Writers And Social Media: The Should NOTs

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Last week I brought you the things writers should do with social media. (You can also check out Monica Valentinelli’s recent SFWA article about online marketing, featuring Alex Bledsoe, Yasmine Galenorn, and Yours Truly.) I promised the should nots this week, and I shall fulfill.

This week, I promise to try not to rant.

I said try. My spirit is willing, but my flesh, alas, is occasionally weak.

I’ll start with the biggest and most obvious first. Ready?

Social media is not an ego game. The biggest mistake I see a lot of writers making is falling into the “numbers” trap. As in, “I need X followers/”friends” to be a Real True Celebrity!” I see giveaways–“when I reach X many friends I’ll give away Y” and promo stunts all aimed at upping the follower/”friend” count. Don’t do this, okay? It is not classy. It makes you look desperate.

If you are at a party and a used car salesman corners you and starts trying to tell you that you need to buy a car from him, what do you do? You make polite appropriate noises and escape as soon as possible, and avoid that person in the future. Social media is kind of like that party. Actual mixing is content, hitting the advertising button too hard is desperation and being a cheap shill. The former gains you followers in an organic manner. The latter turns people off and will not get you a quality network. Which leads us to:

Don’t be fooled by quantity. Carla Harker had this to say last week: When I see a new follower has hundreds or thousands of people they follow, I don’t think they are actually interested in what I have to say. I think all they’re trying to do is increase their own follower numbers. I know that’s not always right, but that’s what it appears from my side of things. I’d rather follow someone following a few dozen people–even if I’m not one of them–than be one of thousands.

Too often we mistake sheer quantity for quality when it comes to social media. Now, you can argue that if even a fraction of a sheer-quantity network pays attention, you will reap reward. I would argue right back that those rewards are transient and no substitute for a quality network, where people follow/friend because you provide real content and end up being enthusiastic about you for a variety of reasons. A recommendation from someone in a quality network will carry more weight than spam from a sheer-quantity network, the same way a word-of-mouth recommendation from one of my personal friends will carry more weight with me than an ad campaign, however crafty and cool the ad campaign is.

This touches on the principle of asymmetric follow. On Facebook, MySpace, or Goodreads I accept “friend” requests because the structure of those networks means I have to in order to connect with those fans. It’s a function of the network, true.

On Twitter, however, I “follow” the people who provide content I need/am interested in. There’s a huge difference between my follow list and the list of people following me because I am providing varied kinds of content, while cherrypicking Twitter for content I want to read/personal networking. Which brings us to the next thing.

Do not mistake your followers or “friends” for, well, actual friends. I actually came across this a lot on LJ. If you are a writer, published or seeking publication, you should not think of your followers in social media networks as friends in the traditional sense. They are your customers, they are your fanbase, they are “following” you because you are a content provider. This is a professional relationship and deserves to be treated like one, because you are using social networks as a PUBLIC personality, not for private reasons.

Yes, it sucks. But if you are published or want to be, you cannot be treating the Internet like it’s private. IT’S NOT. For some people, their blog can be private and their Facebook page only a way to connect with their real-life friends. This is not how it is if you’re using social networks professionally. Using them professionally means your cutesy or flirty posts, or the posts where you rant about reviewers, or really any inappropriate behavior, have career consequences. And those consequences are hardly ever good.

So, you’re a writer using social media. Your followers and “friends” like your books/short stories. They do not need to know about your sex life, or about more of your personal life than people at a party you’re attending in a professional capacity. There is a line here that is easy to cross, since you have both the illusion of privacy (you’re sitting alone in front of your computer) AND the illusion of community (we’re built to get emotionally involved with people we communicate with) when you use the Internet. Sometimes the line is in different places for different people–I’ve mentioned that other people put pictures of their kids up, which is something I would never do. Some people do talk about their pets or what they had for lunch. In small doses, personal information helps your fans feel closer to you.

In large doses, it’s a recipe for oversharing and disaster. Get it through your head that your followers and “friends” online deserve professionalism from you. As Maura Anderson said when I put out the call for advice last week: I know it’s easy to be cutesy and flirty and maybe a tad out of line but, again, you are not talking to a few friends on the phone or in person. You are broadcasting this to the world. While it may be easy to excuse it as “being human”, it can often convince potential readers or employers that, at best, you have really poor judgment.

Don’t spam. Don’t spam. DO NOT SPAM. For every 2% of promo, you need to have 98% of actual content to balance it out. Announcing book releases, giveaways, and interviews is okey-dokey. Having that be the ONLY THING you announce is going to make people feel like you never open your mouth except to sell them something. This is most uncool, since it violates the implicit contract in a social network–that you are not there just to sell something, that you are there to connect on some level. Since social networks are so easy to use for spamming, there is a backlash against anyone perceived to do so. Anger at other more blatant spammers will get turned onto you if you’re perceived to be one of their ilk. This is not fair, but it’s the way it is. Deal.

Also, Facebook and Goodreads people? Do not send out invites saying “Become my fan!” or “Read my book!” This puts you squarely in the spam/desperate shill category, and turns me off. If it turns even me off, and I understand the principle behind it, think of how much it would alienate your prospective audience of readers. A fan-based network sending me an invite is cool and comes from a quality network. You recommending your own book to me on Goodreads is part of a quantity network, and is a cheap shill. Don’t do it.

Don’t post while angry. Anger will make you stupid. It will make mistakes for you.

OK, I’m going to halfway break one of my rules here. Ready?

I was angry last night about reviewers (yes, this is plural, there’s been a rash lately) who pan my books when they can’t even spell the characters’ names right. I had a lot of spleen to vent and I could have written a scorching rant of a blog post. Did I? No. It was hard to step away. I ended up leveling to 80 out in Northrend instead, which may have been a waste of time but at least it wasn’t a waste of time that would set off an Internet sh!tstorm and make me look like a jerkwad. Don’t post when you’re pissed.

Respond appropriately. I don’t respond to follow requests on Twitter. I respond only briefly to “I reviewed your book!”–with a “Thank you, I’m glad you read it.” I respond more in depth to fans who ask questions or interact with me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve only been involved in one involved debate, and that was a discussion of DRM with a couple other industry professionals. I pick and choose what to respond to, and will do a general answer when a lot of people ask me the same question. It’s kind of an art form. When in doubt, be brief and polite. Which brings up another thing:

Don’t forget to write. Like, actually write. Social networks are built to be addictive timesucks. That’s why they work–they take advantage of natural human urges and response patterns. Don’t get so wrapped up in your social networks that you forget your job. Which is actually producing those books the fans pick up and read–you know, the reason they are impelled to find you on social networks in the first place.

The trusty kitchen timer is your best friend here, too. Set limits on your social-networking time. This will force you to prioritize and also (hopefully) force you to get your real work done. It is all too easy to lose track of the reason why you’re doing this, because social networks are so seductive and every time you get a reply, you get an ersatz jolt of “connection” that turns your biological wiring into pudding. Pudding doesn’t think straight, and it’s so, so easy toget addicted to that jolt. Don’t make that mistake.

All right, that about wraps up what I see as the most egregious errors writers commit on social networks. Now it’s your turn–the comment section awaits. Be polite, but be honest. Tell me what writers shouldn’t do in social media.

I’m listening.

Special thanks to Monica Valentinelli, Maura Anderson, and Carla Harker for discussions about social media. Thanks also to the people on Twitter and Facebook who discussed, offered advice, and generally gave me the grist for this mill of a post. Thank you all very much