Social Media Meets the Anti-Social Novelist
by Kevin Fenton
You could argue that nothing has changed.
You could argue that Addison and Steele and Samuel Johnson were ur-bloggers. After all, the first magazines--The Rambler, The Spectator--were not magazines in the modern sense. Rather, they were short personal essays published a couple of times a week by guys who spent too much time in coffee houses.
Team of Rivals, Doris Godwin's account of Lincoln's circle, describes a speech given by then-Senator William Seward that was so compelling that his fellow Senators actually stopped writing letters to listen to it. In other words, they stopped texting.
The social media impulse has probably been with us ever since the first cave dweller chipped LOL into a rock. But our ability to act on that impulse has changed--dramatically, and in less than a generation. And while that change is significant for society as a whole, it's especially profound for me as a writer because it has invaded my workspace and challenged values so basic I barely knew I held them.
All of this has happened in my admittedly extensive adult life. At my first advertising job, I typed copy on an IBM Selectric typewriter and handed it to a secretary who typed up a cleaner version on her IBM Selectric.
Then computer screens, which had first replaced calculators, usurped typewriters in homes and offices. People started putting their own content up on those screens. Other people started commenting on that content. Then this discourse moved to other appliances, especially phones. It's only a matter of time before toasters have opinions.
When Media Got Social
The possibilities for liberation still dazzle me. Voices no longer need to slog through the old intermediaries--snooty editors, printers with their pesky demands for thousands of dollars, lads in short pants standing with megaphones on street corners.
But I've been creating web sites for fifteen years, blogging for five, and indulging in social media for long enough to get intermittently sick of it. Between two aliases, I've tweeted 1,755 times. And I can report this: there's also a downside to social media, especially if you're a serious writer.
The brave new screen is a place of addictive clicking, impatient reading, sensory deprivation, unfair criticism, empowered morons, solipsistic connection, amateur design, first-draft writing, gimmicks and distractions. And, as Lee Siegel points out in Against The Machine: How The Web Is Reshaping Culture and Commerce--and Why It Matters (2008), the Internet's biggest downside is a triumphalism that deflects discussion of the new technology's downsides.
The Triumph of Triumphalism
Such triumphalism has some distinctive, only half-conscious strategies. One is dressing up commercial motives in the rhetoric of liberation. Siegel likens the mass enthusiasm for the Internet to the enthusiasm for the car in the early '60s. Both promised social mobility.
And while garden-variety innovation is driven by early adopters--gung ho insiders--triumphal innovations are also driven by late adopters. I have to look no further than my own recent experience: wherever two or more are gathered, there shall be a mention of social media. At a dinner party, over coffee with a downsized marketing executive, at board meetings, at a client meeting, someone always says: We really need to be in social media. Interestingly, these comments almost always come from people who aren't in social media themselves. The trick of triumphalism is that it makes people who don't adopt its worldview feel left behind and perhaps even mildly ashamed.
This mode of triumphalism also makes particular business models seem like inevitable social configurations. Of course, cars dictated our urban planning. Of course, the Internet will host our commerce and discourse.
On a positive side, triumphalism generates that rare enthusiasm that comes from participating in something epochal. Cars are cool. Computers are charismatic in the way that science fiction made real is charismatic. But charisma blinds us to negatives.
ASAP Meets 24/7/365. Oh, Goody.
Two commercials accidentally betray connectivity's downside. In the first, two blandsome guys sit at a table in a diner. A project is up for grabs. But they know if they can just get the estimate sent off before the fries arrive, they will get the job. They lack the proper connectivity, but the camera pulls back to reveal a savvy competitor sitting at the counter. She has the right info-appliance connected to the right can-do network. The point is that what business really requires are response times normally associated with comic book heroes.
In the other commercial, someone is lounging at the beach and working on his laptop. Holographic ghosts of conference rooms past appear before his eyes and ask him to "add the new sales figures" and then drop in to say "good job on the Johnson presentation." The explicit point is you can work anywhere. Those of us who can't remember our last truly clean vacation know the implicit point: you can never escape.
It makes sense that speed and availability are valued in business, even if they're currently a little overvalued. But those commercial imperatives are also bleeding into the larger culture, which includes serious literary writing. In his excellent In Pursuit of Elegance (2009), Matthew May makes the point that problem solving and creativity require observation, silence and incubation.
Interestingly, people in business are thinking seriously about how to limit interruptions. Try googling "interruptions and productivity"--you won't even have to finish typing the query. Anti-interruption products are becoming ubiquitous. And if interruptions are keeping people from getting work done in cubes, I can testify that they are also keeping people from writing novels.
