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Jan 17, 2011

What is the Purpose of Social Media?


All the writers I know struggle to balance time on twitter/facebook/blogging and time spent writing. Possibly, probably, other people have this problem too, but I dare say it's more extreme when you work for yourself. And ultimately, no matter whether a writer is a hobbiest or professional, has a contract with a big pub or is an indie, when it comes to writing, you work for yourself.

What purpose does all that social media stuff have anyway? I mean in the BIG picture? I came across an article advancing an interesting theory, and I'd like to share it with you.
Why do moose carry such enormous and metabolically expensive horns? Why do some gazelles jump up and down when they see a predator, wasting time and energy instead of running off as fast as they can? Zahavy's insight was that this wastefulness ensures the honesty of their signals of fitness and speed: Only animals with an excess of the signaled resource can afford to waste it on expensive communicative displays.

Similarly, observers have been puzzled or concerned by seemingly irrational behavior on SNSs. Users may spend considerable time updating their pages, adding new pictures and music; the comments they send each other are often in the form of jokes and images. Why spend so much time on seemingly inconsequential changes of imagery and uninformative communication? Deep concerns have also been raised about young people who create overly revealing profile pages, in which they appear in provocative photographs or recount illegal activities such as drug use or underage drinking. Warnings about the dangers of doing so have stopped some, but not all. Why would someone choose to post such material once he or she was aware of the negative consequences? Signaling theory can help explain such behavioral phenomena.

While an outsider might see as wasted the time expended on profile updates and exchanges of the latest pictures and URLs, another interpretation is that these seemingly trivial activities are examples of online fashion, signals of social position in an information based society (Donath, in press; McCracken, 1998; Thornton, 1996).

Fashions, the constant change in the way of doing something, are signals whose form—the currently popular object or saying—changes frequently, while the meaning—social position—remains the same. There are fashions in clothing, slang, and management techniques. Their individual instantiations are easily-copied conventional signals; it is the constant evolution of forms that creates the reliable signal. Fashion is about information, about knowing the changing social meaning of an object or way of doing things.
There is no doubt that books are judged by their covers. But these days, books are also judged by their authors' covers. This is what agents talk about when they want to know an author's platform. It's not just about connecting with potential readers, though that is there, certainly; it's about building trust with potential readers. This is critical to all writers, but perhaps even more so for indie writers, who lack other ways to build trust, such as relying on the brand name of a Big Six pulisher. 

A writer who can maintain a blog, facebook and twitter presence, and still find time to write, is demonstrating a huge commitment to their art. It's the equivilant of a peacock's tail. Only the healthiest cocks can afford to strut their stuff.

What about those of us who aren't quite so cocky? What about those of us who can barely find time to write, never mind spread a peacock's tail display across the internet?

I don't know. I am only posting once a week on this blog now. Although I'll be posting twice daily over at 500 Words, I still worry it's not enough. I'm not the world's greatest social mediaist. I just struggle to do the best I can, and hope that even in this strange world of e-posturing, those of us with feathers designed more for hiding behind bushes than winning beauty pagaents can still compete.


C. N. Nevets said...

As someone who spent most of grad school studying grand-scale evolutionary patterns in our small-scale behaviors, I really resonate with this perspective, and I think it's largely true.

However, I think you can relax a little. To continue the moose analogy, just look at the rack on Neil Gaiman. Nothing most of us have comes close to that. So as a show piece, I think the value must scale. Because of that, I think you can relieve some of the pressure. If you're a moose in a fairly small, isolated population with geographic barriers, you might not need the same display piece on your head.

In other words, you're not going to hit Neil Gaiman's SNS numbers, but you may not need to in order to stand out to the mating population in your niche.

So to speak.

Of course, I think there is other value in SNS, as well. Building a small following of loyal readers, even if their numbers don't add up to a huge purchase turnover, still has value in demonstrating your attractiveness.

If an elk has a small harem, when he goes into a new territory it's easier to get attention. "Hey, that elk must be something special, because he's from that small herd over there but he's got some pretty good lookin' females."

The numbers game aside, I personally most value the networking aspect of it. I won't complain about numbers, and I do occasionally try actively to increase them. But it's not my focus. My focus is on meeting key individuals and building strong relationships. I've already had some pay-off in that department and I hope that it only gets better.

Mary Mary said...

I enjoyed this post because it touched upon something many people tend to ignore. How do you find time for all that social networking when you're supposed to be a dedicated writer? And is it really helping? I know of a local mystery writer who spends oodles of time social networking (even setting up fake facebook pages for some of his characters), but the interesting thing is is that all that time he's spent building up followers has not translated into sales. Most of his sales come from people who don't even follow him on social networking sites.

And what about those successful reclusive writers one reads about, like J.D. Salinger, who refuse to have nothing to do with the public. There are so many of them out there and we just don't realize it because we read their talent, not their facebook pages or blogs. Yes, communication has changed, but that doesn't mean that jumping on the bandwagon is going to give us a great result. We need to pick and choose how we want to promote ourselves and what we are comfortable with.

J.B. Chicoine said...

I really appreciate your exploring this issue, and also Mary and Nevet's comments. It's hard to know just what the balance is, though it seems to me you're doing pretty well...just keep at it, I guess.

Gradual growth with a solid, active following I think is far better than just impressively large numbers.

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting perspective. I tend to avoid asking myself why I do thing in fear of the answers stopping me from doing them. I think I blog mostly to keep motivated and stay connected with the writing world. It makes me feel apreciated when I see my numbers going up but its not really a goal.

Jai Joshi said...

I think that everyone has their own limit on how much time they spend online. I post three times a week on my blog and on a couple of forums but that's it. Time is too precious and I'd never get anything else done if I have facebook and other social networks and all of that stuff to look after too.


Charlie Rice said...

As someone that posts on average once a month, I understand the difficulty of maintaining an internet presence. Having a fan base isn't something I need worry about for a few years. I enjoy reading everyone's thoughts, chiming in whenever I can and having fun.

My time on the computer is very limited (My day gig is in construction) and my writing time is valuable. For me, social media takes a back seat.

You'll just have to savor my monthly doses of insanity. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This is a really interesting post! I think it's important to demonstrate our ability to market ourselves. I don't know if you read it, but my publisher, Rhemalda, put up a little piece on my blog about the importance of internet presence for an author and how that affects their decisions when choosing manuscripts. This, to me, shows that social media and networking is important.

However, some authors aren't necessarily cut out for it, and I don't think it's a bad thing if they choose to stay away from all that noise and just write. We're all different. Their numbers might suffer, but perhaps not a lot. Who knows.

I can attest that this past month has been insane for me. I've had a hard time keeping up with blogs, especially, because I've been so busy getting Monarch ready for its deadline. I haven't had time. I think it's important to understand there is a time and place for certain things as a writer. Social marketing/networking/media has its place, and it shouldn't cut into the writing if at all possible since, you know, that's why we're doing all of this in the first place...

Bookworm Lisa said...

I received your kindle gift today of your book. I am very excited to read it, it might take me a week or two. I have a few things that I am working on right now. I would love to do a giveaway with review. My blog is

Have a great day!

Lez said...

Talk about a resonate issue,Time and it's applications, splitting yourself and sometimes others has been a pivotal issue since time, or at least prioritizing time began. Then add in social networking as a new priority ouchy. The question is now and always has been; how to make it work for you, in what ever context you need it to?
I suppose that for some of us, the best answer has to be; just make it yours. Take full responsibility for your priorities, then do it.