What if Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook went out of business?

Hard to imagine, but what if these behemoths of data went belly up? Sure, a few banks might fail, a few cities go bankrupt, perhaps even a few countries; a whole bunch of employees would be made redundant, and that vast treasure trove of data would be on the auction block.

It’s the data that I am concerned about. Between these three entities, all the information on me has been stored, mined, and exploited. They ran a fairly good privacy model while in business, but what if the new buyers at the auction are from Russia or China or North Korea or some Middle Eastern kingdom anxious to acquire western assets at bargain basement prices? I remember the time Yahoo was hacked and e-mails went from “me” to the whole world selling them Viagra, Costume Jewellery and asking them to click on links to spurious spyware. Luckily Yahoo, under its new management, decided to take sterner measures to protect its members’ privacy, two years later.

Data is the new gold, like oil once was. Knowledge is power. And we plebes gave up our power willingly in order to have free publicity and extend our reach to places we could never reach on our own for free, which in the past would have required lots of money for publicists and traditional media advertizing. If these guys go bust,
Armageddon will be nigh.

So what can we do? Here are a few options:
(a) Pray! That always works.
(b) Hope that western governments will declare these companies NATO assets in case of a stock meltdown, or declare them “Banks” (after all, they bank data) and add them to the “too big to fail” category of the economy.
(c) Buy shares in these companies, especially if and when their stock price tanks, in the hope of a rebound and the making of millionaires of all of us.
(d) Delete our data and go back to those days when no-one knew who or where the heck we were, and no-one really cared (we wonder if anyone really cares today, despite us keeping them posted of our every life event, meal, and bowel movement).
(e) Shrug and carry on as before, comforted by the premise that whoever gets their hands on our data will continue to make us famous or infamous, and both of these states will attract attention in these attention-deficit times.
(f) Build tighter spam filters for the barrage of nuisance e-mail that is bound to head our way.
(g) Get ready to lose all your friends and followers in social media when they have been inundated by spurious email from YOU.

Ah, well – it’s a good problem to ponder, or a scary nightmare to wake up from.

Misinformation Rules Cyberspace

While I was struggling to find out who had won the California Primary, it dawned on me that the sources of information I was consulting were often contradicting each other. In one report, Hillary had won, in the other, Bernie had won by a landslide, in another, the ballots were still being counted, in another, several ballots had been intentionally spoiled or withheld. The official news agencies were supposed to be suppressing and playing up Hillary, so we were advised not to trust Big Media. Finally, I gave up in frustration and posted a question on Facebook to my friends, requesting a credible source, and I was pointed to the Secretary of State’s website. But given the mud-slinging going on between the Democrats and the Republicans, I wondered whether this source too was a trustworthy one. Suddenly, I awoke to the frightening reality: Might is Right. Those who control the levers of power shape the narrative, and those who don’t, muddle it.

That this US election has been the dirtiest in living history is in no doubt. Elections, not only in America, have been getting dirtier over time, and the attack ad is now the weapon of mass destruction, the easiest to mobilize, and the most potent one that ensures decimation of the opponent. The philosophy is, “If I destroy the opposition, then weak old me will win.” Gone are platform positioning, and policy outlining; those strategies are not revealed for fear that the attack ad will be turned onto them in a flash, rendering them into flames. Then there are those “news agencies” that have sprung up on the web, some with names that resemble official news sites. Sometimes their bad grammar and poor proofing give them away, but given the shrinking fortunes of the official news media that has also suffered poor editorial copy as a consequence, both sources look pretty similar. Another give-away of the fake source is the abundance of ads and cookies that take over your screen and never let go the moment you click on its news pages. There will also be follow-up news items appended below the main article (after you have clicked through several scantily text-populated pages) that are sure to contain pictures of voluptuous women and virile men, with headlines such as “Lose 50 pounds in two days,” or “How to sculpt the perfect body,” or “How to drive your partner mad in bed.” But aren’t all these gimmicks copied from the traditional magazine circuit that pioneered the titillating headline?

