

Of course, this situation is only further exacerbated by the shift in social media away from a relational platform. In the days of yore, people used to actually see content from creators they elected to follow and post propagated through the network via what’s known as the social graph. As a result of TikTok’s meteoric success though, this is no longer the case for most social media platforms out there. In place of the old model is a system where AI and machine learning dictate what is seen.

A cold-looking Mt. Fuji on a chilly morning in early winter.

In one sense, you could compare the cold reality of social media these days to the hopeless situation on dating apps. Each bit of content exists in a endless stream of similar posts, entirely divorced from the hardworking creator who made it. Moreover, just as with Tinder and its ilk, something potentially “better” is just a mere swipe away. This gives rise to an experience whereby most people are just mindlessly scrolling and letting the machine feed them things that have been curated for their individual interests.

Often times, creating content for social media these days feels like taking a megaphone and shouting out into the void in the hopes that someone hears it. With the interpersonal bonds that once controlled what gets seen now essentially meaningless, all of the platforms that matter are converging on a dystopian view of social media. More and more, it doesn’t matter who made the content, only that it matched the disposition of someone in a 20-minute long doom scroll. 

The War Against the Machine

The algorithmic overloads of Instagram contemplate how much reach a post should get

Personally, my way of fighting back against this machine has been to pay for distribution with social media advertising. Rather than put all this effort into a piece of content and then hope that the organic algorithm treats my baby well, I’ve been using what I know about paid media marketing to force the impressions on the people who should see it. This way, I at least know that what I am making is getting seen by my audience. If you’ve ever seen a sponsored post from me, know this is why I’m running ads.

At the same time, my gripe with the Gram have only been inflamed by how out of touch many of the people working in Japan’s tourism agency can be. Years ago, I purposely put off working with local governments so that I could have full autonomy over what I make. Though I eventually changed my mind on this topic and started accepting some gigs as a creator, I often feel that the remunerations aren’t worth the headaches. With Japan now hyper vigilant about anything that could be called “stealth marketing,” I am beginning to think it’s better to just work for free and maintain complete control.

While it’s indeed a true honor to get paid to go and promote these places, the entities calling the shots often get in their own way. Whether due to a lack of consensus internally of a poor understanding of the social media platforms, the resulting content never really works to appease the algorithm overlords. Moreover, there is often an agency involved who only cares about kowtowing to the client as a means of potentially getting more billable work in the future. All of this combines into a proverbial shit show as they say meaning that the promotion is a wash.

A woman wearing a kimono walks through Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya district

More and more, I am starting to think that all creators also have some product or service that they sell on the side so that they aren’t entirely beholden to brand partnerships. Seeing as I am not a well endowed femme fatal, I unfortunately will never be able to pursue my dream of being an e-girl on OnlyFans but there are plenty of paths to monetization. For me personally, I choose to make my money via digital marketing work that is completely unrelated to my brand but I’ve been considering alternatives.

In the future, one avenue that I do want to try to pursue a lot more is product creation. After all, creators like myself have grown an ample audience and often times these people are looking for products and/or services that they can purchase in a show of support. Frankly, I can’t tell you how many times people ask me to make a premium travel guide. The only reason I haven’t yet is that it’s a huge endeavor that I just don’t have the time for right now.

Towards a Better Future

Fukushima Prefecture’s Bandai-Azuma Skyline during autumn

As I sit here on my 38th birthday now officially a year older, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify creating content for a system like the current state of social media. With AI and machine learning continuing their incessant march forward, the aforementioned trend towards a soulless fire hose of content only seems likely to get worse too. In light of this, do I continue to try to sprint as hard as I can just to stay in place and keep up appearances or do I instead swim with the tide?

Make no mistake, I don’t mean to stop writing — that is totally out of the question. What I am musing about here is whether or not a different direction is needed when it comes to creation for social media. Already, I’ve adopted a “less is more” approach whereby I focus only on producing a few pieces of content that get seen by most of my audience. The question is, how long can I justify this? More importantly, why am I doing it at all when all that really matters is the long-form articles on the blog?

Slowly, ever so slowly, I am starting to see the outlines of a different future but I am not sure what exactly that is just yet. In the coming years, I think I might start to walk away from the identity I’ve created for myself as an “Instagrammer’’ and instead double down on writing. What this means for my online presence I am still unsure but I truly grow tired of this Sisyphean insanity. At the end of the day, there are a lot more ways I can be useful to Japan than worrying about how many views an Instagram Reel gets.

On the Following Year

Mt. Fuji and Oshino Hakkai in Yamanashi Prefecture during late autumn

Anyway, this rant on content creation is getting really long and I have a litany of client requests to handle. So, I am going to wrap things up but here’s to another great year of service to Japan. There is a lot I want to accomplish but what got me this far isn’t going to take me to the next level. To really up my game, I am going to need to take a step back and do what Tim Ferriss calls a “Pareto (or 80/20) Analysis.” In doing so, I can better understand how to allocate my time.

In the coming 12 months, I hope to really get my act together and focus on the few key things that matter. Lately, I feel like I am running faster and faster just to stay in place on Instagram and TikTok. At this rate, I am going to drown from content creation creep so I hope to better have control of it by my 39th year of life. These last 365 days have been an insane roller coaster and I’ve learned a lot but my aging body can no longer keep up with the juggling.

Social media is fun but it’s also a total time and attention sink. Moreover, with the average person swiping the height of the Eiffel Tower on a daily basis, having any lasting impact is hard. Likely, I need to do a better job of transforming the people who follow me from viewers on social media to readers of this blog. At the end of the day, everything else is basically a vanity metric and not worth much in the grand scheme of things. 

A craftsman in Aomori Prefecture makes a Tsugaru lacquerware bowl for Our Japan

Additionally, I want to further get into something that leverages the work I’ve done in a way that better benefits Japan. I tried to do this with Our Japan (and still kind of am as a consultant instead of a dropshipper), there has to be some more efficacious means of combining what I’ve done with my skill set as a marketer. I don’t know just what this is but more and more, I am beginning to feel that it might be time for me to take the next step on something bigger than just mere content creation.

As noted, there is bound to be something better out there that brings even more benefit to Japan but I haven’t yet found it. Hopefully, the next dozen months help me better formulate a path in life that really makes a difference. Some people have said I should double down and go all in on consulting for inbound tourism (like I am doing for the Setouchi region now) but that too doesn’t feel right. I guess I’ll just need to walk the trail that life has given me and see where it leads.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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