Social Networks and Self-Inficted Storytelling

There’s no question that the internet has changed the world for the better. Individual voices now have as much reach as the dominant political and cultural voices had when every broadcast medium was controlled by gatekeepers. Aggregate enough individual voices and the power to dispute if not disrupt corporations or governments anywhere on the planet becomes real, in real time.

This feeling of empowerment was a critical factor in mass adoption of the internet. For the first time in history individuals were no longer limited to yelling back at their televisions and radios, but could immediately broadcast their own responses. While most such responses proved to be inane, some were, shockingly, no less informative or entertaining than what the cultural gatekeepers were shoveling. In short order these unknown but insightful individual voices validated the internet not simply as an email delivery system but as a democratic medium of mass communication. If you wanted incisive commentary on the web about anything from a film to a political battle you were as likely to find it on an obscure blog as you were on the website of a mainstream media outlet. Those mainstream voices, saddled as they were with bureaucratic restrictions and marketing directives, were outgunned by individuals who had no axe to grind except the facts of a matter and no audience to pander to but themselves.

While this revolution prompted a virtual land-grab by individuals eager to set themselves up as online experts, watchdogs or counter-culture trendsetters, not everyone wanted to manage their own site. What the revolution did confirm for everyone, however, was something that had long been suspected. In the media universe of programs and publications authored by other people, each of us was the content we’d been waiting for.  Read more ]

The Website Platform Advantage

While writing my Platform Evolution post I gave some thought to commenting on an excellent Infographic about content farms. No sooner did I decide against it than I ran across this excellent post on Publishing Trends about content farms. Then, a day later, a good friend sent me an unbidden and timely link to a post on Making Light, which, among other things, talks about — wait for it! — content farms.

If you’re not familiar with content farms you can get a quick overview here. As a writer, what concerns me most about content farms is that they are to writing and publishing what Ebola is to the human body. If I was an astrophysicist I would also add that content farms are to information and knowledge what solar storms are to communications. And if I was a logician I would say that content farms are to accuracy and reliability what tsunamis are to fishing villages.

Which is to say that everything about content farms is bad, but not equally bad. The worst aspect of content farms is not that they’re the new frontier for spammers and swindlers, it’s that producing so much crap at such an incredible rate renders every single aggregating and filtering mechanism useless.

Google as a search engine for retail products and reviews has been beyond broken for years. (Try searching for “best _____”, where the blank is any product you’re interested in.) Amazon is currently the default search for products, but it’s starting to fall apart as well. (Am I looking at the latest version of the CD/DVD/book I want to order? Is it new or used? Does it ship free or for a fee? Is it shipping from Amazon or some fly-by-night third-party reseller?) And of course the idea that all that ballyhooed user-generated social-media content is pretty much crap is also nothing new.

What content farms do that’s new is automate the production of internet crap by exploiting free labor and making liberal use of other people’s content in a plausibly deniable way. For independent writers trying to attract attention, fighting through the noise pollution generated by content farms may seem impossible, and all the more so as content farms begin to pollute e-book retailers like Amazon. The antidote to this virulent hemorrhage of obfuscating web text may seem to be a gated social networking community, but I think the opposite is true.  Read more ]

Platform Evolution

Here’s a graph from my Twitter Quitter post:

A basic premise of independent authorship is that authors should establish their own platform in order to reach out to readers and potential customers. I believe in that premise. What constitutes a platform, however, remains undefined.

Implicit in the idea of an author’s platform is the creation of an online presence. Because the internet has become commonplace it’s easy to forget that an independent platform for individual artists would be impossible without it. (Prior to the internet an artist’s platform was limited by geography. Bands were limited not by their music but by their touring range.) While the advantages and opportunities provided by the internet are astounding relative to the pre-internet age, the internet is still a communications medium devised by human beings, with inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Understanding how the internet works in a business context is an ongoing process. Two days ago the New York Times put up a paywall, attempting for the second time to derive revenue from its own online platform. (The first attempt failed.) That one of the most prominent newspapers in the world is still struggling to monetize content despite almost unparalleled visibility and economic muscle is a reminder to everyone that the platform question has not been answered.