Everyone is a journalist today, mashing-up news from unreliable sources, choosing them for sensationalist value, photo-shopping pictures to distort reality, pledging allegiance to one party or the other (even being in their employ) and flooding cyberspace with contradictory information. Is this responsible curation? Is this unraveling the truth? Who does one believe? Do we become cynical instead and treat these stories as entertainment only, and thereby perpetuate the myth that politics is show-biz, and thus, as voters, face the difficult choice of either watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones or going out to vote on election day? Which “entertainment” do we pick? Is this cynicism-leading-to-apathy what caused the shock when Brexit actually happened?

We created this Misinformation Monster due to several confluences: Big Media sold out to corporations with vested interests, cyberspace was “occupied” by a few big players like Google and Facebook, politicians yielded to lobby groups that funded them. And Joe Blow citizen decided to become a journalist and add to the Babel of news that no one believes. And search engines don’t give a hoot about credibility, for their search and display algorithms don’t include a lie detector.

Welcome to the new world of (mis)information. I don’t have any solutions. But I have a wish that investigative journalists continue to be retained by news organizations, with the freedom to uncover and reveal that which is true but not necessarily that which is politically correct or palatable. And if the paid ones die out, then citizen journalists, fueled only by a passion for the truth, replace them. It’s wishful thinking, but at least, we are still free to wish, and to hope.

Inhabiting Alternative Universes

There is much being written about Quantum Theory, and the Alternative Universe that exists “just out there,” that only some of us who see ghosts are privileged to peep into. I have wondered however, whether we have always inhabited these other-worlds in many ways, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes for short spells, and sometimes making the journey with never the possibility of returning to our known worlds.

The most obvious example of travelling to the alternative universe is via dreams. The people and events that we encounter in dreams alternately please, frighten and confuse; back in our familiar universe they then make their way into stories and novels we write, plays we produce, and songs we sing. There are periods in our lives when we dream heavy and other times when we dream light. Some correlate to the stress in our lives, but I seem to be most dream-intensive when I am goofing off and not working hard.

Then there are the other alternative universes we inhabit only in our waking lives: for example, the corporate executive, celebrity movie star, or politician who has to project an image congruent with their respective product or platform. Never mind that they may be closet drunks, neurotics or sex maniacs, the media image has always got to project confidence, trust, and inspire followership. Then there are the video gamers who live in their game universes under pseudonyms for most of their leisure time, who find more validation and purpose in their alternative universe than in the cold world of harsh reality. Writers are no different; they are the masters of their fictive universes, killing off the bad guys at whim, having their heroes overcome challenges under the most harrowing circumstances, creating situations of love, pain, sorrow, or action as the mood demands.

What about the movies or theatre? Why do we pay to go into a dark auditorium with a similarly motivated bunch of souls, armed with coke and popcorn, to lose ourselves in another world for a couple of hours? Or in a fantasy novel far removed from our current world. The circus, theme parks and bungee jumps are other escape valves into temporary alternative worlds. How about the alcoholic or the drug addict who hops onto his next drink or needle just to vanish from this place? Or the party organizer who creates a happy environment so that a bunch of friends and family could eat, drink and be merry and forget about their cares for awhile. Or the tour organizers and travel agents who send their clients to holiday destinations to be cocooned in an artificial oasis of hedonistic pleasure. And the adventure seeker who pursues difficult terrain just to experience life on the wild side. And then there is, of course, Facebook, where most of us congregate for a few minutes (or hours) a day to interact with the alternate universes of friends.

There are also the universes that you travel to and can never return from again without being changed: the bank robber or terrorist who transforms your world the moment he holds a gun to your face, the tractor-trailer that loses control on the highway and rams into your car, the doctor who looks up from your most recent medical report and says, “We have a small problem here…,” or the other doctor who comes out of the maternity ward and says, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

We are already creatures of alternative universes in our daily lives. Time and circumstance periodically invite, or force, us into alternative universes. And while Quantum Theory has brought the debate to the forefront, it does not change the fact that humans have always been privy to alternative universes, if we expand that definition. They provide us with the experience and enlightenment to grow. In fact, it would be difficult to take those universes away without downscaling our world into an unfamiliar, dull and somewhat frightening place.

