Social Media: Platform or Playground?

A photo depiction of the advantages of social media
Source: usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com

One blogger’s opinion on the ups and downs of social networking, Part 1

I’ve been intrigued by – and passionate about – the cultural impact of social media for nearly two years now, since I was stuck at home recovering from major surgery, feeling isolated and bored. I ‘caught the social media bug’ the day I discovered that many of the authors I love – those whom I thought I had no hope of meeting in person – have a well-established social presence on Twitter and Facebook. Most are very open, approachable, polite, and some of them regularly engage with current and future readers, sharing news, asking questions, and exchanging ideas. All are using social media as a platform to inform, to introduce themselves to current and future readers, and to interactively connect with their audience. This is what makes social media such a powerful tool for spreading the word – and a dose of good will – about you as a “brand,” whatever your profession may be.

I also discovered the personal side – and the power – of social networking.  I found people from across the country and all over the globe who connected with me, becoming new friends literally overnight. Brought together by common interests, kept together by the power of a personal connection – going on to share each other’s joys, triumphs, losses and life lessons – these friendships are vastly different than those we experience in real life, but are still amazingly powerful and deeply meaningful.  Some are now over – sadly living in the “lessons learned” file – while others are as close, nurturing and loyal as family. I’m grateful for all of them.

In a matter of weeks I went from a woman alone in her home surrounded by books to a welcome member of a community of like-minded, passionate people (in my case, other readers, writers and would-be writers) with whom I could connect, share my thoughts, discover new ideas, develop new skills, consider other viewpoints, have a good laugh, post crazy photos, share favorite music, and talk about wonderful books (and book boyfriends) 24/7/365. Despite some harsh and painful experiences, and in spite of some epic fumbles of my own, it’s truly opened the world to me. I no longer merely live in a rural valley off Hwy 101 in Northern California, I am fully engaged in a global community that keeps me informed, entertained and engaged, bringing spice to my life and meaning to my relationships.

But (you were expecting a ‘but’ weren’t you?), looking back, this was what I believed then…

socialmedia

…and this is what I know now.

photo of a boy and girl sticking their tongues out at each other

Wherever human beings gather, physically or virtually, they make a conscious choice to bring their best – or their very worst – behavior.  Their biases, assumptions and judgments, once displayed only in the presence of friends, family, schoolmates or co-workers, are now unleashed on the rest of us, very publicly and most often anonymously, with a healthy dose of self-righteous impunity.

Bullying on social media is not only common, it’s rampant. People hurt one another, regularly and intentionally, preying on each other’s vulnerabilities, insecurities, and personal demons.  Whether driven by a need for attention, recognition or control, their tactics are shocking, reminiscent of the kind of emotional terrorism that harkens back to middle school, with the same devastating results.

I have come to believe that not unlike families, schools and workplaces, there are those who engage in social media to indulge a darker passion: cultivating drama, paranoia, and ill-will, pitting one “clique” against another, ‘taking people down’ whom they perceive to be a threat, and worse. Colleagues have received death threats for expressing a opinion –albeit not in the most constructive way, but certainly not one that should provoke such viral hatred. Campaigns have been launched to destroy reputations, plant false and demeaning book reviews, and worse. In only two years I’ve witnessed that – and more – among people who claim to be professionals in the literary community.

Unlike what you might say in the heat of an argument – the words that fly out of your mouth before your brain can engage – typing a post, creating a tweet, sending a message, or writing a blog article takes at least some deliberation, and is immediately followed by another choice: a willful decision to click (or not to click) the “post” button and publish your words.  There is plenty of time for a filter to kick in – a sense of reason, an opportunity for cooler heads to prevail, a sense of common courtesy to emerge. Or time to step back, take a deep breath and choose the high road – ignore, unfollow, block, reach out and try find common ground – or respectfully agree to disagree. Unfortunately, all too often it doesn’t.

