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Conventional blogging wisdom for fiction writers is that we should avoid talking about politics and religion. (Science fiction writers are perhaps the exception to this rule; see John Scalzi, one of the most prominent examples, and on the other side of the American left-right fence, Orson Scott Card.) The idea is that such views can be unnecessarily divisive and that by talking about them openly, we can alienate potential readers.

I have, for the most part, followed this advice. I don’t talk about religion on this blog or anywhere else, really. I rarely talk straight politics, although I couldn’t quite suppress my concerns about habeas corpus. But feminism keeps creeping in through the cracks of this blog and in the material I choose to share on the internet, and isn’t feminism at least partially a political issue? It certainly is a touchy one.

One result is that I’m been forced to rethink the conventional wisdom. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it is easier not to blog about religion or politics or social justice. And I can understand the choice not to do so when it feels like a livelihood hangs in the balance of what we allow ourselves to discuss. Plus some of us find conflict to be very unpleasant. But at what point does talking about matters of importance become more of a question of conscience?

Does blogging give you a voice?

I’m not talking about being safe here. There’s this trend that happens in the science fiction blogosphere, wherein a few of the really big bloggers share their opinions of a current issue, followed by a quiet ripple of smaller bloggers chiming in with “Me too”s and “basically exactly what has already been said about this issue in almost the same words.” Because when we follow in the footsteps of the big guns, then we’re relatively secure. I’m not saying it’s bad to offer a show of support, but it’s not the same as pushing the discussion forward. The conventional wisdom is consunmately safe.

Let’s talk about danger instead. If, as a writer, we develop a greater reach, then we have to decide how to use that reach. We have a greater ability to help, and an equally heightened ability to harm. We can set the topic of conversation instead of merely echoing and reacting. We can affect the way people view the world, often subconsciously, through our stories and our words. We can decide whether to point something out as problematic or whether to be silent and let it float on in obscurity. And whether we like it or not, these abilities come with certain responsibilities.

We don’t have to blog about politics or religion, not if we don’t want to. We can choose to communicate exclusively through our fiction. But at some point, I think every artist has to ask, “What am I really trying to say here? What do I really need to say about human experience and about the world? What might I be saying by accident that I don’t actually want to be saying?”

But sometimes, we might be compelled to blog about something risky, about something uncomfortable. And sometimes we are willing to pay the price for having a voice. In which case, that conventional wisdom can go right out the window. There are times when safety is not the most important goal.

What do you think? Do you ever talk about politics or religion on your blog or over social media? Are there issues that you feel compelled to talk about, even though they lack an approved-for-fiction-writers (or approved-for-polite-conversation) stamp?

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People like to find a scapegoat.

Recent articles link the rise of loneliness in modern society with the use of social media, and although I have explored the idea before, I have become less convinced. Isn’t it convenient that we can blame technology, that behemoth with which we traditionally have an uneasy relationship, for the lack of connection we might feel? And yet, even if, as some figures suggest, Americans are now lonelier and have fewer confidants than in the past, there is still little data to show this trend is being caused by social media.

I agree with Dr. Grohol, who states: “[Using social media] doesn’t stop me from having those in-depth, face-to-face conversations, or put them off. I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that having a social networking circle of hundreds or thousands makes me more social.”

Instead, what social media allows us to do is maintain, in unprecedented volume and frequency, our weak ties. What is a weak tie? Someone who we don’t know very well, an acquaintance, if you will. By fostering so many weak ties, we are able to continue to expand our social networks and have potential reach to larger numbers of people, many of whom we will never directly meet or communicate with.

Obviously this is a major boon when we are, say, trying to sell something or build a reputation for ourselves or looking for a different job. But it can also be valuable because of the different insights and opinions we are exposed to, the potential actual friends we might meet, and the recommendations we might receive. Not to mention the benefits of being able to keep in touch, however superficially, with friends and family who live far away.