Trying to imagine life without social media

I tried to recall life without social media. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when I walked around without a portable device strapped to my waist, a device willing to announce my every grunt, burp and fart to the external world, if I only let it?

Without social media, my concentration would improve, that much I am sure. I would not be constantly interrupting my daily chores to go check that infernal device for the latest chat or inspirational message. My self esteem would mature for I would not have those “likes” to prop me up but would have to “like” myself instead. I could spend many hours with just me and my thoughts and reap the inspiration that comes from a stilled mind. I would not suffer from “too much information,” a syndrome that makes you skim the surface of everything, just to cope, and miss some of the major issues in the process. I will get to talk to people instead of sending them written messages even when they are in the next room. Friendships will be few but more lasting and not something to be activated and deactivated with the push of a button.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be “famous but poor” anymore. Instead, I would be “unknown and still poor.” I wouldn’t get to play closet politician anymore for my audience will have disappeared. I’ll have to stand up in my little room and declaim, to myself. Or join a political party and schmooze my way to the top over a number of years, not in mere days that it took me in the social media world. I would not have a test market for my writing. I would not be connected to the pulse of my peers, forever unplugged from their thoughts, drives, fetishes and joys. I would not be let into their living rooms, introduced to their families, invited as a virtual guest to their parties, or exposed to their embarrassing moments when they suffered mental or wardrobe malfunction and decided to share (or bare) all via the instant photos uploaded to my “stream.” Yes, I would have to kiss goodbye to my voyeuristic but engaged life.

Someone recently told me that “there is no going back.” We seem to have crossed a threshold into a new pattern of social behaviour that is irreversible. And I am not sure we are unique in that respect. Did people go back on their old habits when new inventions collided with their social lives in the past: the telephone, the TV, the car, the supermarket, the microwave, and canned food? Digitization and sharing has now replaced the communal life of the village where everybody knows everything about everyone else. Even the anonymity of cities—something I used to love to escape to occasionally—is breaking down under the new rules of conduct, where city dwellers cooped up in glass towers and matchbox condos, ostensibly isolated, are connecting with each other like never before.

Okay, so there is no going back, we are the social media generation, suck it up and get on with it. But there needs to be some “information firewall behaviour” called for; the confidence to switch on and off when needed, without the pressure to be “always on” in order to be relevant, despite Facebook and Twitter sending you those “How are you doing?” messages when you are minding your own business, or Klout warning you that your score is dropping because you have been silent for awhile. Taking social media•less vacations is a good idea, and retreats from “always on” to just read a book is also good for the soul. And most importantly, selfishly carving out time for contemplation and meditation is paramount.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, where did leave my Blackberry…? There really is no going back, is there?