The Rise of the Imperfectionists
Social media compounds the manic tendencies of the Internet. Its very structure encourages sloppiness.
Blogs crave posts with a frequency that would exhaust professional journalists. The stars of Twitter post multiple times a day. What's more, neither Twitter nor Facebook has an edit function. Twitter Help tells those who ask if they can edit a tweet, "Nope. Once it's out there, you can't edit it. You can delete an update by clicking the trash icon on the right end of the update, but you can't make changes." I'm betting these Silicon Valley darlings can program an edit function. Editing--the essential writerly act--has been considered and rejected. Social media isn't writing: it's talking with your keyboard.
When Truman Capote said of On The Road, "That's not writing, it's typing," he meant to describe one individual's writing. Now, "not writing but typing" describes an entire culture.
This culture has produced spokespeople. Personally, they are friends of books and the people who create them. Chris Brogan (121,000 Twitter followers) rhapsodizes about growing up in libraries. Seth Godin (41,000 Facebook fans) has brilliantly captured the essence of what is important about a book. But as the leaders of the new media, these men naturally champion the values of the new media. They favor improvisation over deliberation, immediacy over incubation, collaboration over autonomy, connectivity over isolation, porousness over barriers, what they view as a vibrant amateurism over a smug professionalism. In a webcast to the publishing industry, Brogan set the tone with three words: "imperfectionism trumps precision."
Although Brogan is being provocative when he exalts "imperfectionism," the values he's espousing aren't evil. But they are the values of talk, not writing. (Perfectionism is oppressive in talk.)
The values of social media are also the values of sales, not craft. Consider Seth Godin's dismissal of Janet Maslin:
Janet Maslin at the New York Times is a cranky hack. She reviews popular fiction and non-fiction, and as best I can tell, she likes neither very much. She's taken authors to task for questionable copy editing and devoted entire reviews to pointless rants about trivia. Here's the thing: she doesn't matter. Janet's reviews appear to have no impact at all on whether or not a book sells. Her voice is not in my head.
Robert Morris, on the other hand, is a useful guide for people in search of good books. He's reviewed nearly 2,000 books and received almost 25,000 helpful votes for his reviews on Amazon. If he likes your book, you're going to sell more copies--not because he liked it, but because his thorough review lets other people decide if they want to buy it or not.
Godin is judging a book review solely by the metrics you normally apply to an ad: increased sales. Certainly every author wants book reviews to sell his book. But serious authors--even business authors--know that reviews have other functions: e.g., assessing arguments, discussing ideas, connecting books to larger intellectual trends,
Godin's post is a display window for the shortcomings of new media. Writing quickly and without an editor, he produces an unrigorous argument distorted by unexamined biases. He doesn't disclose that Morris has reviewed him favorably and or that he tangled with Maslin. Godin doesn't actually show the effects of either the Amazon reviewer or NY Times review on sales. An editor might have pushed Godin to look more closely at Morris's influence--which amounts to only about a dozen "helpful" votes per book, at least some from friends.
Writers Need Editors, After All
Editors, internal and external, are at the heart of literary values. For starters, those values include revision, deliberation, craft, an unwillingness to toss first drafts out into the world. Robert Frost famously sniffed, "Conversation is always a first draft."
Most of us also crave some freedom to play, uninterrupted, in our own sandbox. Craig Ferguson wrote his novel Between the River and the Bridge when he was working in the movies. Because he was sick to death of exposing every decision to immediate cacophonous input, he went home and wrote whatever the hell he wanted. As a man who drummed for some angry Scottish bands in the 80s, he likened the freedom of what he was doing to punk rock.
Revision, perfectionism, privacy. These aren't the values of social media. But these are the values of one of the powerhouses of digital culture. Apple does not embrace social media, preferring craft to chatter, control to collaboration. This may be why Apple's products and branding are so popular with the creative class. Steve Jobs makes Marcel Proust look like a team player. The perfectionists at Apple suggest the possibility of a different kind of web.
The values of Apple also suggest that the values of social media are chosen. And they can be unchosen, in favor of more writerly ones.
And perhaps the greatest of the writerly values is focus.
Distraction Is Not Destiny
My single greatest enemy as a writer is distraction. Yet the assumption of a distracted, multitasking, fractionally attentive life is dear to new media.
In a recent webcast to publishers, Chris Brogan said that Moby-Dick is problematic today, because our attention is more atomized than ever before. From the viewpoint of a hands-on consultant, he's right: our attention is ridiculously fragmented. We never used to write notes to each other while merging onto the freeway--as someone in front of me did Saturday night.