This week, the “front-page news” on Facebook and other platforms is the “Blogger Blackout of 2014.”  The blackout is intended as a show of solidarity by a group of book bloggers who took offense to an article published in The Guardian by an author who became obsessed with tracking down the source of a bad review. The source was a blogger, and the saga that follows reads like a crazy crime novel. Is it true? I have no idea. Is the blogger’s version true? There is no way to be certain. Was the review objectively honest, or abusive? I haven’t read it – only the author’s description of it. But it certainly created a firestorm (for lack of another socially-acceptable word).  The incident itself happened long ago, and in any other time might be all but forgotten, displaced by real news about real tragedies and issues of much greater substance. But it has been brought back to life through the lightening-fast network of social media, leading to a virtual stand-off between two groups that need each other – all over an isolated, extraordinarily unusual dispute between ONE author and ONE blogger.  Now, some bloggers are refusing – either for a specific period of time, or forever – to review for any author, using that article as a platform to justify their decision. Likewise, some authors have decided they will no longer engage with any blogger who joins the blackout. Emotions are running amuck…and so is the damage.

What’s my point in bringing all of this to light today? It’s simple. This isn’t professional behavior – it’s playground behavior. And social media isn’t a playground – it’s a powerful, universal platform where your words and deeds live forever, defining you and what you stand for. It’s your reputation, your brand, your character, your integrity that’s on public display, 24/7/365.  Whether an author or a blogger, if you espouse yourself to be a professional, act like one. Take the gloves off, move your disputes off-line, and hash them out like the adults you claim to be, not the bullies you appear to be. And, please – leave the rest of us out of your drama.

Each one of us has an inherent right and the freedom to do what we feel we must to express our view on an issue or respond to a professional or personal affront. But to penalize all authors for the actions of one, to drive a wedge between authors and bloggers — who are by nature interdependent — is knee-jerk at best, and cyber-bullying at worst.  In any event, it’s unprofessional, and I cannot support it. There is too much to lose. And as for the rest of this playground behavior — back-biting, demeaning, demoralizing, bullying, conspiring and competing — nobody wins in that kind of game.

It’s time to change the rules.

In my next post…new rules.

Note: The referenced article can be viewed here ~ please read responsibly and remember that I am the messenger ~ I choose not to engage in this debate, but will reply to all comments from my own – hopefully objective and professional – perspective.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/18/am-i-being-catfished-an-author-confronts-her-number-one-online-critic

Authors and Social Media: Opportunities and Risks

Last week, I had the honor of being invited to do a guest post on an independent author’s web site.  She didn’t assign me a topic; she simply asked that I focus my comments on something I’m passionate about.  I spent a lot of time considering what might be meaningful to post on an independent author’s blog.  As a blogger, reviewer and publicist with a deep passion for the world of reading and writing – and a special place in my heart for independent, self-published authors – I wanted to find a topic that would encourage, inform, inspire or at least generate discussion beyond the initial post.  I finally decided to write an opinion piece about a subject that fascinates me: “Web 2.0”, often called the “second coming of the internet”; specifically, the phenomenon of social media marketing and its powerful impact on the literary world.

Let me begin by saying that I do not hold myself out as an expert at being an author, a blogger, or even a social media “consumer”.  I’ve only been a presence on social media for a little over a year; a blogger for less than that; and I’ve yet to finish the first chapter of “my” book. I will also admit that as a newbie on social media over the past year or so, I’ve made some embarrassing mistakes born of naiveté,  misplaced trust, and ill-timed words or actions written in haste or in anger – things that I most certainly regret, but can’t undo. It’s been a steep learning curve: exciting, challenging, sometimes even agonizing.  But when all is said and done, it has been worth every minute spent figuring it out (and I will be the first to assert that I still have a long way to go).

For those of you who may have read this blog before, visited my Facebook page, or seen my posts on Twitter (@Lady_LovesBooks), you may know that I recently quit my full-time career in healthcare to pursue a passion for and fascination with social media marketing.  My goal is a simple one:  to develop the business acumen, credibility and reputation necessary to more effectively support and promote independent, self-published authors.  Like others of my generation, the reward is not a financial one; it’s the privilege of offering a service that meets a need, and the success of the authors I care so much about. What was once an idle interest born of a life-long addiction to reading and writing has now become a full-time commitment to observing and studying social media, and using the knowledge and experience I have to help new authors get the recognition they deserve by reading, reviewing, collaborating, supporting and promoting their work.

So why this fascination with social media? For one thing, there is no question that it is here to stay. Web 2.0 has brought new life, immediacy, and interactivity to the world, be it through breaking news, local or international marketing,  global communications, or simple social connections.  Social media is especially interesting because it consists primarily of loosely linked, “communities” of like-minded people with common interests from all over the world. Book clubs that used to meet at a neighbor’s house on Sunday afternoon now meet “virtually” – 24/7 – in global reader networks.  Currently, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google+ are the leaders, but we all wonder what the “next big thing” might be; and now, be it in Silicon Valley, a basement, or a detached garage, someone, somewhere is working on it.