Lessons on Social Media From Two Guys on the Subway

I overheard these two guys, Jim and Sam, talking on the subway.
Jim: You’ve been on this social media kick for some time now. Is it working for you?
Sam: Sure is, man. I’d be resenting talking to you right now if my iPad was getting a signal in this tunnel.
Jim: I know, “Google it,” has killed asking a question and starting a conversation. The woman I last dated couldn’t keep her hands off her Blackberry. I finally got up and left midway during dinner and she didn’t even look up from her Facebook chat.
Sam: That FB thing is a bit overrated, especially if you are trying to sell something. It’s like preaching to the choir – “The Mutual Admiration Society” I call it. Everyone is shouting “Like me, like me.” I get on only to post snarky comments about us little guys getting screwed by the big guys. Saves me from going to a shrink. It’s also a great place for tree huggers and plagiarists.
Jim: Why do you say that?
Sam: Well, the tree huggers are always talking spiritual things, about love and kindness and God and stuff when we know that there is very little of that around. They are hoping against hope, and I find that re•assuring. It tells me that at least someone hasn’t given up. And the plagiarists are cutting news clips from other sources and commenting on them as if they were their own material – who are they kidding?
Jim: What do you post?
Sam: Well, I started with posting diatribes of all that was not going well in the world: the rise of the right wing, the greed of the One Percent, unjust wars and stuff, and I found that no one was reading. No one had time. And no one really gave a damn. Here are my findings: the 140 byte tweet can get around to thousands, if it’s catchy, and if you take the 2% response rule from the direct mail world, you may get 200 to 300 people who will actually read your tweet. A 150•word article (diatribe, in my case) will get about 100 close followers reading you. After that, and the longer the word count gets, readers tail off dramatically. Never publish your novel on there – everyone will download it, but none will read it. Now, my focus is on creating pseudo accounts for myself and writing glowing reviews of my books.
Jim: Is the material you publish online, safe?
Sam: Heck, no! And don’t bother asserting your copyright with bold announcements – it looks good but it doesn’t work. A website will use your material the way it sees fit. The good news is that on “member sites” like FB, Twitter and such, your post gets swallowed up in the news feed within minutes. Chances are, you will never be noticed, unless you post an obscene photo and go viral. If you want to be immortal in cyberspace, post your stuff on open websites and make sure your material is optimized for the search engines, and be controversial. Controversial sells. I find stuff I posted in the public domain years ago are still showing up when I Google myself. I can’t even find my FB feeds from last month.
Jim: So why are you still at it?
Sam: Because, social media is the best damned water cooler chat line given to us workers who have been steadily relegated to solitary, insignificant cube•dom. I would die if I am unable to take a regular time•out at work and join my fraternity of online pals looking desperately for a “like” or an acknowledgement to say that what they had just written or plagiarised made sense. It’s a form of online hugging.

It was at this point that Jim and Sam got off at the next station. Or did I get off at that station? I can’t remember, the conversation was so engrossing! Come to think of it, did those two guys really exist, or was I dreaming the whole thing up? Oh well, I’ll be on the subway tomorrow too and if those fellas show up having a similar conversation, I will know!

Seeking fame and protecting privacy online – a tough balancing act

The social media enthusiast lives in a parallel universe: on the one hand he is isolated from human contact by being totally focussed on his PC, tablet or mobile device, thumbing away to an equally anonymous community of friends, on the other his life is now a public one where every photo, joke, threat, bias, peeve and airport check•in is on display to the whole world.

Social media seems to be a panacea to our continuing spiral inward from community towards individuality and the resulting need to be noticed from among the crowd. For it really is about the “I” isn’t it? At the extreme end of this desire lie examples like the recent flesh•eating high profile murder case in Toronto where the “I” went rabid, or the lone guy who shoots up a public place for fame. Now, to be clear, we are all not a bunch of looney tunes, but after boxing ourselves into jobs in isolated office cubicles or home offices, middle•of•the road soc•meds emerge as street•corner politicians on soapboxes that they wish would go viral one day, establishing their legacy globally and liberating them from their President•for•Life role in their Republic•of•One. Our very isolation creates this craving for human contact and validation.

But the craving comes with a caveat these days, we don’t want the touchy feely bit—we want no body contact any more. Contact is limited to a neutral screen, which could be switched off if we do not like what we see or hear, an interface that could be put on mute while we multi•task on other activities in an attention•deprived state. At work, how often have we succumbed to the temptation of choosing to attend a traditional face•to•face meeting virtually, via conference call and laptop, so that we can multi•task in private and not have to sit in a room with a bunch of fellow humans, trapped into paying attention to a single topic, and be nice?

As for privacy, I guess there is none of that anymore, much as we desire it. Privacy began to slip when people started having cell phone conversations in public places. It was like practicing for a naked parade down the information catwalk. After that, it was just steps away to uploading personal profile information on a myriad of social networks, including the names of the spouse, the kids, the dog and photos of the family vacation. Not forgetting, ingesting all those bots and cookies that tracked our every online movement in perpetuity. Today, when asked a question about someone unknown, replying, “I don’t know her” is not acceptable anymore. One is supposed to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Link•In before replying. And we are likely to find “too much information” on that person. Going into a sales meeting with a prospective new client has a different set of dynamics now: you are expected to launch right in with the qualified ice•breaker: “So, how’s your 5 handicap in golf these days?” or “I read your recent book” (the free Google executive version, most likely). Even companies are beginning to allow their employees to text and tweet because if an employee is going to hang himself (and the company), then the employer may as well provide the rope, and yank it in before much damage is done on the public sidewalk.

