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.

I must be the world’s worst target for advertizing

I must be the world’s worst target for advertizing. And yet I am in the prime demographic of those supposedly with high disposable income, in their mid fifties, who are empty nesters etc. And if I am the worst target, are others in my cohort becoming, like me, deaf and blind to advertizing?

Okay, here’s what I do: I skip through the daily newspaper, reading only the headlines (conditioned by Twitter, of course), pausing only at a few to read further if they interest me. I do not notice the adverts, especially the full page glossy ones that act like warning lights for me to skip to the next page. TV commercial breaks are for taking a personal break, and there are many breaks to be taken these days: checking on the cooking, laundry, e•mail, Facebook and Twitter, and that break that is increasing in frequency—the washroom. When I am online, I zero into my search results or e•mail and ignore all peripheral ads that vie for attention. These ads have become white noise to me, even the recent one that pops up dangerously close to the middle of my screen with pictures of young women who supposedly want to date me – hey, I’m married, update your profile on me through your hidden cookie! I’m dreading the day when every second line of text in my e•mail will be a subliminal ad tempting me to buy, buy, buy. At that point I will have to return to handwritten postal mail.

Why have I become like this? After years of spurious consumption and with a declining income that comes with age (due to the associated false perception of being less productive as we age), I only live for the work I have left to do. I downgraded from Cadillac to Cobalt. Guys – don’t you get it? I just need to buy what I need, not what I want anymore. No amount of advertizing can stimulate a want in me – that muscle is dead, kaput! And they haven’t yet invented a chemical to get it functioning again, although they have invented lots of other pills to get boomers’ non•functioning organs to stand and deliver. Advertizing has also failed to deliver; its sizzle is always bigger than its steak. And we have come to believe that, so why waste time on a lie?

I tried engaging the next generation on this subject—the ones who were brought up on ads and seem to need them as badly as they need TV, cell phones and the Internet. I was told that they liked ads for their entertainment value (yes, today’s ads can be quite funny, and if they are not, there is supposedly something wrong with them) and for the images of lifestyle that they create. But that does not alone create a “buy.” The buy decision is now shaped by not just advertizing, but by user experiences shared via social media, and by the skimpy money supply available to the younger generation living from one paycheque to the next. And as we globalize, that supply is becoming skimpier.

I think corporations need to recognize advertizing’s present overreach. They need to ramp back and become more integrated into the myriad of influences that lead to a purchase. The mere fact that multiple internet businesses have advertizing as their main revenue stream does not empower advertizing to intrude so overtly into our lives. Corporations could also do their bit to increase the buying power of consumers by opening their stockpiles of cash and investing again, getting people back into real work and off temporary, minimum wage jobs. Start creating wealthier suckers who are willing to succumb to their alluring messages in the future. As for me, I am a lost cause. Advertizers, take me off your mailing lists. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

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!”