Social media is powerful and ever-present. It is instant, highly relevant, and because it consists primarily of “user-generated content”, it is also all but impossible to control. It can make or break businesses, large and small. Consider the YouTube video showing Domino’s pizza employees who filmed themselves “contaminating” take-out orders. Talk about being caught with your pants down?!  That video went viral before the executives at Domino’s knew what hit them, and they had no defense for it. Whereas it still takes “Sixty Minutes” months to produce a televised editorial piece, it takes only seconds for anyone with a video camera and a social media account to create a sensation (e.g., “the history of dance”) or bring down a giant corporation by exposing its vulnerability.

Speaking from painful personal experience, social media can also make and break people and relationships faster than the blink of an eye. Tweets and posts are copied and shared by anyone, any time, for better or for worse. So take it from me, if you don’t want to see your words, innermost thoughts & fears, confessions or photos splattered across the web or through e-mail for the world to see, keep them to yourself. Because of its relative anonymity, it is often unrelentingly cruel and unforgiving as well. Trust is a rare commodity in a competitive world, but it is the foundation for all relationships, personal and professional. Those who don’t understand and respect that will most likely repeat the same mistakes again and again.

All authors need to take advantage of social media to reach their audience, but independent authors have the most to gain or lose.  It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s free, and with a unique selling proposition – the “one thing” that makes you, as an author, stand out from the rest of the field in your genre – followers and fans will find you, and possibly become your biggest supporters. Used arrogantly, abusively or without sincerity, they can also become your biggest detractors. This is word-of-mouth marketing 101: every encounter leaves an impression; but the stakes are higher now, because the potential audience is global. Make every impression (tweet, post, or comment) count in your favor. If it doesn’t add to the value of your brand – your reputation – don’t do it. Knowing how to navigate and use various types of social media effectively and appropriately can make all the difference between success and failure, especially for an independent author.

Here are a few facts to consider when thinking about the value of understanding and harnessing the power of social media:

  • From its launch in 2004 through the end of 2012, Facebook gained more than 845 million active users.
  • Twitter has more than 500 million users that generate well over 340 million unique tweets per day. (Retweets broaden their reach exponentially – for better or for worse).
  • Within 16 days of its launch, Google+ gained over 10 million active users.
  • In early 2012, LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, had more than 150 million members in over 200 countries and territories.
  • YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world – only Google generates more searches daily. YouTube reports more than 4 billion views per day, more than 800 million unique users per day, and over 600 million mobile views per day. YouTube has, in and of itself, launched entire businesses; and, as shown in the Domino’s example, has led to staggering revenue losses and public relations nightmares!
  • With respect to the power of reviews that are publicly posted on social media, blogs and other reader-focused web sites, Nielsen research has shown that 70% of people trust reviews; that percentage reaches 90% if the customer knows the person who wrote them.  All authors know that reviews are a critical component of success or failure, making it important to be visible, promote relentlessly, and – equally important – to understand and develop trusting relationships with colleagues, bloggers, reviewers and the larger reading audience.
  • Amazon.com is touted by marketing experts as the “king” of user-generated content, because it encourages everyone who makes a purchase to rate and review it. It ranks highly among marketing experts because it is timely and the content generated by its users is highly relevant. It answers questions, and solves problems; in a literary context, reviews help readers decide what books to add to their collection. Amazon’s vast customer database and state-of-the art interactive technology is also powerful enough to take the next step and recommend products, based on earlier purchases and searches.  Based on buying history, the software determines what a reader might prefer and makes suggestions , using personal language such as “If you like this, you might also like…” and “Readers who bought this book also bought…”.  Ratings on e-commerce sites like Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Amazon and Goodreads (also owned by Amazon) heavily influence a reader’s current and future purchasing decisions.  Add personal recommendations on Facebook, Twitter, blog sites, and elsewhere on the web, this old-fashioned “word of mouth” approach takes on a whole new meaning.