Yes, the more we want to be noticed, the more we want to be left alone, untouched in a world that refuses to afford us privacy. Social media appears to be a viable solution offering this happy medium. But is it isolating us even more, creating an even sharper divide between the conflicting forces of fame•craving and privacy•seeking that assail us? I wonder….

Social Marketing = Viral Book Sales? Think again!

As my follower count in the social media universe rises by the ‘000’s, I am wondering what that does in terms of expanding the number of buyers for the products I have on tap – i.e. my books. There is no exact 1:1 correlation of followers to buyers. There is not even a 100:1 correlation. And if I am the only one facing this issue, then I must have a problem with my marketing message, or my books suck, or else others in my situation are keeping mum.
Here are some of my observations on book marketing in the social media universe (and I would welcome any thoughts to the contrary):

1) We have generated too much “noise” in the FB and Twitter universes. People are Twittered•out, or Facebook•whacked. The more followers you have, the more perishable your messages. If you don’t get a “like” or “re•tweet” within two minutes of your post, that post is history. Even keeping personal favourite lists ends up in clutter after awhile.
2) Expansion and Targeting is difficult. FB polices a closed loop network that says, “Thou shalt not annoy people by befriending everyone under the sun (including suggestions for friends that we send you).” How does one expand one’s universe without landing in FB jail? On the other hand, Twitter has no such limits but has a barrage of consultants who advocate that they can get you thousands of followers without you having to send out a single tweet. How targeted is that!
3) There is a widening gap between the known and the unknown. Buyers, overwhelmed by choice, veer towards the tried and true – hence bestseller become blockbusters and everyone else falls into the remaindered pile.
4) We have created millions of newspapers and journalists online who often regurgitate the same information multiple times over with minor alterations. They all compete for our eyeballs along with books. I have a hard time keeping up with “curated content” that is posted online by various newbie journalists – all interesting content, no doubt, but all leaving me with the sneaking suspicion that I have read this somewhere else before.

The power of the online sales message is felt only when endorsers (and the more powerful the endorser the better) tell others that they should absolutely drop everything they are doing and buy this book – NOW! They call it “going viral.” Sales do not happen when the poor writer himself keeps bleating his repeating groove, overtly or covertly: “Buy my book,” or “Please buy my book” or “Dammit, why aren’t you buying my book. Do you want it free?”

I am therefore not surprised that FB’s IPO bombed. It took me back to those heady days of the dot•com bubble when we invested in weak businesses with lousy value propositions just because it was the cool thing to do. The winner in this game will be the one who figures out how to turn “share of eyeballs” into “share of purchases.” I don’t think that nut has been cracked yet. Or perhaps there are only certain categories of products that lend themselves to social media•led purchasing, and books, unless they go viral through endorsement, are not one of them.

In summary, the best sales channels open to writers are still the tried and true ones: bookstores (online and traditional), good distribution, strong endorsers, favourable reviews, and opportunities where a writer engages with a reader (book launches, readings, literary festivals and other live events).Oh, yes – and you must have a good book that catches the zeitgeist!

The more things change, the more they also stay the same it appears.

The Age of Opinion

In previous blog posts, I had categorized our present age variously as the age of fear, the age of personality, the age of the artist and now I am going to add a fourth: the age of opinion.

We have always had opinions but many of us have not been able to express them in past eras. This was for many reasons: some of our predecessors could not articulate opinions due to a lack of education and a lack of access to channels or communication tools; some of us were censured for our opinions with punishments as harsh as jail or death; some of us preferred to keep our opinions to ourselves as it was culturally more acceptable.

