Since joining Facebook last year, I’ve come to realize that there are two basic types of FB users: those who post about politics, the birds in their backyard, the funny things their children say – and those who use FB to sell themselves. This second group, the self-promoters, invariably have a product to sell – a book, a show, a service, a business – and that’s why they are there.
I am a self-promoter. (Okay, let’s just get this out of the way – it’s a memoir called Imperfect Endings , but I swear that’s all I’m going to say about it.) But in my defense, promoting on FB was what everyone, including my publisher, said you had to do. It was the new reality, they said. Social Media is where it’s at in terms of selling books. Step One: amass friends, whether you know them or not. Step Two: bombard them with artfully worded references to your product. Step three: rinse and repeat.
But who are we kidding? Everyone knows exactly what you are up to. All those artfully worded posts “thanking” some person or another for their nice review of your book as if it was about them when of course it’s really about you. That casually expressed “surprise” that the book would be published in Chinese? That’s right — all about you.
And for the first few months after the book came out, I was pretty thrilled to be getting all the attention – the reviews, the radio interviews — and for those friends who really are my friends, I like to think they were interested and happy for me.
But then over time, I noticed that there were an awful lot of obligatory sounding “great” and “congrats” getting tossed back in response to these self-serving status updates. And, as the weeks went by, sometimes… no comments at all. And I started feeling a little foolish as my “fabulous news” just hung there, utterly un-remarked upon. It was kind of like trying too hard at a party and having everyone turn away in embarrassment.
And then something very illuminating happened. I posted something about how disgusting my cat was (grooming on countertops, overeating, etc.) and I was… ALIVE again. The comments came in fast and furious. Everyone wanted to weigh in on my kitty. There were expressions of concern, questions about age and diet (the cat’s not mine), humorous remarks, riffs off riffs, and on and on. And I realized that this light-hearted post about my cat’s revolting habits revealed the beating heart of our social nature — both in the real and the virtual world.
Yes, up to a point we want to hear about each other’s successes and know about each other’s big moments and events. We might even want to read each other’s books or blog posts. But Facebook is less of a market place than it is an old-fashioned town square. A place where we can stop and chat, maybe tell a funny story or share some outrage over the latest world disaster, not a place to hand out leaflets and make people sign petitions — and not a place to make people buy something from you.
In fact, the response to my cat post made me wonder if social media as a promotional tool hasn’t been somewhat overplayed. I’ve read a number of posts by bloggers bemoaning the fact that no one reads their blogs. I have, in fact, written some of those posts. And while posting on certain sites – Open Salon being one of them – does cause an up-tick of traffic to my book’s website, it’s pretty modest.
One problem may be that there are simply more writers than readers, more sellers than buyers — and more self-promoting status updates than we can deal with. Social media gives anyone who can make up a password and upload a photo, an instant platform from which to advertise themselves. The problem is that we are all competing for the same shrinking marketplace and we are all exhausted by the demand to read or applaud or buy each other’s work. I know, because I also suffer from promotion fatigue. I still bounce over and read the occasional blog or check out a book or some artwork, but I skim over much of it. If I didn’t, my writing life would be reduced to commenting on other people’s post and updates.
Which brings me back to my cat post. One reason it was so popular is because for once I wasn’t asking anyone to read or listen or do anything — I was simply inviting people to share in the common experience of dealing with a weird and irritating pet. And it is this universal aspect that is often at the root of the “hit” update on FB.
Let me give you another example. A friend of mine, a deft master of the pithy FB update, posted about trying to “make peace” with her gray hair. It caused a cyber riot. Post after post flew in. Heated debate ensued about the merits of going natural vs. continuing to dye. Dire warnings about similar experiments that ended badly. Impassioned pleas to keep the color going. Forget about politics, or someone’s boring book, show, painting or cause. Here was an issue people could really sink their teeth into. More importantly, my friend wasn’t crafting an idealized, “marketable” image, she was revealing something real and imperfect about herself, owning up to aging and the fact that she dyes her hair.
While many things determine whether a post hits a nerve (including the relative celebrity of the poster) I think it is often the willingness to reveal, to be vulnerable and imperfect, that people respond to. After all, we’re social animals at heart, programmed to interact, and while our socializing has taken on some pretty strange forms in recent times – 140 character tweets, status updates, and “liking” each other – keeping it real and showing the world our behind-the-scenes selves, is still what makes us feel most connected.