However, it’s not hard to see how social media might appear to make us lonely, especially if used as a kind of social substitute that it isn’t. If I am already feeling lonely and then I hop onto Facebook, the odds that spending half an hour reading my “friends’” status messages will make me feel any better are fairly low. But I have noticed a certain irrational expectation in myself that seeing all those photos and clicking “Like” a few times will magically pick up my spirits. Note to future self: that doesn’t work! Go out and see someone instead.

It’s interesting to watch ourselves learning how to deal with so many weak ties at once, a feat about which we are only now gaining experience. I like to think of social media as a party: a few of your really good friends are there, which is especially awesome. Then there’s those people who you’ve been seeing at these parties for years, and that’s the only time you talk to them. And there’s the newcomers, the people you don’t know so well but it’s interesting to chat with them for a few minutes. Except this is happening all the time on your computer, not just for three or four hours at a scheduled event.

And just like at a party, most people are trying to present their best selves. Many of them will keep their dirty laundry and deeper troubles mostly under wraps. A few of them might have embarrassingly public meltdowns. We’re surprised when  the perfect married couple announces their impending divorce, when that vibrant woman turns out to have been suffering from a life-threatening disease, when bits and pieces of messy life burst unavoidably out into public view.

And social media is very much the same. We are presented with a smooth and managed facade, and sometimes we forget the facade does not always reflect what’s going on under the surface. All those people in your social media networks who have perfect lives with adorable children and exciting jobs and exotic vacations? Maybe her child vomited all over the living room this morning, or that exciting company is going through a round of layoffs, or that exotic vacation meant forty-eight hours of pure, unadulterated suffering from food poisoning. Some people show this underbelly of their lives, but many choose not to. It’s the way weak ties work. And as depressing as all this seeming perfection can occasionally be, we mostly find it depressing because we are not used to weak ties; we haven’t internalized the knowledge that these public statuses are only a small percentage of the whole. We believe, often without question, the stories people choose to tell about themselves.

The societal shift we are experiencing is certainly not without its difficulties. But social media, and the internet as a whole, are just technological tools like all other such tools. Sometimes we use them skillfully, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lack the understanding of how such tools work or for what they work best. Sometimes we’re not very interested in trying them out at all.

But I suspect loneliness arises much more from our physical environments and the strong ties that we either have or don’t have with other people. Strong ties that are fostered by face-to-face interaction, video chat, phone calls, and the exchange of letters and emails. Blaming a tool meant for developing weak ties for any trouble with strong ties seems misguided at best.

What do you think? Do you have less in-person conversations or strong ties because of the advent of social media? Have you been able to develop strong ties as well as weak ties through a social media service? How much does face-to-face time matter in your close relationships?

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Someone made a rather plaintive comment in this Google+ conversation, and it’s been stuck in my mind ever since: “So, again, what is the point of being smart if it does nothing for you? If you really are so smart, why can’t you get what you want?”

There are so many myths floating around about being smart and what that might mean. Even defining “smart” is full of pitfalls. I realized when I tackled the subject of intelligence a few weeks ago that it was a bit taboo, but I didn’t realize the full extent of it until I was reading other people’s reactions. So of course I had to write a follow-up.

A Few Intelligence Myths Exploded:

1. What is the point of being smart? There is no intrinsic point. It is not something you choose for yourself, just as you can’t choose to be naturally athletic or flexible or have perfect pitch (although I keep hearing rumors there are ways to train this) or be gifted with languages. There are things you can do to take advantage of any of these things (hard work and training), but not everyone will choose to use these skills or have the opportunities to do so. In the same vein, recent studies suggest it is quite possible to train yourself to be smarter if you are interested in doing so.

2. Smart people can get what they want. Ha! I wish. I don’t know if any studies have been done on this subject, but I haven’t read anything about how smart people are so much more happy than less smart people. Plus, what if a smart person wants something that requires additional skills besides just being smart (and most accomplishments do require additional skills)? And what if said smart person doesn’t have the right additional skills and fails (for whatever reason) to develop them? Or what if the smart person in question is on track to get what she wants and then is deterred by any of a host of reasons, including ill health (either hers or a loved one’s), economic realities, or her background? Or what if the smart person does get what she wants and it just doesn’t look like the societal norm?

