School was cancelled due to a problem with the water supply. Coincidentally the school was scheduled to receive it’s Ofsted inspection next week. Suspiciously, a similar spontaneous cancellation had occurred just before the previous inspection.
Correlation or causation? Who can say!
After searching my son’s school bag for unexplained plumbing tools (just checking!), we set out to enjoy an unexpected adventure together on a beautiful brisk London winter’s morning.
Sometime later we munched on apples as we strolled down a path in Kensington Gardens behind the Albert Monument.
Squawking noisily in the trees above us were roughly a dozen of strikingly green Indian Ringneck Parakeets. Several of them eyed us, or more precisely our apples, intently.
Stepping off the path, I wandered towards a tree that lower branches that its neighbours. I extended my arm and held out the half eaten apple.
After carefully sizing me up for a couple of minutes, curiosity tempted one of the more adventurous parrots to walk down the nearest branch towards me.
The bird shrieked to its companions, before fluttering onto my outstretched hand.
Glancing at me and shrieking again, it got stuck into the apple.
The parakeet’s companions watched raucously, waiting to see if their trail-blazing friend would be meet an untimely end.
Mere seconds later, several other green parakeets landed on my arm and shoulder. Just like my children, they inevitably started to squabble and fight over the tasty treat being offered!
My son glanced up from his phone and gawped in fascination at the parrots eating out of my hand. When one of the parakeets landed on my head and proceeded to nibble my ear, the boy nearly pissed himself laughing!
He raised the hood on his coat, popped on his gloves, and cautiously held out his own apple. Several of the birds immediately flew over and landed on his hand, arm, shoulder and head. Laughing with delight, the game on his phone was temporarily forgotten.
Nothing lasts for ever
Our journey home took us through a neighbourhood park near the local hospital. We observed more of the green parakeets noisily galavanting through the trees there, so my son donned his gloves and held out the last remaining apple.
A parrot cautiously watched from the safety of a tree, but wasn’t tempted to venture closer. After a couple of minutes we gave up. My son set the apple on the ground, and we ambled away across the playing field.
The green parakeet fluttered from its perch towards the apple, squawking victoriously.
Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed a rapidly moving grey shape streaking down from the sky.
My eyes tracked the path of the shape. A couple of loose green feathers marked the spot where the parakeet had been approaching our apple just moments before.
Continuing along the movement arc, I spied the local Peregrine Falcon clutching the now lifeless body of the parakeet in its talons. It flew up towards its eyrie high atop the nearby hospital tower block.
My son’s eyes teared up. He guiltily retrieved the apple and a long green tail feather from the wet grass. I feebly tried to explain that hunting was in the falcon’s nature, and it was just doing what it did to survive.
Understandably he didn’t want to hear it. The wonder of our morning had been abruptly shattered.
Nothing lasts forever.
Disillusionment with FIRE
In my recent wanderings around the Personal Finance blogosphere, I have observed a malaise and sense of disillusionment with some elements of the FIRE “movement”.
I found this intriguing, as my own perception was that not much had changed. What was behind this FIRE extinguisher feeling?
Anyone who invests any time digging into the Financial Independence, Retire Early niche quickly discovers that beneath a handful of self-evident truths, there really isn’t much substance.
Those guiding principles of pursuing Financial Independence are definitely worth learning and understanding. They result in good financial discipline, and consequently a smoother ride through life’s inevitable ups and downs:
- Spend less than you earn.
- Invest the difference (in low-cost diversified asset classes).
The Early Retirement part is similarly straightforward:
- Understand yourself (your unique approach, preferences, priorities, and risk tolerance).
- Determine your retirement “number” and preferred funding model.
- Work until you achieve it (then enjoy the luxury of choice).
Pretty simple really. The collective wisdom of the FIRE movement could easily be printed on a t-shirt, with enough free space remaining for a cute (or ironic) picture of your choice!
None of this is new. It has ever been thus.
Once you comprehend those basics, the FIRE blogosphere becomes a question of style and repetition. Which voice appeals? Who is a little further down a similar journey that a reader can follow?
- Maybe you like your FIRE served with a dash of feminism?
- Or a half portion of own brand frugality?
- Accompanied by some Instagram worthy travel photos and recipes?
- How about wrapped up in some tough love?
- Perhaps a heartfelt personal journal is more to your liking?
- Whatever your personal preferences, there are likely to be a host of FIRE blogs that speak to you.
So if the content is the same, and you can pick ‘n mix the voices in your own personal bubble, then what is behind the malaise?
Not long ago the FIRE “movement” was seen as an underground cult, its members brainwashed until they bought into an improbable dream of income without working and retirement before old age.
Tinkering with spreadsheets and participating in a virtual online community of (mostly) welcoming like-minded folks was a guilty pleasure that most people wouldn’t understand.
