The following is the second essay in a series (that I might or might not continue to write) exploring my own curiosity and dread at having to market my first novel.
“Like-Watching,” and Facebook Givers/Takers
Back in the day, there seemed to be only one real use for Facebook: the term “social networking” was broad, but it pretty much covered all the bases. You started an account for purely social reasons, whether that was to meet new people, or re-connect with old school friends, or keep in contact with those you barely see, or (somewhat nefariously) keep tabs on the social activities of others.
What drew so many people to Facebook originally (and what continues to draw them to the site) is that “pure social function” that I mentioned in my last post. Facebook really does have the potential to be an amazing force for good. How often would I talk with my cousins across the country if not for the social network? How else would I be able to share pictures of my son with so many people who actually do want to see him grow, but who live states away?
Seen through another lens, however, Facebook also has the potential to be an impressively destructive force, one that produces crippling anxiety because you see it as revealing only emptiness and absence and disinterest and hate. The function for users is less about connection, and instead about personal revelation, the speaking of one’s mind, the sharing of ideas/ information/ life details that the user hopes the world will see and/or read. I won’t spend this post talking about how people share “hate” on Facebook: once again, just close your eyes and picture election season, or the gun control debate. Yeah, we know what hate looks like. (See Hello There, Racists for a visual.)
But what do I mean by “emptiness” and “disinterest” and “absence”?
When we see the function of Facebook as journal or autobiography, and our friends as our readers, we no longer care about connection, but instead about consumption and reaction. In other words, when I post something to Facebook (a status update, a photo, etc.), increasingly I have begun to measure its value by the number of comments that I get, or the number of likes. As I mentioned in my last post, these features allow us to see the tangible and immediate reaction not just to our writing (if, say, we write something funny about the Oscars) but to our very lives (if we post a major announcement). And here’s the rough part: too often, I measure value not by the accumulated comments and likes, the positive glass-half-full view, but by the number of comments and likes that I don’t get.
Yes, sometimes you’re too busy living your life to care about such things. When my baby boy was born and I uploaded my first photo with my son, I didn’t give a rat’s ass who liked it. (Hell, I was too exhausted to think about something like that!) Over a hundred people wound up liking the photo, or commenting on my wall, or whatever, and I genuinely appreciated it all, how much the world seemed to care about this milestone in my life…but I was immersed in the moment itself, and the posting of pictures and updates was an uncontainable outpouring that had nothing to do with audience reaction. I just wanted to share because I was happy.
But milestones are not a daily occurrence. If they were, then they wouldn’t be “milestones.”
So what of the times when you make a Facebook contribution and you’re not “too busy to care” how the world will react? When, say, you post a status update and a photo of your new haircut, and the “likes” are thinner than you’d expect? When you get zero comments? Maybe likes and comments are not intended to be validating votes, but that’s our current culture: we vote on American Idol and The Voice and a thousand other shows that I don’t watch, and—despite having zero credibility as critics—we write reviews on Goodreads and Yelp and Untappd and Flixster and imdb.com and Amazon. On Facebook, where there are no true “reviews” of a status update or photo, no real judges and no polls, isn’t the “like” our unit of measurement, our vote about what we find to be valuable/ important/ funny/ heart-warming/ etc.? All these status updates, and I chose this one to like.
The more you consider a tepid response to something you find important, the more you find yourself thinking about all of the people who could have commented or “liked” a comment and yet did not. You think: did my wife not see this? Did my brother not see this? Is the entire world “too busy to care” about looking at Facebook right now? Is the world more consumed with important things, and I alone am worried about the status of my status update? Do they all hate it? Oh God, what have I done to offend [Insert Name]?
When this becomes your state of mind, you start “like-watching.”
Some updates and photos and comments carry heavier weights than others, of course. If I post via Untappd what beer I am currently drinking, I really don’t care what sort of response I get (it’s usually an accident anyway, a failure to turn off the “post to Facebook” button on the application). Some postings might need only a single like to make you happy, a sign that someone in the world cared when you typed “Oh man, I’m tired. Rough day at work.” The “like” becomes the equivalent of a back-pat, or a hug, or a high-five, just real (albeit virtual) acknowledgement of your shared humanity.
For other postings, though, only the sheer volume of “likes” from across multiple target audiences will satisfy you. (i.e. “I posted a comment about my most fervent belief, and I stated it as eloquently as possible! Must get agreement, or I will think I didn’t get my point across!”) The more important your update, the more you need the approval…the opposite, after all, is disapproval (in your own mind, at least)…and when you being to suspect that the world has disapproved of you, you begin to experience regret: man, was it ever a mistake to post that comment about how bored I am! The world thinks I’m pathetic! The world thinks I’m frivolous! AHHHH!
You start setting mental goals for what you hope will happen: how many likes will it take to make you happy, how many shares, how many comments, and whose validation do you care about most, whose approval are you trying to win, whose goat are you trying to get? You start comparing your own update to those of friends and family and acquaintances: how is that [Insert Name] was able to type simply “Ugh. Traffic!” and get 78 likes, and yet you typed an update about losing fifteen pounds and only got 17 likes? Does this say something about you, about how little the world thinks of your weight loss, or maybe about how they all think you’re a liar, or maybe that they all think you should’ve lost that weight a long time ago so just shut up already! You like-watch, because Facebook is your stage and the world is your audience and no one wants to take a bow in silence.