3. Smart people look down on those who they perceive as less smart. First off, I mentioned before that many genius-level people (and perhaps particularly women) suffer from impostor syndrome, meaning they don’t believe they are as smart as they are. Secondly, I also mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect  and the false consensus effect back in March: the idea that people who are above average (including having above average intelligence) tend to assume everyone is just the same as they are unless presented with quite explicit proof to the contrary, thereby often underestimating their own intelligence. How all these people who don’t even realize how intelligent they really are can be looking down on everyone else is beyond me.

Secondly, even if they do realize they are intelligent, that still doesn’t mean they feel superior. Sure, there are a few people who do, but just because you are smart does not mean you are automatically arrogant and non-appreciative of other people’s abilities. Which leads me to my next point…

4. A specific kind of intelligence is more important than anything else. Um, no. There are many kinds of intelligence, and basic IQ test-measured smarts are no more useful than a host of other mental attributes. These include emotional intelligence, charisma, experience, wisdom, empathy and insight, kindness, courage, determination, a strong work ethic, and leadership skills. For example, if a very intelligent person wants to complete a difficult project but is not willing to work hard to do so, they probably won’t do as well as someone who isn’t quite as intelligent but is willing to work her ass off. Ultimately what matters about our lives is what we choose to do with them, not whatever set of attributes we start out with. Intelligent people who realize the truth of this aren’t likely to be very arrogant at all.

Any other intelligence myths you can think of? (Besides the whole “women aren’t as intelligent” thing we already talked about.) I’d love to hear from you.

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Our notions of privacy are currently changing due to technology, and it’s an interesting time if you enjoy watching social trends. For example, head on over to Nathan Bransford’s blog and read his fascinating essay “Divorce in the Internet Era.” He gives us an intimate peek into how the experience of divorce has been changed by social media.

It’s not just divorce that has been affected. Social media has also transformed our ideas of social connection, of friendship, of the purpose and maintenance of strong ties vs. weak ties (ie acquaintances and people we met that one time–when was that?–and in a flash of enthusiasm connected on social media). It has affected how we do business, how we try to connect with a more specific audience, how we can succeed at marketing, and how we can fail. It has spawned the 1000 true fans theory.

And now with the announcement of Google Goggles (known officially as Project Glass), we see another potential radical social change: a world in which our goggles tell us everyone’s names and pertinent information when we meet. A world in which remembering names is less important. A world in which I can make notes for instant reference the next time we meet: “possible kindred spirit” or “didn’t bother to ask me a single question during a thirty-minute conversation” or “really likes discussing neuroscience but becomes enraged at the suggestion that humans don’t have free will.”

My own personal ideas of privacy have changed along with the times. Every time I post on the Internet, whether that be here on the blog or on the myriad of services I am encouraged to use, I try to remember to run a little filter check. If the whole world knows I said this, would I be okay with that? If the answer is yes, I’m good to go. And every time I remember to run this check (which probably isn’t 100% of the time because no one is perfect), I develop and refine my ideas about my own privacy, about what I’m willing to share as public information vs. what I wish to remain private. In a certain way, our society is shifting back to a village mentality, that there are certain things that everyone simply knows about everyone else. And anything we want to keep to ourselves, well, we have to really work at it…and some facts, as Nathan Bransford found, are impossible to keep under wraps.

I’m hoping this shift will come with a lessening of certain stigmas and an increased tolerance for difference. I have to hope for this because the alternative is not a world in which I want to live. Perhaps we’re already seeing evidence of this shift: contrast the open statements about President George W. Bush’s past alcoholism and President Obama’s past cocaine use with President Clinton in the ‘90s who felt it was necessary to claim he “didn’t inhale.”

On Twitter, Catherynne Valente said, “The Google Goggles herald the final death of any semblance of public manners and social courtesy. Hope we enjoyed it!” But I wonder if all these changes might eventually lead to a new kind of civility. Will there be certain secrets we allow each other to keep out of sheer politeness? In a world where everyone knows each others’ names, will our sense of community change? Maybe even expand? What kind of courtesy will be possible when we can have a computer keep track of our acquaintances’ interests and news and automatically remind us of them when we’re in conversation? Will intimacy feel like it’s shrinking (the way some people feel social media is causing it to do right now) or will it feel like it’s increasing?