After all, members of polite society aren’t supposed to talk about sex, money, or religion!
A decade ago there were few (if any) Financial Independence related websites around. People interested in the concepts of passive income or early retirement had to seek out information from a vast range of disparate fields, then collate together all those various thoughts and ideas for themselves.
Now there are thousands of blogs writing directly or indirectly about FIRE. A few of them are actually quite good!
The veracity and value of the content produced in the niche is much as it ever was, though the sheer volume of it has certainly increased.
Every week it seems there are more stories being written in the media about FIRE.
Generally the journalistic tone is understandably a combination of genuine curiosity and slightly mocking disbelief; like that reserved for reporting on curious subcultures such as cryptocurrency anarchists, trainspotters, or people who marry their cousins.
Another interesting development is the growing collection of former Financial Planners and Wealth Managers who are throwing their weight behind the principles and financial discipline associated with the pursuit of Financial Independence (though not so much the early retirement part!).
Disillusionment with the out of touch, commission seeking, culture of steering punters into high fee products and encouraging churn appears to be growing.
Increasing awareness and popularity has inevitably caused some changes in the FIRE “movement”.
Much of that former guilty pleasure thrill is gone, replaced by regular meetups and readily accessible forums.
That isn’t a good thing or a bad thing necessarily, more a sign of the movement maturing.
Cult of personality
The most visible voices of the FIRE movement are no longer nerdy spreadsheet jockeys arguing about the best way to unitise a portfolio or perform Monte Carlo simulations.
Those keyboard warriors still lurk in the dark corners of the FIRE blogosphere, such as chat forums like Reddit. However they are no longer the stars of the show.
Replacing them are a host of savvy media trained professionals with strong personal brands.
This commercially focused breed of professional bloggers seek to sell into those pursuing FIRE. It is certainly an attractive target market segment: high savings rates, low outgoings, and positive accessible net worths combine to create a cohort of punters with money to burn.
Content is now a product, used to generate authority and credibility. To build that brand.
Professionally hosted podcasts. Keynote speeches. Writing (traditionally published) books. Providing rent-a-quote services to mainstream media. Selling life coaching. Hosting residential retreats. Organising conferences and conventions.
All these endeavours seek to inform and provide value to the audience.
All are also designed to attract a following, build a presence, enhance a reputation.
The greater the visibility and popularity, the larger and more frequent the opportunities that present themselves. Success builds on success.
The strong personal brand aspects have changed FIRE blogging to some degree.
- Each activity is planned.
- Each interaction is scripted.
- Each orchestrated action is a stepping stone along a defined path.
The image portrayed is carefully cultivated. More news anchor, less university professor. Effectively delivering carefully crafted pithy and quotable sound bites, rather than long rambling manifestos.
Gone are the days of the slovenly badly dressed old guy holding court, or the overweight helmet-haired lady stumbling through endless amateurish powerpoint slides.
This is increasingly reflected in the composition of discussion panels, interview subjects, and so on.
SEO optimised clickbait headlines and low-value listicles are increasingly drowning out quality posts that add value to the debate. They keep being written because they work, attracting eyeballs of readers seeking easy answers.
Those good quality posts do still get written, but are ever harder to find amidst all the noise and clamouring for the audience’s attention.
Again this isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, more a sign that this growing market segment is attracting an ever more polished group of salespeople and entrepreneurs seeking to profit from it.
40 years ago Kensington Gardens was full of dull grey pigeons. Today those pigeons share the park with intelligent strikingly beautiful coloured parrots, unwelcome invaders who quickly established themselves and have taken over.
Which species do you think receives more attention, appears in more photos, and has more tourists trying to feed them?
Along with the increasing number of professional bloggers (and the vast numbers of wannabes who dream of becoming one), has come a change in approach to audience interaction.
In the old days the majority of bloggers used to accept reader comments, encouraging discussion and debate. Indeed the comments thread were often the best part of a post, where wisdom and approach were traded and critiqued for the benefit of all readers.
Today an increasing number of blogs no longer accept comments at all. The discussion forum making way for the megaphone.
There are several reasons for this. A key one being that the operators of a platform are increasingly being targeted (with varying degrees of success) for the actions of the platform’s users.
- ISPs when users illegally distribute copyrighted movies.
- Image and video sharing sites when stolen or illegal content gets posted.
- Social media organisations facilitating hate speech and fake news.
When it comes to these kinds of issues, the only difference between a personal WordPress blog and a Facebook or a Youtube is scale.
Of those blogs that do still accept user comments, a growing number publish only positive comments and sycophantic praise; while suppressing anything that may be considered “off message”, dissenting or contrary.