For a busy author who simply wants to write and let someone else take care of the promotional work, using social media is a choice; but it must be a thoughtful one. Some of the busiest, hardest-working authors I have had the pleasure of meeting through social media regard it as a priceless tool for building relationships, and therefore “brand loyalty”. Some are much more effective than others; the ones that are most effective know that old-fashioned, personal “word of mouth” advertising is still THE #1 marketing strategy in the world, and no one is likely to be as successful without it. Social media is exactly that – the fastest, most immediate word-of-mouth vehicle that now exists for marketing current releases and generating excitement about “the next big thing” – be it yours or someone else’s creation.

When advising authors as a free-lance consultant and student of social media, I always encourage them to set up a unique, personal presence on Twitter and Facebook, at least. Evidence shows that a loyal audience is only a click away, and readers are more than willing and eager to communicate with the authors they admire.  Don’t underestimate the power this has in setting you apart from others in your genre. Because once these author-reader relationships develop – whether formal (e.g., a “street team” or a fan club) – or informal (simple tweets and conversations), these readers become your biggest, most vocal supporters – “evangelists” is a term used in marketing, and we’ve all seen examples of it – just look at follower counts.

Authors I consider role models in engaging readers through social media are Deborah Harkness (the All Souls Trilogy), Sylvain Reynard (the Gabriel Emerson series), Meredith Wild (the Hardwired series), Sydney Jamesson (The Story of Us trilogy), Christina Lauren (actually two authors, famous for the Beautiful series), E.A. Stanbridge (Blogger, “Captive in the Storm”), and A.J. Linn (A Gentleman’s Affair & A Gentleman’s Secret).  All of the successful authors I have the privilege to know understand these 8 basic rules to engage and maintain a strong base of followers. They are:

  1. Be who you are. This is all about transparency, and you can’t farm it out. Followers and fans can tell if you are disingenuous, or if you’ve hired a promoter to do your tweets and posts for you.
  2. Be friendly and open. Remember that it’s not all about you. Readers want to know that you care about them, value their opinion, and appreciate their support.
  3. Be diplomatic and tempered. All people have to base their perceptions on is words on a page. Words either encourage or discourage; they are easy to post but nearly impossible to take back. NEVER detract from your professional colleagues in the literary world; there are plenty of readers out there for everyone, and it will backfire on you every time.  It reflects poorly on you as an author. Your public face is your reputation; so remember that those who work with you also represent you. Make sure that what people see is a professional, a colleague, a fellow member of a larger community, albeit in a competitive industry.
  4. Be easy and colloquial. Basically, don’t be stuffy and critical. Be approachable. Communicate naturally. Use your sense of humor liberally. Show your human side.
  5. Be open to criticism. This is not to say be accepting of unacceptable behavior; it simply means to learn from the feedback you receive, IF it is well-intentioned.
  6. Be ready to fix.  If you do something that you regret – or should regret – be humble enough to admit it and apologize. A sincere apology is often the most effective way to restore trust, and with trust comes loyalty.
  7. Be ready to friend and follow. This is common, simple etiquette. Yes, your timeline may be full of conversations you don’t want to see – so simply manage the chaos using lists. Always try to thank new followers and welcome them to your TL.
  8. Post timely and interesting content. You don’t have to post any more often than you have time to do so, and you certainly don’t have to respond to every tweet or post, but investing that time has genuine value to your followers. Respond as promptly as you can, when you can. Engage followers early and keep them engaged with updates, teasers and news. Celebrate your good reviews and thank those who gave them. What you do with bad reviews is up to you, but I suggest either tactfully responding, even thanking the reviewer; or simply ignoring them. Avoid too much shameless self-promotion; it is a real turn-off and makes you seem self-absorbed, even arrogant. Maintain a sense of humility and humanity.

Social media is full of people in all walks of life, at every rung on the popularity ladder, who don’t necessarily follow these simple rules of social media relations.  We’ve all seen it, and some of us have  experienced it: powerful and not-so-powerful people who are discourteous, defensive, aggressive, insulting, self-serving, protective, insensitive, argumentative, “spammy”, ingratiating, and – almost worse – automated, using a service or another person to tweet or post disengaged, empty, canned responses.  You get what you give, and if you use these self-destructive tactics, you take the enormous risk of alienating the very people you depend on to support your current – and future success.

I would love to hear your comments on this opinion piece – and engage in a discussion about it with you, if you like. Please leave a comment on my blog, or contact me via Facebook or Twitter (the links are available in the right column of this page).  Thanks for “listening” ~ see you around the Web!