It’s going to be really interesting to find out! The one thing I’m betting on is that we’ll have a bumpy transition as what is possible from technology changes at a different rate from society’s attitudes about privacy and social interaction. What do you think? What about this new world do you look at with dread? What about it sounds like it could be amazing?

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Writer Susan Kiernan-Lewis wrote a blog post a couple of months ago entitled “The Great Social Media Flim-Flam.” If you want to see writer frustration with having to deal with social media, go on over and read it, because it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen. If you don’t want to read five hundred words of it, here’s a key excerpt:

“Is it possible that the prevailing belief that having an online platform is essential to a book’s success is wrong? Are we all just the cool kids playing with the latest gadgets and wanting them to be essential and really they’re  irrelevant? Is it really the author’s platform that’s important? Is that why YOU buy a book?

Isn’t it about the damn book?”

Okay, first off, yes, it is about the book. If there isn’t something appealing about your book, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend promoting it. Notice I said “something appealing.” I chose those words carefully. Plenty of books that have a lot of problems do well; some of them even do very, very well. But there has to be something about them that makes people want to read them.

However, a key point I think Ms. Kiernan-Lewis may be missing is that social media presence for writers is not about sales.

Yes, I just said that.

Social media is not about sales. We may want it to be about sales because sales are easy to measure. And what writer doesn’t want sales? I’m not saying social media never causes sales; if you look at the pie graph in that blog article, it claims 23.9 percent of book discovery happens via social media (I combined blogs and social networking sites to get that figure). But that’s only a quarter of the whole pie (at least for now), and probably some of those people are going to get the book from the library or borrow it from a friend.

Social media is about marketing. It’s about building brand awareness (and for writers, your brand is YOU). It’s about weak ties and networking and relationships and being a presence. Marketing is important if you are trying to sell something. The problem is, it’s more nebulous to measure than sales. Sure, you can look at your follower count or your blog traffic or count your likes and retweets and +1s. But when you think about what those numbers really mean, well, it’s hard to say. Higher is better, but beyond that? *silence in the room* Yup, that’s marketing for you.

One network example. (by Marc Smith)

Marketing and social media is also for the long haul, which makes it critical to formulate a strategy that works for you. Otherwise, say hello to burn-out. That’s why I recommend using social media in a way that you enjoy, or at least in a way not completely odious to you. If you’re forcing yourself to do something you hate, whether that be daily blogging or tweeting or posting on the service du jour, then it’s time to rethink your strategy. If you feel frayed around the edges from your social media activities, then maybe you need to pull back a bit, rest, and re-group. The ultimate goal is to find a balance that is sustainable for you (and this balance is going to be a little different for each individual). The way to find this balance is through time and experimentation, and it will change as your life changes. For example, I’ve had to adjust my own strategy the last few months when I’ve been deep in novel head space.

I wish I could tell you social media doesn’t matter for writers, that it’s all some mass delusional idea. But it does make a difference. When someone has heard your name several times, they’re more likely to give your book a second look at the store. They’re more likely to click on over to your book on Amazon and read the summary and some reviews. If it looks interesting, they’re more likely to take a chance and buy it. If they’ve read an interesting essay you’ve written, they’re more likely to talk about you and spread the word. Etc., etc. How social media works and helps you is the subject for an entire series of posts, but if you know anything about network theory, then you have an idea of what I’m talking about.

So the real question when thinking about social media isn’t if it matters. It’s figuring out how you can participate in social media without becoming overwhelmed or wanting to throw your computer across the room. It’s figuring out the best use of your time so you also have enough time to write that next novel. It’s experimenting to integrate social media into your life in a way that works for you.

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I really miss e-mail.