Then social media dawned and made it all possible, and in some instances, mandatory; we had to have a public persona. Everyone had to know everything about us. “Just Google him!” became a standard. It was professional suicide if a person who actively pursued a profession that dealt with the public—like a writer, for instance—was told that he could not be found on the Internet. And this led to people wanting to know what you stood for: “Take a stand, man. Show us your beliefs, principles, ideas, life stories and family pictures. We want to know that you are a living, breathing thing out there.” And on the employment field, “If you want a job with us, we wanna know all about you before you even step in for an interview. Oh, and if we don’t like what you’ve posted in cyberspace, don’t be surprised if we suddenly cancel that interview on you. Forget resumes and references, just your online persona will give us clues on whether you will be a fit with us.” It was as if job ads had a subliminal qualifier: “Strong silent types need not apply.” Thus, after all this information was uploaded, there was only one step left: gravitate towards being a full•fledged Online Opinionator. Why not?

And so we have opinions on everything: what we eat, where we vacation, what we read, what we buy, who we date. And we love to offer opinions. People do not make a purchase based solely on advertizing any more—no, we need everyone’s thoughts on it as well. Oh, you poor ad companies, you that fuelled and funded those start•up social media sites, did you think that matters would come to this pass?

One thing that all this opining helps with is in choosing your friends more easily. If everyone is wearing their hearts on their sleeves these days, or, more aptly, flashing their opinions on their Facebook pages, it’s easy to know where you stand relative to the other. Perhaps the entry point to person•to•person friendships in future will be a virtual one at first. Perhaps Facebook will invent new signs to follow their ubiquitous “like” and “comment,” buttons, like “Let’s Meet for Coffee” followed by “You passed, now you can phone me” or “You failed, bozo.”

Not sure where this will end. Maybe we will drown in our opinions and start regurgitating them (there are only a finite number of opinions one can have, surely. I am fast running out of my supply). Friends will tune out, and it will become harder for corporations to find employees who fit squarely into their boxes. I see more buttons for Facebook: “no opinions, please” and “opinionated out.” “Gimme the facts, man” will be back in style. Perhaps those job ads will change their qualifying line to, “Only strong silent types without a Facebook page need apply.”

And so the world will go around and another age will surely dawn upon us.

The Facebook Family

I remember the old days when we wrote letters to relatives and friends in distant lands, when we phoned the ones nearby to “keep in touch” and when we read the obituary notices to find out who had died.

I have to admit I do not do any of that today. All my friends and most of my far•flung family are now on Facebook. If I don’t see them on the newsfeed, there must be something wrong. Time to “poke” them. Now, you have to be worried if your “friend count” suddenly drops – did someone die? Or did they “un•friend” you because of something you said (or did not say) on your wall or heavens forbid) on his wall? Have I overstayed my welcome by posting my gossip and self•promotion on my friend’s walls? Click – and I am history!

I find out about new births when baby pictures start appearing on my friends’ Facebook pages; or of people moving homes when the backgrounds of those pictures change. “And why are you putting on so much weight, guy – sitting in front of the computer too much?” “What’s with the glasses? Eye strain?” Join the club.

Do I need to send greetings cards anymore? How about a poke instead • “Happy birthday, man, how’s it hanging?” Simple! No need to go to a wedding or birthday party any more – just have my friends upload grainy photographs from the party, captured on a cell phone camera, so that I could check them out and “be there.” No need to come to my parties either, I’ll just post pictures of myself on my Facebook page, blowing out umpteen candles on a $10 supermarket cake, with only me in attendance.

You know, despite all this networking, it feels kind of lonely out in Facebookland. We seem to have networked ourselves into obscurity. To feel guilty when you phone someone and get the real person instead of his voice mail is now becoming a common human reaction. Who would rather be sitting with their spouse or significant other on the same couch and texting each other instead of conversing? I mean, we do it at the office, why not at home? We may get some peace and quiet after all (other than for those tic•tic sounds of keyboards or phone pads). And in ten years from now, our vocal chords would have atrophied and we will have ended up with a circumscribed vocabulary heavily populated with “LOL, Hi, OMG, Hi5” and other acronyms that I am trying hard not to learn.

I don’t know, man – especially in these days of cheap long•distance phone calls and free video conferencing, I think we need the face•to•face more than the face•book. I wonder when the tide will change; when our keyboarding fingers will ache for a rest, our vocal chords thirst for exercise, and our souls hunger for the presence of other souls to remind us that we exist, and are defined, only in relation to community