THOUGHTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
GIVEN ‘THE WISDOM OF CROWDS,’ HAS IT MADE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE?
I have every reason to be grateful to social media, because without e-mail (which I guess can be so classified) I might well have given up writing. Traditional publishers are notoriously bad at passing on fan mail and it wasn’t until my third book—and only the paperback edition of that – that I asked for my e-mail address to be inserted. Up until then, despite having written a Best Seller, I had received almost no mail from readers—and I was somewhat disconcerted.
Either my writing was not resonating with readers—or my publisher was not forwarding my mail. After I found some mail addressed to me in my editor’s office—stuffed some place out of mind—I began to suspect the latter. Later I heard from writer friends that they had experienced the same thing—and that such neglect (part of a much greater pattern of indifference) was commonplace.
Why have traditional publishers treated so many so many of their authors so badly for so long? Because they could. They had the power—and there was always another writer waiting in line. A second reason is that the profit motive is not necessarily conducive to good behavior. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but business is not synonymous with either honesty or manners. When you think about it, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Historically, if you wanted to get a little richer, you just went and grabbed it (“it” being gold, your neighbor’s wife, land, whatever). Despite the form being modified, the substance hasn’t changed that much—and neither has human nature.
I wrote that traditional publishers “had the power”—the past tense—because whether they are still in the same position of strength that they were is a moot point. On the face of it, they have been weakened by the fact that publishing independently is now a practical proposition. On the other hand, traditional publishers have the vast financial resources to dominate—whereas self-published writers, by and large, do not. But, at least traditional publishing is no longer the monopoly it once was—and new forms of publishing will emerge. Cooperation by groups of indies seems to be to me to be the most attractive route. But almost anything would be better than the dominance of publishing by a handful of large corporate entities.
I worry greatly about the dominance of our society by large corporate entities—particularly because they are not delivering the economic prosperity for most Americans they have long promised. They have now worked out how to skim the cream—so to speak—but let the rest go sour. Hence we have booming corporate profits—and a seemingly ever rising stock market—but the earnings of most Americans are in decline. Is there a national outcry over this (and there certainly should be)? No. Our movers, shakers, and the media they own avoid such issues like the plague—and voters largely don’t vote.
After my e-mail address appeared, a deluge of fan mail resulted—many thousands (and climbing)—which persuaded me that I should hang in there—and I have. I give thanks every day for that fact—and I hold my fans in very high regard (none more so than my #1 fan—and very special friend, Deb Wagoner). I should add that most of my readers, whom I have got to know personally, have become friends. Clearly, I have a high class of reader!
I regard it as a great and wonderful thing to be able to communicate with my readers directly—and vice versa—but I also have to say that e-mail is the greatest distraction from serious writing yet invented. Hell, it is the greatest distraction from just about anything. It’s a time sink. Does the good outweigh the bad? I think it does, but it is finely balanced.
Blogging is another matter. I would like to say that I took to it immediately, but the opposite was the case. Also, I read some very bad blogs early on which doubtless colored my views.
A core problem was that I had great difficulty blogging myself. I had trained myself to write books—and mostly fiction at that—so couldn’t quite see where writing about myself entered the picture (and many of the early blogs I read were highly personal). One the other hand, I could see that my readers could well be interested—particularly about my writing progress. Unfortunately, writing about a book before it is finished violates my writer’s superstition that a book in progress shouldn’t be talked about.
What to do? Nothing wasn’t an option for two reasons: Firstly, a writer needs every exposure to the marketplace he can get. Secondly, my good friend, Tim Roderick, kept urging me (in the nicest possible way). Tim is a former Apache AH-64 attack helicopter pilot and a decorated gunship pilot—and is nothing if not persistent. I was outgunned.
I finally decided to blog without planning—to make the whole thing an exercise in spontaneity—and to write about whatever came to mind regardless of whether it concerned me, my writing, or not.
Since I normally have some idea of what I am going to write before I even sit down at the computer, this new approach would really take me out of my comfort zone. The pain! The pain! On the other hand, I was curious to see what my mind might come up with. It would be a great challenge—and like cod liver oil, even if unpleasant, probably good for me.
Galloping grasshoppers! Spontaneity has worked. Of course, I do work in stuff I read and so on—which suggests an element of planning—but normally I do that in hot blood, or don’t include it. Paradoxically, I now find it easier to write when I don’t have such a focus. I’m finding that spontaneity is fun—and terrific exercise for the mind.
Overall, I find blogging a very good thing. Here, I am not primarily commenting on my own positive experience, but am much influenced by the high quality of some other blogs I have discovered. These now rival the best of journalism. I read them with the same focus I give magazines such as THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY. That is high praise, by the way.
We now come to Facebook. Here, I admit defeat so far. I have had a Facebook page for over four years but have never written in it regularly because I find most of the content pretty trivial. I have the feeling that this is arrogance on my part because I do understand the advantages of keeping in touch with people you would otherwise drift way from. I am far less convinced by the advantages of building up numerous “Facebook friends” you don’t know from a hole in the wall.
These days Facebook has made so many changes I don’t even know how it works. Accordingly, my plan it to recruit a guide and assault its bastions once again. It is such a major presence that—like it or not—I don’t think it can be avoided—and I am much influenced by the fact that more than a few people I love use it (though seemingly, where they are siblings, cannot—or will not—write letters).
My track record at instantly understanding Social Media really isn’t good at all. I like to think I have an open-mind, and on many issues I do, but Social Media caught me decidedly short. I screwed up again when it came to LinkedIn after I was introduced to it by my good friend, GI Wilson (a former Marine colonel of some distinction). Fortunately, in this case, I eventually took the time to write an adequate profile—and I have been somewhat amazed at the response. Simply put—LinkedIn works—and and I intend to give it even more attention in the future.
Has Social Media made the world a better place? Well, it has certainly made the world a different place—but different is not necessarily better.
If you believe in the Wisdom of Crowds—the concept that many minds can normally come up with a superior answer—you would think that we would merely have to list the problems society faces—and the answers would be forthcoming now that communication has become a resource accessible (more or less) to us all.
I see scant evidence that this is the case. Perhaps this is because it is early days and we don’t know how to make optimum use of it yet—or perhaps crowds are not really that wise.
I haven’t given up hope yet. In some ways, somewhat to my surprise, I am an optimist.
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