Friday, 15 January 2016

Friends, followers and artificial people

It's Friday already, and time for another blog. What happened to this week? It seems to have flown by.This Friday has snuck up on me so fast that I don't have any ideas for this week's post. Perhaps I should take the opportunity to wonder why I post at all.

I wrote recently about how I use social media and how important they are to writers nowadays, but I do wonder increasingly often about the whole way in which we use social media and whether or not we're helping ourselves with all this frenetic activity.

There's been a lot of discussion of this area in the general (non-social? anti-social?) media lately. People who use social media a lot are, we read, less happy than those who don't. And I can see why. Competitive social media use has become an epidemic. He's got more friends than me; she's got more Twitter followers. (Side note for people who like statistical paradoxes: most of your friends will have more friends than you for reasons you'll be able to work out if you turn your mind to it. Yet most of us can't help feeling that this simple fact somehow reflects badly on us.)

What do all these friendships and followers mean? I have a friend (a real friend who I've met and talked to and even quite like) who has over a thousand Facebook friends. Now, she is a lovely person and her job does involve travelling round the world and meeting lots of people, but a thousand friends? Most people would struggle to remember basic facts about a hundred friends (and some social psychologists claim that this would be at high end of what the human brain can really cope with). A thousand?

Twitter is worse. I've read that if you have less than 250 Twitter followers, you are essentially talking to yourself. I've got 155, so that's me in my place. (Fortunately some of them re-tweet me to thousands.) Yet those 155 followers clearly mean something because, since I've been on Twitter, hits on this blog have massively increased. Should I, then, be concentrating on increasing the number of Twitter followers I have? There are apparently lots of ways to do this. I could end up like DanieleThoma (@daniele_thoma), with 11,500 followers. I enjoy Daniele's tweets: they're sardonic and amusing and only a minority are click bait taking me to sites dominated by ghastly pop-up ads. The only problem with Daniele is that I'm pretty sure she's not a real person. Somewhere a very attractive robot (one that shares a remarkable physical resemblance with, for example, LeelahGalen @LeelahGalen) is churning out witty comments designed to grow the number of followers and hence, eventually, the number of people clicking on the click bait sites. (If you're real, Daniele, I apologise, and if you ever turn up in person and look remotely like your photograph, I'll buy you a drink.) But what does this vast number of followers mean in practice? Koehler Books (@koehlerbooks) follows over 5,000 people, including me. Are they reading all my tweets? Or even any of them? I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person who, rather than going for the nuclear option of unfollowing somebody whose tweets are becoming tedious, simply mutes them. Even amongst the relatively small number of people I follow, there is the odd one whose tweets I never see. If someone is following hundreds of people, how many of them do you think they ever really read?

Still, 155 huh? Not very impressive. Maybe I should change my avatar. My Twitter account doesn't have a photo of me attached and if I changed that I should get more followers (I'm told). Maybe I will. I'm already posting cute animal pictures because cute animal pictures do well on Twitter, but, really do they have anything to do with my books or my blog? Still, I quite like cute animals, so what's the harm? [Pauses from writing to tweet a cute animal picture. Check @TomCW99 if you don't believe me.]

And another cute animal for good measure
The problem is that, joking and snarky comments aside, once you get seriously into this whole social media business, you spend an awful lot of time working out your media strategies, optimising your posts/tweets, monitoring the number of followers you have and, ultimately, spending money on software to make the whole process even more efficient. In the end, I'm not sure that what you produce is in any way related to your writing any longer and it's certainly taking up a lot of time and effort the could, maybe, be put to better use elsewhere.

At least I have the excuse that my social media efforts are designed to sell a book. Worryingly, more and more people – especially young people – find themselves sucked into social media for their own sake. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with Facebook or Twitter. I have virtual friends whose friendship I really care about and whose support I value, and I use social media to keep in touch with real friends who I might not be able to see on a regular basis – because, for example (and this one's real), they've moved to Australia. But my sense of self-worth is not linked to the number of Facebook friends I have. Most posts I make on my personal Facebook account (as opposed to my author account at are visible only to my friends. Many people – mostly, I think young, but some definitely old enough to know better – post their selfies, their holiday photos and pictures of what they had for dinner so that they can be seen publicly. I'm reliably assured that if a young woman posts a selfie but does not get a significant number of 'likes' she'll delete it. Why wait for lecherous men and the patriarchal society to objectify and body shame you when you can so conveniently do it yourself? And heaven help you if you post your birthday publicly (I don't) and you find fewer birthday wishes on your Facebook page than you saw on page of your richer, handsomer rival. It's nice to see your friends' friends wishing each other well on their birthdays, but the scope for competitive popularity contests is one of the more unpleasant aspects of Facebook. Somebody has to be the least popular kid and that somebody will, at best, get very depressed and, at worst, kill themselves. (Yes, really: suicide remains the leading cause of death for men aged between 20 and 34 in England and Wales.)

Pardon my rambling. I seem to see more and more people questioning social media – ironically, of course, usually on social media. A friend of mine is infuriated when people send birthday wishes to elderly relatives. 'Do they really imagine their grandmothers are checking Facebook to see who wishes them a happy birthday?' he grumbles. Well, no, but a friend who died recently now has a page full of tributes like 'I miss you so much and can't believe I won't see you again,' and they're not reading their page either, but I think the tributes are rather nice. It's tricky, isn't it? We're all feeling our way through this new social media world and we're bound to mis-step from time to time.

If Jane Austen had Facebook, we could just have put this on her page.

Where am I going with all this? Well, probably pretty much where I'm going already. Twitter takes quite a lot of time and I don't particularly enjoy doing it, but there's a fair chance that you're only reading this because of the link from there. I do enjoy this blog and I do enjoy the fact that so many people read it. It's nice to be able to have the occasional rambling rant like this one and to share my confusion with the world at large. What is a little alarming is that readership of the blog does not seem to translate into more people buying books. Still, I'm told that these things take time and I'm sure you'll all buy the books eventually. They're all available on Kindle and very reasonably priced.

There: a book plug. Possibly the longest, most convoluted route to a book plug in history, but it's done. Blog post objective achieved.

Let's chat again next week.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, virtual friend! I came over because of the link on my Blogger page, but it is not far removed from Twitter.

    Like, you, I've found the blog traffic much improved (and significantly less bot scented) since joining Twitter - and I am scarcely on there right now. But, through Twitter and friends at blogs I read, and even via Historical Fiction Online (where I am also scarcely around much these days), I've created a network of more substantial virtual friends. These consist mostly of people whose writing I enjoy ... so, in a way, it circles back to something authors have depended upon through the history of publishing: it's a form of word of mouth.

    I do believe in the plugging side of these relationships - and, when I finish the WIP and get it out there at last, you will be among my victims when I start emailing people all "GUESS WHAT GUESS WHAT I HAVE A BOOK I THINK YOU'D LIKE" and looking for places I can go in the real world and online.

    BUT, at the end of the day, I wouldn't come over to your corner of the world just for the cute animals.

    Now all I need to do is actually come up with a post, so we can swap actual presence on each other's blogs ...