Social Media for Authors: Is it 1% S&M and 99% Graffiti?

Twitter has become, for most authors, one third of the Trinity in self-promotion. The other two members of the divine toolkit are blogging and Facebook. Tumblr lags in the background, although I did steal the idea of using Pinterest for my novels from Laurie King. I have my misgivings about social media for authors, and not because I am a techophobe.

There is not enough data that proves that any of the Big Three amounts to authorial success; in fact, it is total BS. Ewan Morrison, writing for The Guardian, has exploded each and every self-promotion myth and strategy. Though the focus of his piece is on self-published authors, the conclusion remains the same. Kathryn Schulz, taking Dante’s cue, has written her Secular Commedia and documented the addiction, exhibitionism, and other pitfalls of the electronic Inferno.

Rather than label social media as ‘self-promotion’ or ‘networking,’ I would call it The Scream to Existence – the sadomasochistic plaint of “I exist” not unlike urban graffiti except the art is on virtual walls. The scream is a broadcast through one of many public masks people wear because society denies the Self though it glorifies the Ego. Self-promotion is, after all, a side effect of ego glorification, inasmuch as success and money are modes of ego glorification. But you work with whatever tools you have on hand until something works, right? James Baldwin’s character Creole summed it up best with, “The only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Bleak and cynical, I know, but consider this: at small presses PR budgets are practically nonexistent, and the lack of marketing support from the Big Five publishers has made it incumbent upon authors to write their own success. Authors pine for discovery, to be read and loved, if not saved from the brimstone of obscurity. The logic behind social media is this: bloggers get ‘traction,’ and tweets get ‘RT’ (retweeted) or ‘Favorited,’ while Facebook gets ‘Likes’ and ‘Views,’ all of which adds up to the fuzzy algorithm of ‘word of mouth’ and ‘visibility.’ The truth is that marketing is more paradoxical: authors become successful through what is known as bootstrapping, a process by which an author sells his or her books, which is a far more mystical process than social media. The only analogy that I can think of to extend Creole’s words is that the author is lighting a match in the dark, knowing he or she has only so many matches. All one can do is keep trying.

Social media is hip and addictive, all shiny in latex, but I must be old school because: 1) I am a very private person; and 2) I had teachers beat it into me not to use the first-person subject pronoun in any species of writing because it is egotistical, bad form, unless it is for emphatic communication…and never, ever start a sentence with a conjunction, or end one with a preposition; but ironically, I type so much now that to use a pen to write and sign my name or scrawl a simple sentence is an Olympic event in fine-motor-skills. The point is this: ‘self promotion’ is anathema to me and the impersonal seems more natural to me, and if and when I use ‘I’ it is a deliberate narrative decision. In short: I prefer to write, leave the Me out of the equation, and tell the story. Back to flogging the topic…

Every day I see people tweeting, thumbing, and Facebooking their way to Starbucks, on and off the subway, wading and wending through traffic on sidewalks, oblivious to all sentient beings in their path. There is a cost to this narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior. In September 2013, a man was shot and killed on a train because nobody had bothered to notice the shooter brandishing his weapon; they were too preoccupied with their smartphones. It is as if technology allows us to communicate with others in the Twittverse, but our collective ignorance fails to save one life. We are so connected, yet disconnected.

Blogging is not so expeditious as a tweet or a Facebook update because it requires some solitude behind a desk, needs some neurological transaction between brain and keyboard, but never more than 1,000 words of content because attention spans have decreased. The mouse finger itches to click elsewhere. In all fairness, there are some incredibly informative blogs out there. Technology, however, is never what it seems.

Once upon a time inventions glowed with the promise of saving users from drudgery, often mechanical and repetitive acts. Technology automates processes. A vacuum cleaner replaced the broom. Electricity replaced unsafe kerosene lamps. Antibiotics eradicated illnesses. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter do not automate anything; they are sociological documents, no different than a diary without the clasp lock. Social media is show-and-tell, point and click: informative and helpful at best, banal and childish at worst.

Inventions generated leisure, that trouble-free time once the province of the über-rich. But is technology free, or liberating? Reading Elizabeth Bennet in the context of leisure time there is a possible subtext about maintaining power, about social distinction; that is the real Pride and Prejudice. The Bennets, who are landed gentry, sipped tea, read leather-bound volumes in their library, but their anxiety was about ‘alliances,’ about maintaining their social status and their wealth in perpetuity. Social media is faux status without the material wealth. Generations later we sip lattes, read paperbacks, and worry about our own ‘reach.’ We are intolerant of ‘down time.’ The democratization of technology has made it nearly possible for everyone to own a hand-held device, yet the anxiety is there to belong to a ‘community’ and have a ‘brand.’ In the past, an author’s ‘brand’ was his or her ‘voice,’ or ‘themes.’

