The Impact of 1,000 True Fans
You don’t need to reach millions of people to change the world. If you could touch the lives of a thousand people, your impact would be incredible.
In 2008, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, wrote a now-famous personal essay titled “1,000 True Fans,” in which he predicted that web 2.0 would transform the world of creative work. Specifically, Kelly argued that the internet was evolving whereby individual creators could generate content, distribute it to niche audiences, and get compensated for it in a way that had never existed before. All it would take as an independent creator to earn a middle-class income was to have a thousand “true fans” – those diehard fans that would be willing to pay for anything that you produce. While Kelly’s vision has not yet fully materialized, it has nevertheless continued to play an outsized role in shaping the internet ecosystem and the next chapter of its evolution – web 3.0.
Amid the significant ongoing political, social, and economic unrest, I have written frequently about the state of overwhelm and paralysis we often find ourselves in when thinking about having real impact in the world. The problems seem too big to solve for any one person. My suggestion has been to focus on what’s immediately in your control. I’ve repeated Mother Theresa’s famous quote that “if each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean” as a reminder of the aggregate power of each person focusing on just one simple action. I continue to believe this is good advice and I try my best to live by it.
Recently, however, I was reflecting on whether there is a different unit of measure to guide us in the pursuit of impact, and I was reminded of Kelly’s essay. You don’t need millions of fans, Kelly argued, to build a sustainable audience; you just need one thousand. The same is likely true for impact. You don’t need to reach millions of people to change the world. If you could touch the lives of a thousand people, your impact would be incredible.
In the days since this realization, I began to quietly test the thesis. My good friend Peter Fortenbagh is the long-time co-CEO of the Boys of Girls Club of the Peninsula. The chapter he leads is one of the largest in the country, serving over 3,000 students each year. Peninsula Bridge, where my wife works, is focused on helping around 1,000 motivated, low-income students each year to achieve college and career success. Our good friend Nkia Richardson is the Executive Director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of San Mateo County. The organization serves hundreds of abused and neglected children under the protection of the court, providing a caring adult to each child who acts as their advocate in the system. It turns out that I have a little over 2,000 readers of this weekly blog.
Just like building a base of one thousand true fans, impacting the lives of one thousand people, while an incredible amount of work, is doable. Imagine if you want to focus on poverty in your community. A goal of feeding 250 four-person families is no easy feat. But with enough determination, it’s completely within your reach. And the ripple effects of impacting one thousand or more lives is immeasurable.
If you are thinking about impacting the world, you would do well to start with one action in your family or your community. Mother Theresa’s advice is right. But you might then consider what it would look like if you could impact one thousand lives. You just might change the world.
Cal Newport wrote a great essay in The New Yorker this week, revisiting Kelly’s article. It served as the inspiration for this week’s post.
I highly recommend Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s interview with Ken Stanley, in which he asserts a provocative idea that setting big, audacious goals can actually reduce the odds of achieving something great.
If you’re open to taking a little risk in your life, you might want to read Arthur Brooks’ most recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Magic of a Little Danger.”