Depending on your perspective, the tendency of the human mind to cherry pick information can be seen as either a bug or a feature. In the context of online platforms, it’s easy to see successes like iTunes as indicative of potential and promise when it’s actually the result of a unique set of circumstances. Finding gold in a stream may spark a gold rush, but only a few people will stake claims that literally pan out. The internet is no different. As I noted in a post about the future of publishing:

In return for making distribution almost effortless and almost free, the internet promises nothing. No revenue. No readers. Nothing.

Possibilities are not promises. Possibilities are chances, which is why I always say that writing for profit is gambling — and gambling against terrible odds. Determining what your online platform should be, and how much time you should devote to that platform, is an important part of nudging the odds in your favor.  Read more ]

Twitter Quitter

A couple of weeks ago I deactivated my Ditchwalk Twitter account. All I have felt in the aftermath is relief.

A basic premise of independent authorship is that authors should establish their own platform in order to reach out to readers and potential customers. I believe in that premise. What constitutes a platform, however, remains undefined.

Currently many people believe that Facebook and Twitter are central to an author’s platform because of the size of those online communities. But joining Facebook or Twitter merely allows the opportunity to start building, managing and marketing to the communities segregated on those sites. All of the work still needs to be done by you, often under terms and conditions no one in their right mind would otherwise submit to.

Facebook constantly made me feel like a sucker so I dropped it — and have never regretted doing so. Twitter, with its more fluid and simple conversational focus, never felt like a con game, but over time the potential and benefit of the site narrowed and faded. In the end I felt the time I allocated to using and managing Twitter could be more profitably spent in other ways. As I hope the remainder of this post attests, this was not a conclusion I came to rashly.  Read more ]

Facebook, Twitter and Maintenance

A couple of months ago I ran across an article (among many) that talked about the explosive growth of gaming on Facebook. After reading the piece I posted an idle question on Twitter, wondering if Facebook would ever been known as a game site first and a social-networking site second.

Obviously Facebook’s appeal transcends gaming. But another article over the weekend also makes it clear that the trend toward Facebook as a game-centric web space continues:

Market research group Lightspeed Research says 53 percent of Facebook’s members aged 18 and over have played a social game, and that 19 percent of those users consider themselves addicted to the games.

It’s also clear that Facebook did not see this coming. Most of Facebook’s games were third-party products, which, in many cases, were being used to rip-off Facebook’s own customers. (Facebook only stepped in to police the abuses when it noticed the amount of revenue being generated, and wanted a cut for itself.)

Beyond the historical perspective, what’s interesting to me about the continued explosive growth of gaming on Facebook is that it may signal weakness in the site’s social-networking premise. (Obviously the number of gamers and frequency of play only benefits Facebook. I’m not arguing that this is a problem relative to Facebook’s ongoing attempts to generate revenue from page clicks or by harvesting user data, etc.)

The premise of Facebook is that it allows you to build and manage your social relationships. But there are two potential problems with this premise. First, although some people treat Facebook as a competition, always looking to generate more ‘friends’, most people have a limited network they want to build and maintain. Once that’s accomplished, there’s not much more networking to do, which for many people is the fun part. Second, even a minimal network can require a great deal of maintenance, including photo and conversation management. While such things might be fun at first, keeping everything up to date on Facebook requires the same numbing process that goes into updating a physical photo album or contact list.

In this context, the explosion of interest in gaming on Facebook may be an indicator that social networking is losing steam on that site. Perhaps users are tired of self-directed building and management, and want a more catered experience. Maybe they’re bored with all of their ‘friends’. Maybe they simply have nothing else to do on the site than feed and maintain their presence, which is the internet equivalent of watering and weeding a garden.  Read more ]