Before you look at me funny and silently consider whether I’ve gone off the deep end, let me add that I don’t miss all the e-mail I actually get: various sales communications from any store I’ve ever bought something from online, e-mail list digests, appointment reminders, notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, WordPress, and let’s not forget bills and bank statements.

I miss the old days of e-mail when I didn’t get any of the above, and each e-mail I did receive was an electronic letter, worthy of excitement and anticipation. You can express so much personality in an e-mail. When I read a good e-mail, it almost feels like its writer is in the room with me. And the one-on-one nature of the communication means that e-mail builds relationships in an intimate way. These words were written for my eyes only–there is value in that.

I got my first e-mail account when I went away to college. My mom would print out the e-mails I sent her, and then she’d write a response and send it through snail mail. I tried my best to stay in touch with those friends who also had e-mail addresses. Those that didn’t…not so much. Mea culpa.

That first year, visiting the computer lab across the way to check e-mail was an event. We’d head over in our slippers in friendly camaraderie until we sat in front of those old glowing screens, at which point our focus was entirely on the act of checking e-mail. I spent so much time marveling at the wonder of e-mail, I made one of my best friends of freshman year in the computer lab.

E-mail was often my lifeline when travelling alone. I’d be meeting new people every day, but still spending hours at a stretch by myself. I learned how to eat by myself at a restaurant, but it was never a particularly joyful experience. When I got too lonely or felt too detached from anything permanent, I’d find an internet cafe and write to the friends who had become, whether they knew it or not, a kind of anchor. They reminded me of what it meant to have a home.

Nowadays I rarely receive this kind of e-mail. My inbox becomes clogged with messages that feel like work. I stay in touch with people via social media, a kind of communication that, while efficient, can also be impersonal. People “like” my statuses, but we don’t have the sort of conversations we’d have if we were discussing the same topic over e-mail. And too often it feels like the friendship is being held in stasis instead of being actively developed.

I do have one friend with whom I e-mail regularly, and it’s just as good as I remember. It’s also something of a miracle that we both managed to continue the correspondence, especially in the beginning. But I’m glad we did. If we had merely stayed in touch via Facebook and Twitter, we wouldn’t know each other half as well as we do now. We would only see the edges of each other’s lives instead of being able to go deeper. We might not even be friends at all.

Yes, I miss the golden age of e-mail. Do you?

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I can hear your groans already. Not another social media site!

But I have good news: Pinterest is simple, fun, and pretty. It can be a helpful creative tool. And it is absolutely NOT necessary for a solid writer platform. Use it if you enjoy it, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, this isn’t a make-or-break proposition.

Aren’t you feeling better already?

What is Pinterest?

Most simply, it is a social image-collecting site. You can create “boards” that are collections of various images you have “pinned.” For instance, you can have a “Books I love” board or a “Beautiful photos” board or a “Yummy recipes to try” board. The boards tend to be visually pretty.

You can re-pin images directly from the Pinterest site. You can pin images from other sites, either by adding a “Pin It” link to your browser’s bookmark bar or by copying and pasting the image’s url into Pinterest. You can also upload your own images for your boards.

Finally, you can browse through other people’s boards and images, comment on them, re-pin others’ images, and like others’ images. You can follow other people on a board-by-board basis, and they can follow you. Hence the social media part.

Downsides of the site:

1. Massive time suck. Massive.
2. You can only use the service if you already have either a Facebook or Twitter account. Given my privacy concerns around Facebook, I chose to use my Twitter account. However, that means I can’t look for other friends who use Pinterest, as you can only do that (to my knowledge) by linking to Facebook.
3. You can’t re-arrange the images pinned to your board, so whatever order you enter them, that’s the order you’re stuck with. Hopefully they will eventually add a click and drag sort of interface to make the boards more customizable.
4. The user interface of the site can occasionally be a bit confusing, and the “Pin It” browser button doesn’t always work.
5. As far as I can tell, there is no way to make a board private. So everything you do on the site will be in full public view. Otherwise it would make a great archival/bookmarking tool.

Ways to Use Pinterest as a Writer:

1. Settings boards: Make boards of photographs of various settings in your WIP. I recently wrote a story set in Rio, and I had an entire browser window with twenty tabs devoted to the photos I’d found. I would have loved to have the convenience of pulling all the photos together in a board instead.

