This was the title of the group discussion I led at Boskone on Saturday, and since it’s probably relevant to the interests of people reading this blog, I figure it’s worth posting a quick recap. Of course, between the unfamiliar format and Friday’s travel with the Incredible Screaming Pip, I didn’t actually make any notes for this, so what follows is my sketchy recollection of what I said; omissions and misstatements are a reflection of my dodgy memory, not an attempt to distort anything.
The title is obviously a little tongue-in-cheek, because the goal is really to not wreck your career with social media. But in pursuit of that goal, it can be instructive to look at some of the spectacular failures of the past.
(Also, it should probably be noted that the primary way to really wreck a career in writing (the area of interest of most people at Boskone) is to not sell books. It’s not clear that social media meltdowns actually destroy sales in a significant way, but you can certainly pick up a reputation by misusing social media tools that can have some negative impact– there are authors whose books I refuse to buy because they were assholes back in my Usenet days.)
I should probably also note my qualifications to talk about this, namely that I started using Usenet way back in the early 90’s, and have been running a blog since 2002. This is also the explanation of my cryptic tweet saying that I compared Boskone’s Guest of Honor, John Scalzi, to pond scum. I noted that I’ve been blogging for ten years, which makes me a dinosaur in Internet terms. Scalzi’s been at it considerably longer, making him, you know, some simple single-cell organism in the primordial oceans.
So, if you want to wreck your career with social media, how do you go about it?
1) Do it only for cynical reasons. My standard advice to people who ask about blogs/ Twitter/ whatever is that you should only do it if you enjoy it. If you’re only maintaining a blog out of a sense of obligation, because somebody told you that authors need to have a social media presence these days, it’s going to suck. If the sum total of your Twitter content is “Hey, buy my book!” people will pick up on that very quickly, and it won’t do you any good.
It’s not wrong to say “Buy my book!” on your blog or Twitter feed (ahem), but that shouldn’t be the only thing you say. And if you try blogging/tweeting/whatever and find that you can’t think of anything to say, it’s OK to just stop. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.
2) Overdo it. Obviously, if you do enjoy it, the next danger is falling down the Twitter hole and doing social media stuff to the exclusion of, you know, productive work. Don’t do that, either.
Of course, figuring out how to strike the right balance is a tricky and highly individual business. Everybody who blogs or Tweets in addition to have a day job has a different strategy for keeping the social stuff from overwhelming the paid work, and you have to find something that works for you. Common techniques include total blackouts for working hours, or setting writing quotas that have to be met before social faffing about can commence, and so on.
3) Forget the nature of the Internet.. It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason– it’s world wide. If you post something on the Internet, it’s potentially available to everyone, everywhere, with Internet access.
While there are platforms that give you some ability to limit access– LiveJournal, DreamWidth, Facebook, Google+– you shouldn’t put any real trust in them. It’s trivially easy for somebody with access to re-share things that you think are private. If you really want to keep something private, don’t put it on the Internet, period.
4) Over-share. This is partly an extension of the previous point. Kate has a theory that this is a stage everyone goes through when they first go online– that at some point, you will dump your whole life out there and get hurt by it, and then rein things in a little. To be sure, there’s stuff under my name on Usenet that I wouldn’t begin to write today, even in a semi-private forum, and I was relatively cagey compared to some of the rest of the newsgroup.
This extends beyond the merely personal, though. Giving the Internet too clear a look into your unfiltered id can be a very bad thing, in terms of your career. If you regularly write posts that James Nicoll tags “memetic prophylactic required,” you’re almost certainly losing some readers. If nothing else, I’m unlikely to ever buy your books.
This is, of course, an area where a little personal judgment is required. If you think that blogging your grand political theories about the Bavarian Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission makes your book more attractive to your target audience, then by all means, go nuts. But you should think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve, and how important it is that people know all about your unique world view.
5) Forget about social dynamics. While the Internet is in many ways the most public space imaginable, it’s also subdivided into lots of little communities with their own rules and interests. And this leads, very naturally, to a feeling that certain groups “own” certain spaces. A strong community of regular commenters on a blog will develop a community spirit, and resist intrusions by outside voices or ideas.
This means that one of the best ways to wreck your career is to go crashing into somebody else’s space and pick a huge fight in their comments. Not only is it rude– people will view it as if you’re attacking them in their own space– but it’s foolish, because you’re not just picking a fight with them, but with all their friends who hang out with them on their blog.
This also leads to more subtle problems of social dynamics, though. The nature of online communities is such that most blogs attract communities who will tend to agree with the blogger, and tend to take their side. Some of the great flamewars of the modern era have resulted from people saying something dumb in a public space, then going back to their own blog, and getting lots of supportive comments of the form “How dare they call you dumb!”
Should you be lucky enough to acquire a large and dedicated comment following, there’s also the monkey army problem, where saying something negative about another person or their blog effectively points a large band of screechy monkeys in their direction, and can lead to the trashing of their blog. Which may be something you want to do– some people really enjoy that sort of thing– but it’s something to be aware of, and will definitely earn you and your monkeys a certain reputation.
6) Give in to traffic addiction. Half of the attraction of writing a blog or Twitter stream in the first place is the idea of sharing your thoughts with everyone else. Getting lots of readers and lots of comments is a big kick, while spending a lot of time and energy writing something that gets widely ignored is a real downer.
The danger of this is that it can drive you to only post about those things that draw lots of traffic. So, for example, if you start out blogging by trying to write interesting things about French-language speculative fiction, but get a huge number of hits and comments for a one-off political rant, there’s a strong temptation to write more about politics to get that traffic hit again. And at some point, you’ve gone from “That blog saying interesting things about French-language speculative fiction” to “That political blog with the occasional weird aside about French-language speculative fiction.”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, career-wise– high-traffic political ranting can turn into a rewarding career. But it’s career-changing, and that’s something you need to be aware of. If you set out to write about one kind of thing, and find yourself drifting into writing something entirely different, you should stop and ask yourself whether this is really a direction you want to move in.
7) Refuse to let people be wrong on the Internet. Some of the most epic authorial meltdowns come from reacting too strongly and publically to negative reviews. The simple fact is, your book will not appeal to everyone, and there will be people who dislike your book for reasons you consider stupid.
Going after them to correct them can be absolutely the wrong thing to do, unless you want your career to be defined by battling with crazy screechy monkeys. Which, again, some people are fine with, and if it makes you happy, go nuts.
But if you go into screechy monkey battling thinking you’ll win a quick and glorious victory, it will all end in tears. Because the screechy monkeys have you outnumbered, and collectively, they have more free time than you do. Fighting them is a losing proposition, and will consume as much time as you give it, if not more.
If you want to avoid being “That guy who fights screechy monkeys,” you need to start by accepting that some people will just be Wrong on the Internet, and leave them alone. This might mean dropping blogs from your reading list, or refusing to look at comment sections, or not writing much about certain topics– exactly how you do it is up to you. You don’t have to give up important principles altogether, but make sure that when you get in fights, you’re fighting to defend principles that are genuinely important to you, and not just because somebody is Wrong on the Internet.
That’s what I said, more or less, though not in the form or order than I said it on Saturday. I’m sure I missed some great examples of ways to self-destruct via social media– feel free to add more in the comments.