Hooked on the Social Media Drug

I remember when social media sites were first set up. They invited us to join for free, to exchange messages, pictures and other snapshots of our lives with friends scattered far and wide over the planet. When I signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I thought this was an excellent way of keeping in touch with the people I had met in the many corners of the world where I had lived or travelled to. I even started contributing original content for free in order to keep the channel alive—we all did. And we saw the means of promoting ourselves and our occupations (especially for self-employed ones among us like artists, writers and musicians) without falling prey to big corporate costs for such promotion, costs that hitherto had shut us out of traditional media.

Then something started to happen. Venture capitalists and other funding sources started reeling in the endless supply of funds to these social media sites, saying “Grow up boys, and pay your rent, now.” So, the Social Media sites started to take on advertizing to supplement their income. Their promise to advertisers: a captive audience that could be segmented in a myriad of different ways with sophisticated algorithms, and fed advertisements based on taste, geography, budget etc., at the click of a button and at a relatively low cost. They left the traditional media in the dust when it came to reach, relevance and cost.

Then something else started to happen. Bad guys cottoned onto how effective social media could be if they could infiltrate it with their own messaging that could help influence the outcome of public opinion and policy, national elections, and human behaviour. Very soon we saw people meeting at parties and retreating to their handhelds, people talking across the table via Messenger, pornography becoming a staple with no age barrier and differentiated only by which brand one consumed, and wild card politicians being elected to office thanks to third party influencers in social media.

When the regulators started to grumble about how powerful the tech companies were becoming and began applying retail tax laws to them just as they did for bricks and mortar operators, and threatened further regulation, the tech companies decided to put on a good corporate citizen face and capitalize further on the situation. They came back promising the following to: (1) favour personal content over promotional content for users in order to “restore the platform to its original intent.” (2) restrict promotional content to paid advertizing only, thereby getting more revenue from those independent artists, writers and musicians who previously promoted to friends and followers without having to pay for advertizing; there was no mention of how frequently this revamped paid advertizing would be hoisted upon the user base—i.e. more often than before, or less often? (3) hint that advertizing rates would increase because viewership was expected to drop due to #1 above. The bottom line from these changes: prices are going up, effectiveness is going down; advertisers and users lose, social media platform wins!

My old guru used to say, “Beware when they come and offer sweets outside the school gates. The candy could be laced with drugs, and you will become an addict very quickly.” That analogy is true here too. We were sucked in with the promise of becoming famous for free. Now it’s payback time and the fledgling social media company start-ups, that we helped grow into large corporations, have got us by the short and curlies, and we are hooked without any means of disengaging. We haven’t learnt much have we? My old guru must be turning in his grave.

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.

From writing, to publishing, to being read – a long journey

Books take a long time to be born, we know that. I’ve had stories published after 30 years. Two of my novels took seven years between their writing and their publication. My other books have averaged three to four years in that pipeline. That is usually par for the course if one is not writing pulp fiction. But I’ve faced another situation which I thought of writing about: where a book can take also as long as the aforementioned publishing cycle between being purchased and being read by a reader.

I have often heard, years after I signed a book at a reading for an avid reader who was ga-ga at the time, that “Oh yes, your book, hmm…it’s still in my reading pile.” Another reader wrote to me the minute she received her copy, saying she was diving straight into it that evening; when I discreetly inquired a few months later, she was still reading my book, along with a dozen others – apparently she reads books in batches, and mine was in the latest batch of 12. Yet another reader has read up to page 51 of one of my books she started in 2009; this notification is sitting for the whole world to see up on Goodreads – I’d like to think it’s because she’s forgotten she has a Goodreads account and not because my book sucks! And others buy books as gifts, collectibles, and trophies, with no intention of ever reading them.