Tellingly, the statement "we are more atomized than ever" is positioned as a description of an inevitable outcome rather than as an acknowledgment of a choice.
Is there really more on our plate? Does Obama really face more challenges than Lincoln? Did Bush II juggle more complexities than FDR? Am I forced to multi-task any harder than my mother, who ran a dairy farm, raised five kids, and worked forty hours a week as a nurse? I have Twitter followers. She had cows. Cows are way more demanding.
Unlike my Mom, I'm surrounded by the Pavlovian beeping and ringing and chiming of information appliances. Unlike a writer of a generation ago, I return to my desk to see--thanks to Facebook--the equivalent of a dozen postcards and--thanks to my browser bookmarks--a newsstand. On a bad day, the Internet optimizes my procrastination.
But these are distractions and, to some extent, we can control distractions. Most of my biggest distractions have an off switch. From software that monitors time-wasting activities to a more considered approach to social media, I can make choices. Two non-profits I'm associated with have established a presence on Facebook but have decided against using Twitter accounts because of the time they demand.
And despite the talk about shortened attention spans, we do make time for long-form narrative. My wife and I set aside weeks worth of discretionary time each year for shows like Big Love. The Harry Potter series, which tracks a character over novels and years, is one of the few cultural creations to make anyone as rich as an entire country.
In the majority of instances, I am distracted because I want to be. I am distracted because I've never heard an email ping I didn't like.
So What Do We Do?
Every bit player in the zeitgeist tells me to sign up, sign on, tweet, post, friend, follow, comment, subscribe, update, stream, and connect. And, in fact, I do most of these things. But I'm going to try harder to remember that the zeitgeist doesn't always have my best interest in mind. I am going to take back some choices.
For me, Ludditism isn't a choice. It's possible to stick your head in the sand and pretend social media doesn't exist. But there aren't many ostrich success stories.
And social media are a natural choice for writers. These new forums may not be writerly, but they are verbal--and cheap. And, like Hugh Hefner, you can be an extrovert in your pajamas.
I wish I had a formula for social media success but I don't. (After Merit Badges is published, I will share what I learned from its marketing in a free downloadable case history.)
There are some things I'm pretty sure aren't going to work, such as racking up sheer quantities of connections. Tested marketing wisdom says you proceed from awareness to consideration to purchase to loyalty, and that each stage requires several contacts. If all you do is get someone to click "friend," you still have a long way to go. Yes, I'm in your rolodex, but rolodexes don't buy books.
I think it's also important to get a sense of the ethos of each social medium. Facebook is essentially a reunion, and selling too hard generates a special Tupperware-party awkwardness. Twitter is more openly about loose connections, information sharing, and self-promotion, but crass self-promotion is frowned upon. In this, it resembles a professional conference. My blog is the literary equivalent of those stands at grocery stores where they give you the new pizza on a toothpick. I post weekly so as to not test anyone's patience. I try to comment on other blogs.
I'm building an infrastructure of awareness. What will it get me? Of course, I might be one of those Internet successes like the mommy blogger Dooce, the food blogger featured in Julie and Julia, the wine guy Gary Vanyerchuk. I expect something more modest: that I will reinforce some friendships on Facebook, make some connections on Twitter, and let potential readers sample my writing on my blog. If my novel is good, my social media efforts might provide some of what the agency HSR:Gyro calls "energized word of mouth." But social media can only do so much. I also have to write good books.
And, given the serious investment of time that social media requires, writing good books could be a problem. I want to have a second novel ready when Merit Badges is released at AWP in February 2011. I've spent maybe an hour on that novel in the last month.
Ultimately, I don't think social media is the answer for writers looking to find an audience. The web is shifting and some models will prove unsustainable. We need to move beyond the conversational web to the crafted web. In some ways, social media itself reflects this trend. Four years ago, blogs--the near-daily, unedited output of individuals--ruled. Now they've been largely displaced by Twitter and Facebook, with their gathered communities and brief postings. But these sites are too sloppy, too time consuming, and weirdly feudal, fragmented and personal.
I suspect the changes afoot will not be revolutionary. Some form of social media will endure. Writers will still have to work to find their audiences.
The best way for writers to promote themselves has always been to find a forum where they can regularly share their best work with strangers. Think the New Yorker. To do that, we need to move toward something aggregated and edited, designed and promoted, rich and continuing. In other words, we need web sites with the curated energy of magazines.
Kevin Fenton's novel Merit Badges, which won the 2009 AWP Prize, will be published in early 2011. He holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. He's worked for more than two decades as an advertising writer and creative director. He can be found on the web at eitherthisoranap.com.