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Writers And Social Media: The Shoulds

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Good afternoon, chickadees. Today we’re going to talk about social networking.

Don’t make that face. This kind of talk is good for you. Like broccoli. Or chaos.

This started out with me getting spammed by someone with a screenplay on Twitter this last week. It hit at exactly the wrong time–I was already scraped-raw and frustrated. Fortunately, the spam touched off a discussion of what writers should and should NOT do when it comes to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and the like. This week I’ll be talking about the shoulds. Next week is when it will get fun, because I will talk about the should nots. And probably wax righteously bitchy about them, too.

I just like taking the positive first. This is a good rule in life.

For a lot of people, social media is a way to connect, share their lives, and commit various lapses in judgment. Unfortunately, it is also utterly public, which means that a writer, especially one seeking publication, has to use it a little differently than the average bear.

For example, it’s bad form for anyone to post naked pictures or venomous screeds on Facebook. But it can be just-plain-disastrous for a writer. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the term “career-destroying,” in fact.

So, what should a writer do on Facebook/Twitter/Goodreads/etc.?

* First, realize that you’re not the average user. When you use social media as an author seeking publication, or an already-published author, you are not just a private citizen using it. It becomes part of your public persona, and as such, you need to think carefully about what you want to convey, and just how far into your life you want to invite people.

* Get it through your head that ALL these things are PUBLIC. You can’t erase what you say on the Internet. It’s out there on servers that other people have control of, and screencaps flourish. I cannot emphasize this enough–the Internet is PUBLIC. Like anything in public, you need to think about if you really want to hang that part of yourself out there. Writers have varying degrees of comfort with sharing their lives online–John Scalzi, for example, shares more than I ever would, but still sticks to his limits and (here’s the other thing) doesn’t let his sharing detract from his work of writing. Which brings us to the next point.

* Set time limits and stick to them. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing–all these things are timesucks. They are seductive and can pull you away from actual writing, which is your job. This can eff up your chances of being published–or continuing to be published–bigtime.

* Think about your safety. I worked for a bank for a while, back in my benighted youth. One of their rules was no pictures of loved ones on your desk, period. (You would not believe some of the safety rules they give you in teller training. People are cray-zee when it comes to money.) Because if someone with bad intentions can identify and snatch your kid to get an inside track on a bank heist, and that is not safe for you, your loved ones, or the bank itself.

It’s the same thing on the Internet. I do not post pictures of my children or my house. I use pseudonyms for everyone except other public figures who use their real names on the Net. I’m not uber-famous and I have only had one or two deranged fans/stalkers, but still. I don’t want to take that chance, and I don’t want to make it easy on someone with bad intentions.

Some people do post pictures of their friends, family, loved ones, house, you name it. I just can’t, and the fact that I am a public person because I’m a writer just solidifies my intention to never do so. Call me paranoid, but better safe than sorry.

* Think about what image you want to convey. It’s not inauthentic to sit down and really think about your brand. Every time you go to work, to the grocery store, to the library, to a party, etc., you are interacting with other people and making judgments about what to tell them and what is inappropriate in that venue. Online is no different.

And really, let’s be practical here. If you’re submitting to agents or publishers, they will Google you. What do you want them to see? Just think about that. Measure what you say online, even in forums, by what you really honestly want other people to see. If you plan on being published and you’re on the Internet, you will be public at some point. Plan for it now.

You do not have to be “fake” to do this, by the way. Being polite and being yourself are not contradictory with thinking hard about your public persona and showing what you want to show.

* Your primary job is to provide content, not market yourself. Yes, a website and a Facebook account will help your fans find you. They are marketing tools, but their primary purpose cannot be marketing. That will turn your fans off because it makes you look desperate and pushy. It turns what should be a conversation into you constantly pushing other people to buy your sh!t. It’s inappropriate at a party or a grocery store, and it’s inappropriate online.

Your job in interacting in social media like Twitter and MySpace is to enrich your fans’ experience and help them feel an emotional connection to your books. It is not to feed your ego with how many “followers” you have, and it is not to flog your books mercilessly. I cannot say it enough: the hard sell doesn’t work. You don’t want to be an oleaginous car salesman.

You need to be a content provider. Post links to things you think are cool, new blog posts that are fresh content, things that make you go “hmmm” or interest you. Yes, you can also post book releases, short story releases, and contests. But those things cannot be ALL you post if you expect to have an interactive relationship with your fans. You do need to provide content or you’re just an empty noise. Empty noise grates on the nerves. 98% of your posts, tweets, whatever, need to be ACTUAL CONTENT. The rest is naturally marketing–book announcements, contest announcements, etc.

* Get away from the computer when you’re angry. So much trouble could be avoided if authors just stepped away from the Net while they’re pissed. Give yourself some time to cool off before you post that rant. Like, 24 hours. Or a week. If you have a strong emotional reaction to a subject, chances are you’re not thinking clearly. Not thinking clearly means a higher chance that you’ll do something stupid online, and those stupid things get a lot of clicks and bad publicity. (Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity.) I really can’t make it any simpler than that.

* Do occasionally respond. Several people mentioned during the discussion this week that they dislike it when an author has a presence on a social networking site that isn’t updated. One or two content streams that you do update are better than a million of them that you never get around to. Ease of use and your liking for a particular platform can enter into this. For example, Twitter is my main social networking tool because it’s easy to use and can propagate to Facebook, where a lot of my fans can connect with me. My MySpace page, while occasionally updated, has languished because MySpace makes it hard for me to update with third-party applications. Other stuff like Digg and Delicious I just don’t have time for. I pop in on Goodreads about once a week, but I have no time for LibraryThing or Shelfari.

There’s a balance to be struck between the timesuck factor and the interactive factor. Twitter gives me the most bang for my “time spent” buck, mostly because I can use Tweetdeck to keep track of everything. I do read my @replies religiously, respond where it seems appropriate, and if a lot of fans ask the same question I make a GENERAL reply rather than replying to each. bloody. one. I do have to set a timer and tear myself away from Twitter, but that’s a small price to pay for the ease of use and the connectivity.

That about sums it up. However, there’s one other thing I need to mention before next week. This is very, very important.

Be someone you’d like to know about. A constant barrage of criticism of other authors, complaints about how you’re ill-used, or just plain whining is not “being yourself” or “being artistic.” It’s passive-aggressive attention-seeking, and there are few things that will turn fans off sooner than that.

Making a list of the things you’d like to follow in other people’s social media streams is an invaluable tool for playing to your own strengths when it comes to using social media. It’s like the old strategy of finding friends–make a list of what qualities you’d like in friends, then start practicing those qualities on your own to attract them. It’s a sneaky way to force your Inner Censor to show you how to get where you want to be, and I’m all for making the Inner Censor do actual good work instead of sitting around whining and making your life harder.

Now it’s time for you to share your own advice. Remember, this week we’re talking about what writers SHOULD do with social media. Save the should-nots for next week.

Yeah, I know, I just killed the real fun until next Friday. This is me being sneaky. What better way to keep you coming back?

Ready? Discuss!