2. Blog boards: If you use interesting pictures on your blog, you can pin them all onto your blog board, and have a beautiful visual representation of your blog. You can see mine here.

3. Book boards: I adore books, and it gives me happiness to click on my “Books I Love” board and see all my favorite covers staring back at me. This can also work as a recommendation board or as a record of the books you’ve read this year.

4. Mood boards: I know a lot of writers use music, often carefully crafted set lists, as a tool to get into the mood of their book. For those of us who can’t use music (I find it too distracting), we can make a visual board instead and take a look for inspiration before a writing session.

5. Random inspiration: If you can be disciplined enough to avoid the time sink factor, scrolling through the aesthetically pleasing images can be just the thing to kick-start those creative juices. Also, need an idea for a story? Maybe you can find an image that gives you the first nugget of an idea.

6. Hobbies: If you happen to have an interest in design, fashion, architecture, photography, visual art, cooking, etc., you might find this site fun outside of any writerly benefits it may provide.

Notice that not once do I mention the social aspect? That’s because I really think of Pinterest as more of a creative tool than a social site. And if you’re using it as a tool, the social aspect will follow. You’ll begin re-pinning and liking other users’ images…and they’ll know you did. You’ll find some people who have such awesome boards that you want to follow them. Maybe you’ll have to comment on a particularly thought-provoking image. You get the idea. The social part, I think, can happen organically.

What do you think? Have any more great ideas for ways to use Pinterest? Need to vent some social media angst? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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When we think about social media, it is important to remember how much the internet, and the ways we interact with it, are evolving. The rate of change is fairly rapid, and because of this, it is easy for conventional wisdom regarding best practices to fall behind.

Think about it: the internet is still fairly new. Some of us might have trouble imagining life without it, and yet the first commercial service providers didn’t start up until the late 1980s, just a bit more than twenty years ago. Google got started in 1996-1997 (about 15 years ago); Livejournal began in 1999 (12 years ago); MySpace was founded in 2003 (about 8 years ago); and Facebook launched in 2004 (7 years ago). All of these services took time to develop and find their audiences. So even experts in social media haven’t been doing it for very long, because not long ago, nothing existed to do.

What this means is that there’s still a lot of space for experimenting, being creative, and developing your own unique way of using social media. Take, for example, the author Tobias Buckell. A year ago, contrary to all advice, he decided to shut down the comments on his blog. Experts told him that this was crazy talk, that he needed to enable comments on his blog to encourage conversation and engagement with his audience. Some people went as far as to say that without comments, it wasn’t even a real blog any longer. But Tobias was feeling drained from all the time and energy he had to spend moderating the comments, and he was censoring what he allowed himself to talk about as a result.

He recently published the results of his experiment: he went from 20,000 unique visitors/month when he shut off comments to 100,000 unique visitors/month a year later, which is the highest traffic he’s had in the seven years he’s run the blog. And he sounds happier because of it too, saying: “It’s really been a lot more fun since I starting letting myself be myself.”

So obviously the conventional wisdom that a blog has to have a commenting option, and that you can judge a blog’s impact and degree of engagement by looking at how many comments are being made on it, is flat-out wrong in this case. Yes, the experts were wrong. Would the no-comments approach work for everyone? No, probably not. But apparently it’s not the deal breaker everyone thought it was.

When considering my own use of social media, I find this distinctly comforting. It’s human to hit a wall sometimes. I’m sure many of us have a social media tactic that we’re “supposed to do” but makes us cringe. I’ll tell you mine, although maybe you can already guess. I’m supposed to write blog posts that are less complete and leave more room for all of you to respond. (And I love it when you respond, really I do.) But right now, it’s hard for me to even consider being less than complete–the thought makes my inner perfectionist rear up and ululate in horror. I imagine a blogging horror story in which I deliberately delete something I really wanted to say in order to leave it for someone else to say, and then…NO ONE SAYS IT.

An example of ululation.

