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The Lie Every Social Network Tells

Let’s talk a little more about the problem of disentangling yourself from the possibly-democracy-destroying social networks that currently dominate public discourse.

Now that we’ve moved full-blast into a gig economy, one of the most frightening prospects of leaving social media is losing the network that keeps you afloat. Artists rely on their social graphs to spread the word when they have new work out, or when they need a new project. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, to be sure, but a total lack of exposure means you’re definitely not selling any books (or games, or commissions, or...) Obcurity is the biggest problem early and even mid-career creators have to solve, because it doesn’t matter what heartbreaking works of genius you produce if nobody ever looks at them.

So sure, I could delete my Twitter account in a principled stand for what I believe in. But I’d be losing access to (as of this writing) 6,757 hypothetically human followers who have opted in to what I have to say. Gosh, that’s a lot of potential book sales to give up, isn’t it?

And yet.

Here’s the lie every social network is telling you: It’s your friend or follower counts. Your number of impressions and views. Your numbers of likes, faves, RTs, hearts.

We live in a world that wants to quantify everything, a kind of numeromancy meant to give us the feeling that we know and can control the future. Your resting heart rate and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream become the entrails we read to know if we will die soon. Calories consumed and burned become a scale of virtue, weighing our moral worth. Likes are a way to scry the hearts of others, to know how much they love you.

Did I say yet that this is a lie? Because it’s a lie.

This is a problem advertisers have grappled with for decades. There is no way to measure the hearts of humankind, so we measure what we can and pretend it’s the same thing. We have a whole arcane set of practices arisen solely from trying to derive truths about what we can’t measure from the things we can: conversion rates, A/B testing, sentiment analysis.

These numbers we can see and know feel like money in the bank. But the dirty truth is that I can’t count on all 6,757 of those people to buy a book. To the contrary, I can count on the fact that they won’t — and if I sell that many of anything, most of those people won’t know a hoot about where to find me online.

On Twitter, I can’t even count on all of my followers to even see my promotional efforts, no matter how hard I dance. Honestly, I can’t count on all of them to even be human beings, or to still be active on Twitter anymore if they are. So the loss of value to me in leaving is far less than 6,757 book sales, multiplied by however many books over however many years Twitter is the place to be.

How much less? Who can say?

This is an even more complicated problem when it’s not a career issue, but a personal one. It is nonetheless the same problem. You can have five hundred friends on Facebook but nobody to call to feed your pets because you have to make an emergency trip out of town. You can have five thousand Twitter followers and nobody who checks up on you at the right moment because they know you’ve been having a tough time these days, and they just want to see if you’re okay.

It’s possible that the 51 people who have subscribed to get my blog posts in email (and perhaps also the couple-hundred who read me in RSS)  are all the people on Twitter I could count on in the first place, as audience members, or as colleagues, or as friends.

We have a lot of ways to say this same thing. The map is not the territory. Quantity isn’t quality. And you know the alleged Mark Twain quote, that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.   

Numbers can be real, and yet not true. Let’s not fool ourselves. And let’s not allow ourselves to be fooled. 


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I’m Not Quitting Twitter. Yet.

Let’s talk personal social media strategy, and how I’m trying to protect democracy by setting up a way to get my blog posts by email. No, really.

Look, we all know the stark truth. In the year 2017, Twitter is a hot mess, a festering swamp of villainy, a miasmatic and oppressive empire of Nazis and the people who enable them. The company’s attempts to fix rampant abuse and harassment have been shallow and ineffective, often targeting victims more than perpetrators. Something has to be done. Nothing is being done.

I say this as someone who loves Twitter. I wouldn’t be enjoying the career I have now if it weren’t for Twitter.

But time and Trump have changed the world, and social media most of all. A lot of people are increasingly uncomfortable with the knowledge that being on Twitter makes us complicit in an ecosystem of unrelenting evil. And there’s a certain vulnerability that comes from making commercial advertising networks your primary internet home. Not just the constant knowledge that at any time the eye of Sauron might fall upon you and evil will come your way; no, something subtler and more pernicious, even, than that.

Social media are a vector for propaganda, paid and otherwise. They’re sources of bad information and unsupported opinions. They are the domain of emotion over fact, and what you let into your brain shapes your very identity. Ordinarily a certain skeptical vigilance would armor us from this. But now we live in a world where anyone with a botnet or a troll farm can exploit the human urge to engage with our peers in good faith. This is a danger to democracy, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

And yet. Twitter is where my friends and colleagues are. It’s where my readership and reviewers are. It’s a source for work and promotion that I don’t have a replacement for. Leaving Twitter and quitting writing are not the same, but it’s hard to see where the difference lies for me.

Which is a third kind of vulnerability: as goes my Twitter account, so goes my readership. And if Twitter falls, or if we do collectively decide to leave the platform en masse, then I could face a real struggle in keeping my head above the vast ocean of obscurity.

That’s doubly true on Facebook, where what you see and who sees you are heavily regulated by an invisible and ineffable algorithmic hand. When you speak up on Facebook, there’s no telling if anyone will ever hear it. And often the things it chooses to show are the least important things of all.

So it’s time to start looking for an escape plan. Time to execute a diversification strategy, as they say. This is risk mitigation, pure and simple. There are too many of my eggs in Twitter’s basket.

I have long maintained that the best platform is the one that you own. And this is the place that I own — if you can find it.

But blogs aren’t what they used to be, and for a lot of reasons. For one thing, search engine visibility relies a lot on social traffic, these days, for good and ill. When Google Reader went bust, a lot of people just gave up on their RSS feeds, preferring instead to just click links as they happen to see ‘em pop by in a social feed. You can post, but there’s still not any guarantee that anyone’s paying attention.

There is a third way, pioneered by outfits like Tinyletter. The good old-fashioned email newsletter.

I do have a newsletter already, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re subscribed already. But it’s a sporadic sort of thing where I mainly announce new ways for people to give me money. It’s got a lot of subscribers! But I don’t figure those people would be happy if I started mailing them every day, or even every week.

So I’m starting a new, higher-frequency list. This new Deus Ex Machinatio newsletter is going to send out my blog posts, no more than once a day, and probably less because ha ha ha ha ha who are we kidding if we think I’m going to be blogging every day. Though who knows? Maybe I will.

You can subscribe here: http://eepurl.com/c75VPb (And if you subscribe before 4pm on Oct. 19, 2017, you’ll get this very email in your inbox! Neat!)

Going forward, I’m going to move a lot of my social media energy back over here again. No more threaded tweetstorms. Maybe I’ll post my daily sketches here, and talk about... you know... day-in-the-life social stuff. How my work is going, or how I like my haircut, or which conventions I’m going to this year and why. And as always, I’ll noodle over writing craft, game design, or post my hot takes. You know, what you expect from me.

That means I’ll be somewhat less visible online unless you’re opting in or following me here. Please consider opting in.

I’m really excited about this, I won’t lie. I miss the depth and substance of the blogging days. This might be a path back in. Dang, do I hope this works.

But to make it work, this is needs to be a two-way street. So I want to know where to find you in your space, too. Do you have a newsletter, too? Link it in comments. Got a blog? Hook us up so we can Feed.ly our hearts out. Tell us where you live on the internet and why you’ve picked those places.

It’s not a solution. Not a bold or brave stance. This is just damage control. But listen, if we’re going to save democracy, we all have to start somewhere.


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