Over time, the more you like-watch, you also start to realize that Facebook is a world of “givers” and “takers.” We all fall somewhere on a broad spectrum here.
On the one end, there are the givers, the Facebook users who are always quick to leave you a comment, as if they are constantly plugged in and waiting for the opportunity to interact and serve as the world’s counselor. From the giver, nearly every status gets a like, and as a result, scores of Facebook friends are affirmed in their beliefs, or their sense of humor, or their general satisfaction with existing, or whatever. God bless the givers.
On the other end, though, there are the Facebook “takers,” the friends who never respond to wall comments, to messages, who never drop you a like, but who still manage to consistently update the world on their own lives. The taker soaks up all the praise, all the affirmation, but never pays it forward; this is the person who fills his pockets at the “give a penny, take a penny” dish…
I can’t say whether givers “like-watch” more than takers. I’d like to think that they don’t, that they’re just generous and caring and understanding, that they’re not looking for everyone to reciprocate the gesture, that they are truly acting selflessly. I’d like to think that. I’d also like to think that I’m a decent friend to the digital world. But how many status updates and photos do I view each day, even if only casually as I wait in line for a Diet Coke and scroll through my phone to occupy the time? How many? And how many do I like? How many comments do I leave? Some, sure, scattered here and there whenever I feel compelled to action. But what’s the proportion? And am I fair? Here I am, making sweeping conclusions about what a certain number of likes means for my own value as a human being, and yet I slide past someone’s photo of their newborn.
All of this to say: lately, I’ve been confused about whether I’m a giver or a taker.
And obviously, this all comes back to the novel, and my concern at how to market the thing.
I’ve got a book that will be published in less than a month, and its success depends upon my ability to spread the word about its publication. Say nothing about it to friends/ family/ colleagues/ etc., and no one will buy it or read unless they stumble upon it. So boom: Facebook is perfect for marketing purposes! However, use my Facebook as a constant sales and marketing tool, and it not only clouds the once-pure function of the social networking utility (I’m no longer using Facebook to keep connected, but instead to sell, which feels dirty), but also pegs me forever as a taker. An obvious one.
And I’ll be honest here: I never wanted to be the guy who uses social media to market his shit. Like, everyone else is posting about the NCAA basketball tournament, and this guy is posting Stephen Covey quotes and links to his business, and telling people to sign up for webinars or whatever. This taker never comments on anyone else’s postings, unless it’s to offer his services for something you didn’t even know he did (“Well, I see that you’re in the market for a new car! Give me a call, buddy!”). It’s like getting sales calls from friends who you thought were calling to catch up.
When I start “like-watching” a status update about my book, I pay careful attention to the reaction, thinking: okay, cool, this person now knows about the book, and now this person too. I start thinking: maybe this will translate into sales; maybe each of these “likes” represents someone who will buy/read the book! I start thinking: but wait, only three fucking people liked this comment about my novel, so does that mean I’ll only sell three total copies? Holy shit, I’m a failure.
I start to see my world of Facebook connections as consumers rather than friends. Each is a potential book-buyer, so have I posted enough about my book to reach them all? Have I approached the book from the proper angles so that these friends can be interested, and then these friends, and then these friends?
And oh crap, do I post too much about the book? Have I started to lose friends because it’s the only thing I post about? Should I vary my content? All right, so I’ll post only baby pictures for the next week, not another word about my novel! But oh crap, I’ve posted so many baby pictures and have received so few likes: is the world getting sick of the baby?
I worry about what time of day I post a status update. Will it be lost in the crowd if posted too early or too late? Before noon? After 6 PM? The last time I posted an update about my blog on Facebook, Boston suddenly went on lockdown and the world was atwitter over the cinematic search for the second bomber…needless to say, zero people were interested in my unrelated update. So: do I wait for moments/ days when nothing is happening, and hope my updates are read?
And—as a general rule—what day of week is best for a posting? Certainly not Friday, right? But wait, Friday is the day to slack at work…so Friday, right? That’s when everyone will be on Facebook the most. And man, I just thought of a great status update to post, but I just made that last post about my novel an hour ago, and so…am I contributing to my own posting’s quick expiration if I post again too soon? Better hold off, better hold off. Time it just right, Nathan.
All of this, I admit, is ridiculous. A real writer—a serious writer—would not worry about such things.
A real writer would write. A real writer would tackle the necessary marketing tasks with professionalism rather than doubt. And then a real writer would go back to writing.
Can you imagine Norman Mailer like-watching? Cormac McCarthy? All those “men’s men” authors I mentioned in my last post? Can you imagine Hemingway considering whether he is a giver or a taker, or even making a status update about his new book, worrying whether anyone bought it? (Side-note: I haven’t read a biography of Hemingway. Maybe he was super self-conscious? Maybe that’s why he killed himself? Hmmm. Reconsidering.)
And yet here I am, on the morning that Beating Windward Press has revealed to the Facebook world the different cover concepts for American Fraternity Man. Typing this blog post, then checking Facebook. Back and forth, back and forth, like-watching, examining who has commented, who has said what, then silently admonishing myself for caring, for reducing friend to consumer.
And then, of course, wondering what my next update will be, and when.
It’s enough to get me fantasizing once again about the sweet freedom of deleting my Facebook profile…But then, of course, how would I update the world about my novel?
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