I can understand why books are given out for free in copious quantities. It is because the traditional pipeline, where you actually purchase a copy, does not fetch enough readers, we are told. But the free channel is worse when it comes to actual readers per freebie. I went up on Wattpad two years ago and posted 12 of my already published stories on that burgeoning forum. I was pleased with the result: I have received tons of good comments, one negative comment, many followers, and 220,000 “reads” as of today. But on closer inspection, I see the “fall off” rate: 122K reads for the opening Foreword, and the balance 98K is split on a declining scale between 20K reads for the first story and 5K reads for the last story. Am I to infer from this statistic that of the 220,000 only 5,000 finished what they started? It also makes me wonder whether I am indeed writing crap…

I can also understand why people blog: under the forlorn hope that they are “instantly read and permanently remembered,” and that the dreaded long tail, i.e. from writing to publishing to being read, has been finally eliminated.  I hope that is indeed the case and not the starker one of “instantly read and instantly forgotten,” or worse yet, “flittingly seen and permanently drowned” in the deluge of content constantly washing up on our computers.

There is no solution to being read faster in a universe deluged in print matter. It is unfortunate that the last two generations have produced a disproportionately higher number of writers while they have taken out a vast number of readers due to the increasing time/life crunch. If serious writers continue to write, they must look to the future and believe that they are writing for posthumous recognition, for a time when people will be curious to learn more about our present Age of Expression (or is it the Age of Narcissism?)

And I wonder how the hierarchy of books would be re-ordered if we stopped counting “best-sellers” and counted “most-read” instead?

Social Networking – a must-have or a time waster?

A couple of years ago, a reputable speaker at a literary conference told me that if I did not build a social networking platform I would be of no use to publishers in the future. In other words, I had to bring the audience to me, which in the past I had thought the publisher did. I guess he had outsourced this job – to me! Having no one else in the distribution chain to pass the buck down to, I complied, and got into heavy social networking.

Let’s see, I registered my own domain name as www.shanejoseph.com and built my own website with e•commerce capability, populating it with new content weekly (I’m not a Yahoo or Google who can update content hourly – at least, not yet!). I blogged and twittered, and joined lots of online forums where writers and readers gathered. I syndicated my blogs, became a reviewer on Goodreads and copied my book reviews over to Amazon whenever I was mindful of the p’s and q’s in my content. I Facebook’d and Linked•In’d and even started giving talks on the value of building an online platform – heck it was fashionable, why not cash in? However, I recall, so were beads and bell•bottoms and drainpipes and sideburns and “give peace a chance” love•ins, once upon a time. Very soon, I was spending several hours a week on my growing platform. I was famous but still poor.

I even thought of opening my website to advertisers and giving away all my books as free e•book downloads. Heck, I could deliver free copies to my huge platform of readers – numbering in their thousands at this point – and claim to be a best•seller, or at least, “the most widely circulated.” I’d obviously incur the wrath of my fellow writers who were trying to make a living out of this vocation; I would be banned from the writer’s union, and would never be guaranteed that any of those free copies would ever be read (people don’t even read paid•for copies anymore as they function better as doorstops, coffee placemats, bookshelf adornments, and claims to literacy rather than as vehicles of enlightenment). I might even end up turning the existing, broken book publishing model on its head. Or I might be ignored as a crackpot and dismissed with, “His writing must suck, because good things are not free, and free things are not good.”

If getting people to read your books is the end•game, then operating an online platform is essential but insufficient. You need to put the book in the reader’s hand and say “read it,” and they in turn need to put the book in other readers’ hands and say, “This is a damned good book – read it!” The online platform creates awareness and builds mystique, but there is a much longer journey from that point on the continuum to turning curious browsers into readers and endorsers.

I am not dismissing the online platform. It seems a necessary burden in these times. But I need to balance this effort with focussing on my writing and making it the best ever. I want an unprovoked reader to read my book, put it up on his social networking site and say, “Hey, listen up! Read this book, it’s so cool!” Now, that endorsement would indeed be a desirable end•result, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!”