Without getting all Marshall McLuhan about media, visual technology was intended to be an educational tool, to reach people across space and time, but radio and television haven’t quite worked out that way. Sci-fi writers have written reams about machines acquiring consciousness, about the dangers of technology replacing the human being. For all the optimism in technology, we have neither kept up with the Joneses nor lived like the Jetsons. Television is the 24/7 sales pitch and it’s all about ‘market-share.’ Viewers are consumers and we can multitask, too; in viewing multimedia, we suspend fiction between the commercial breaks that are our lives. In the 24/7 worlds of interactive social media, our lives are fictions.

The seduction of technology has that siren call of numerous choices, which shouldn’t be a bad thing, but it is if there is no discernment. Nobody likes to use the word ‘discrimination’ because of its racial connotations, but discrimination in this context is a good thing, although such discernment depends on an educational process, and individuals’ unique development, informed by their cultural and personal values. This presumes that education has engendered critical thinking and not mindless conformity. We want ‘it’ now and without any preface. It is throw the spear and run, or click that mouse and close out. Technology may have hacked into nucleus accumbens, our center in the brain for instant gratification. People might say, to each his or her own social media.

Twitter appeals to writers because of its textual constraints — only 140 characters, including #hashtags and @callouts. Twitter is a glorified IM, a way of chatting with family members and like-minded folks; it is tribal and hierarchical in that it has leaders (Twitterati) and followers. ‘Conversations’ are threads. Twitter has a lot more chatter – what Henry James would call “the mere twaddle of graciousness” – and yet it is a serious forum for news and scientific research all over the Web. This last point is ironic since geeks created HTML and communication protocols to share their scientific research. It does say a lot about news outlets when people go to Twitter or Reddit for their news first.

Facebook is different in that it is a web of interrelated connections, a gated community. There are Timelines. If Facebook is the high-school mixed-tape and intercepted note in class, then Twitter is the grade-school spitball. Zuckerberg started out with a class directory, with very limited membership at first, before he transformed it into a worldwide forum, rebranded as a ‘social network.’ A ‘brand’ is no longer a mark of property but an autonomous property itself. Caveat lector: ‘Brand’ is personal or corporate, or both.

Then there is the issue of Big Brother. There is a scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally in which Harry Burns comes on to Sally Albright. She orders him to ‘take it back,’ and he says that he can’t ‘because it’s already out there.’ Anything and everything done on computers and mobile devices is ‘already out there’ for Eternity. People with Facebook pages who have died don’t have their pages terminated; they are memorialized. Troll comments, wherever they appear, are immortalized. Anonymity behind keyboards and screens has fattened the Snarks. Linkedin – the worker’s forum — provides profiles for HR, recruiters, and identity thieves. User Agreements for all social-media outlets collect personal data for marketing analytics. Memes are today’s slang and tomorrow’s outdated expression. Twitter became the vector for Franzenfreude. Call it concision or literary accomplishment to craft a viral tweet, but the worrisome ethics of privacy, snooping and Big Data storage are real. Hemingway invented telegraphic prose in response to Henry James’s florid style, and Snowden has reminded us that somebody is watching us, taking notes.

Legend has it that Steve Jobs, inspired by the Olivetti Company, had driven his staff bonkers with his quest for purity and simplicity in UI design. The story goes that when his design team had come out of the lab, toy in hand for their leader, he took the new-fangled iPad and handed it to an African child and, without any prompting, waited to see whether the kid could intuit how to work the device. The Jobesian ‘paradigm shift’ was unleashed and it was truly Hobbesian. The technology that Jobs usurped was the difference between thumbs and the other fingers. Hand-held devices, up to that point, had been all poke and prod, with the thumb as the key determinant. He reduced energy inefficiency and replaced it with one-finger slides across a screen.

Apocryphal or not — the image of the tall Steve Jobs, in his trademark khaki slacks and black turtleneck, handing an African child an iPad, is Conradian and surreal. Africa needs medications and clean drinking water before it needs Apples. If the thumb and 1% of DNA are what separate us from other primates, then what other senses and forms of awareness will we surrender to turn the next doorknob? The revolution might be televised, but everybody will be too distracted to understand the cost or know the perpetrators. Winston Smith, who thought he was invisible, might hear the knock on his door. Social media is possibly the ultimate community, or it is Manifest Destiny, natural selection, and self-incrimination all wrapped in a pleasant shade of blue.

There is no safe word.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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