In much the same way you never see a negative testimonial review on a website, the comments on a blog have become part of the carefully polished package.
Blogger’s site, blogger’s rules. If you don’t like it… you can always vote with your feet.
The motley collection of pigeons in the park tend to look dirty and unkempt. Many are missing toes or whole feet due to misadventures with predators and human trash. By comparison the parrots dazzle the senses with colour and song, distracting the audience from noticing that up close they too are dirty and carry the same parasites as the pigeons.
The internet is forever
One major pitfall of the blog comment model is that the blogger has all the power.
Once a commenter has hit submit, they lose all control over what happens next.
The blogger can choose to publish a comment, or not.
The original content that a commenter responded to may be modified after the fact. This might be something innocent like correcting a typo or transposed figure. Or it may be more nefarious, making the commenter look incompetent or insane.
Some shady bloggers even materially modify the comment itself, for example rewriting a criticism and posting praise in its place.
In all these cases the commenter can’t do anything about it.
So what is the problem with the comment model?
When a commenter leaves a comment it establishes a permanent link between the blogger’s content and the commenter’s profile/website. That serves as a form of endorsement, lending the commenter’s credibility to the blogger and their content.
This is one of the many reasons that professional bloggers don’t leave comments anywhere outside their own site or via social media (where they can subsequently modify or delete it if necessary).
Doing so potentially damages or dilutes the strength of their personal brand. Why take the risk?
With a little effort Indian Ringneck Parakeets can be trained to mimic and imitate sounds. This is a one-way process, a parrot won’t unlearn something no matter how much the teacher may later regret teaching it.
What if the parrot frequenting your back garden heard you insulting your spouse, then proceeded to follow suit at great volume and repetition… for the whole of it’s ~50-year life span?!
Is it worth the risk?
When people first “discover” the concept of FIRE they tend to dive deeply down the rabbit hole, absorbing knowledge and wisdom like a sponge. The siren song of escaping the rat race before the excuses become reasons is tempting indeed!
Before long most roads lead to Mr Money Moustache’s “Shockingly Simple Math” post.
At that point the quest for knowledge bottoms out, there just isn’t any more to it.
Now readers start exploring horizontally. They seek out imaginary internet friends, who speak with relatable voices, whom they can vicariously follow and learn from.
Sooner or later those who actually practice what they preach will reach their goal, their journey towards FIRE ends.
At this point the thrill of the chase dissipates.
The audience is generally happy for the blogger’s achievement, yet saddened that the blogger’s voice is now much less relatable. They are no longer pursuing FIRE, they have attained it.
Understandably they now post less often, and have broadened the topics they write about.
Their blogs, their rules. They don’t owe their audiences anything, so if a change in approach makes them happy then good for them.
You might have had a particular favourite parrot in the park, one that had an endearing song or a cheeky personality. When that bird flies away, or gets eaten by a falcon, you will no doubt miss it despite there being hundreds of very similar birds in the surrounding trees.
What is causing the FIRE extinguisher?
For what it is worth, I don’t think the FIRE blogosphere has materially changed.
In many cases what has changed is the level of knowledge possessed by the reader.
Consider the scenario where you wish to open a new bank account.
You do a bit of internet research, perhaps skim through a shopping comparison engine, or product reviews on a consumer affairs website.
Then you select one, open it, and get on with your life.
How long do you continue to lurk in forums, endlessly debating the merits of homogenous banking products or negligible differences interest rates?
For most people the answer would be never.
So how about the scenario where you learn about FIRE?
You do a bit of internet research, learn the basic principles above, implement (or not) systems to apply those principles, and then wait.
How long do you keep following the blogger’s who have already taught you everything of substance they know? How many variants of the same basic advice do you read before you exceed your level of interest, or surpass your boredom threshold?
Once again, the common answer is probably never.
Even for many of those who actively participate in the FIRE blogging community, there will inevitably come a time when they pass their saturation point for reading the same handful of ideas endlessly rehashed.
People are encouraged to learn, evolve and grow.
A natural byproduct of that activity is outgrowing the knowledge and competency levels of many of the person’s early teachers.
Before long the “Beginner” level content isn’t advanced enough.
For some the “Advanced” level content is eventually beneath them.
The student becomes the master.
If they are to continue growing and developing, they need to move on or risk stagnating.
I suspect it is this stagnation that is contributing to the malaise.
That feeling is magnified by the increasingly slick commercialised package product, the steady decline of intelligent discourse, and the regular examples of blogger shady behaviour (e.g. undisclosed sponsored posts, product placement advertorials, affiliate sales funnels masquerading as posts, and so on).
The disillusionment is certainly real, but I challenge the premise:
has the FIRE niche really changed, or have you simply outgrown it?
Nothing lasts for ever.