I know, I know, clearly I have my work cut out for me. In the meantime, it’s reassuring to think that I am sometimes allowed to experiment with a more essayist approach to blogging, even while I’m trying to improve my conversationalist style of blogging. And I hope you find it reassuring to know that if you can’t juggle five different social media platforms all at once, the world won’t end. And if you just don’t “get” one of the popular services, you can maybe just skip that one or do something completely different from the norm when you use it.

So, time to dish. I told you my social media cringe-point; what’s yours? Is there a service that you just can’t get into? Is there common advice that makes you want to throw your laptop across the room? Is there something that, if you allowed yourself not to do it, would make you enjoy social media more or allow you to be more authentic to yourself? Let loose below.

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You all knew this day would come. I’ve talked about Facebook, I’ve talked about Google+, and I’ve mentioned blogging more than a few times. But what about Twitter, the social media platform that literally causes marketing professionals to lose control of their saliva production?

What is Twitter good for?

  • fast and brief conversation; anything in depth doesn’t fit in 140 characters
  • feeling like part of a community/building community
  • being able to respond, quickly and briefly, to fans/readers/customers/etc.
  • access to people who are well-known in their fields and have a large(ish) fan base, aka networking
  • small amounts of self-promotion (the key word being SMALL) about your latest book, blog post, upcoming appearance, or what-have-you
  • finding out if it was just you or was that really just an earthquake

However, I have noticed certain habits of Twitter users that can be, to state it bluntly, irritating or even off-putting. Here are my top three:

1. Huge volume. Last week someone I follow on Twitter must have posted twenty or thirty different “truism” tweets within fifteen minutes, completely flooding my timeline for that entire period. Another person has tweeted twelve random links (not RTs, mind you) in the past hour; and this isn’t rare or unusual behavior for him. At a certain point, volume no longer provides value for your followers, but instead merely feels like spam.

2. Automated Direct Message Upon Following. I can only assume people do this because they have failed to comprehend how slimy and inauthentic it feels to be on its receiving end. If you want to automate your Twitter account to follow everyone back and happily give numbers to spammers, well, at least it doesn’t affect me directly. But sending me a spam message because I was interested enough to follow you has the effect of giving a poor first impression. Happily others agree with me.

3. Large amount of repetition/over-promotion. Twitter is a fleeting platform, so I understand the need to share an important piece of information (my book is out! I have an awesome new blog post! my story is out!) more than once so that your followers don’t miss it. Share it more than twice in twenty-four hours, though, and my patience wears thin–plus it had better be really important to you. Tweet about the same blog post every couple of days, while possibly disguising that it is the same blog post, and I will never again click on any links you share. I made the mistake of following one well-known personality who not only has a volume problem, but has scheduled all of his tweets to be shared four times a day. Yes, that’s FOUR times. For ALL his tweets, most of which are random links that I can’t imagine he’s super invested in. Again, this feels like spam, and perhaps more importantly, it makes this person appear to be inauthentic. And being inauthentic on Twitter is the kiss of death.

People don’t like to be marketed to, they like to be connected with. Social media is all about achieving marketing through connection, which will hopefully make the experience more palatable for everyone. Commit regular acts of spam and no one wins.

Disagree with any of my pet peeves? Have any of your own to add? Let me know!

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So you’re a writer using social media. Either your agent or publisher has persuaded you to do it, or you’ve heard that new writers should start building a platform even before they have a deal on the table, or you’ve decided to take a greater role in publicity for your creative work. Whatever the initial motivation, a writer on social media has to answer the basic question: what am I going to talk about?

A lot of writers fall back on the obvious answer: well, we’ll talk about writing, of course. After all, that’s why we’re here interacting with strangers in the first place. And that’s what we’re passionate about, and what we think about all the time, and what we are closest to being an expert about. From this thinking arises the bottomless pit of word count stats, updates on the WIP, and pleas revealing writerly insecurities, not to mention the massive sharing of articles about writing.

This may come as a big surprise, but the nitty-gritty details of writing? NOT interesting to the average non-writer person. And guess who you’re trying to connect with via social media? Potential readers, many of whom will hopefully be non-writers. See the problem here?

I’m not saying we can never talk about our writing. Indeed, part of why social media is effective is because we can use it to promote our work, whether that be our latest book, short story, or blog post. We can also become more active in a writer community, through which we can learn information about craft and business and be supported by like-minded writers. This is all fabulous and useful. But we also want to be building a network of readers, people who theoretically might be willing to spend money to read our work, and if all we do is post how many words we’ve written today or that we’ve had a good or a bad writing day, these potential readers might get bored.

However, fear not. We are writers, and we are capable of writing engaging content, even if we secretly fear that we are boring. All we need to do is think about our audience (those potential readers I keep talking about), think about ourselves and our interests, and find a place where those two groups intersect. Easy, right?

I’ll use science fiction and fantasy as an example since those are the genres and audience most familiar to me. (YA, unfortunately, is a bit trickier, since the audience and the purchasers are not necessarily the same people.) Subjects to consider discussing via social media if you write sf/f include: books, movies, comics, etc. in the genre (or even outside of it); politics (after all, Lois Bujold says that speculative fiction novels are fantasies of agency, but be aware that discussing politics on the internet has its perils); history (esp. for writers of historical fantasy and alternative history); technology; futurism; science and advances in science; folklore; anthropology; geek culture; gaming (board gaming, RPGing, etc.); costuming; philosophy. The list goes on and on. Not that every writer should talk about every subject mentioned here; we each get to choose subjects that we like and feel comfortable talking about.

So in between posting about your newest story coming out and sharing a great article your friend wrote about writing, you can ALSO muse about some interesting strategy ideas you had during your latest game of Dominion and share an article about a recent awesomesauce scientific discovery or some recent photos from the Mars Rover. And if you’re being especially organized, you can share that great writing article with only your writer friends via your Writers circle on Google+ or your Writers list on Facebook.

And if you want to talk more accessibly about writing, think about what aspects are most intriguing to non-writers. However irritating you might find the oft-asked question about where your ideas come from, the reason that question pops up again and again is because people find it interesting. Think of the more “glamorous” aspects of a writer’s life and write about them: where ideas come from; strange facts you discovered while researching; travel due to conventions, conferences, and book tours. You can also take problems you’ve faced while writing and universalize them to apply to other creative disciplines or develop them into general life lessons.

Finally, the use of key words are essential. People find writers on the internet in a variety of ways, and perhaps the strongest of these is the network effect (aka word of mouth). But there are other ways to connect online. Let’s say I’m obsessed with Dominion and post about it once a week. And let’s say a reader who also happens to be obsessed with Dominion searches for it on Google+ and finds my posts. The reader might start following me not because I’m a writer but because they like to talk to me about Dominion. And then, months later, when I announce my next book is coming out, this Dominion friend of mine might decide to check it out. Why? Because now she knows me and wants to support me. Or she finds me interesting and thinks she might like the book. But this reader would never have found me if I didn’t make myself easy to find by using key words. If you’re talking about something related to psychology, make sure to use the word psychology somewhere in your post. If you’re talking about the Mars Rover, perhaps you can slip in the words “space exploration” into your post. Help people find you.

The community of writers needs its wonderful specialist blogs on the craft and business of writing, and the writers involved in these blogs are providing an invaluable service. Writers also need ways to communicate with and support each other, and networking with industry professionals can provide us with opportunities and expert insight. But when we think of the bigger picture of social media, we need to remember the non-writers too. Think of each social media platform as a cocktail party. We want to be witty, well spoken, and concise. We don’t want to be the prima donna who simply talks about herself all the time or the bore who drones on and on and on; instead we want to ask questions and discuss subjects that are interesting to more than just ourselves.

So ask yourself these questions: what am I interested in besides writing? what do I enjoy talking about? who is my audience? what do we have in common? (The most obvious answer here is, of course, a love of BOOKS. But then dig deeper.) We don’t have to be perfect on social media, and we can’t always be interesting to everybody, but a little bit of effort can make a huge difference.

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