The Networks Around us

by Cat Rambo

The world is changing rapidly, its moments swarming us like pixillated butterflies.  The woman walking down the street in front of you talking to the air may not be crazy, but having a conversation on her Bluetooth headset. Two people who have never met face to face may fall in love, or out of it.  Our relationships to each other, both at the personal and professional level, are becoming crowded and changed, to a point where it’s difficult to track what is and isn’t the same as it used to be.

One shift lies in the area of social networks such as Facebook, Livejournal, MySpace, and Twitter and their skyrocketing popularity. According to a Consumer Research Center study, 43% of online users visited social networking sites this year, as opposed to 27% the year before. If you believe maintaining an online presence is useful for connecting with readers, social networks form the way to interact efficiently with nearly half of them.

From February to May of 2009 Twitter grew from six million users to 35 million. Discussions of Twitter’s ubiquitousness were held on the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Some news programs now use “Twitter crawls”, a scrolling line at the bottom of the screen showing people’s “tweets” (Twitter posts) about news stories or issues, while websites may use Twitter to furnish part of their content. In June, Twitter was used to expose problems with the Iranian elections. When scheduled maintenance would have taken the service down, Twitter decided to stay up in order to help with the scheduling of an important demonstration, not just because its users asked, but because the Obama Administration requested it.

At the most basic level, millions of people are using Twitter and other social networks to connect with friends, family, and co-workers. A few are writers. A lot of them are readers.

Social networks manifest what technologists call “Web 2.0″. Web 2.0, a term first used in 1999 by user experience consultant Darcy DiNucci, is the next generation of Web tools and usages. It emphasizes on communication, ease of use, and accessibility. Its products also include collaborative efforts like wikis (Wikipedia being the most notable example), blogs, video-sharing sites like YouTube and Hulu, and the concept of mashups, web pages or applications that combine “data or functionality from two or more external sources to create a new service” (quote taken from Wikipedia). Mashups have become a familiar concept in speculative literature lately, recently introducing zombies to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

A major technological factor encouraging social networks is the acquisition of Internet capability by cell phones. I can update Twitter, Facebook, and my blog through my iPhone, and more companies are developing phones that do much more than phone home. Brief tweets and Facebook updates are suited to a cell phone’s small screen. They can be checked standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for take-out, riding on the bus. No wonder more and more people are participating!

At the same time, people resist what seems a social mandate to electronically network. In a world where things are changing rapidly and technology is having an impact on everything from the way we work to the ways we play and perform, social networks are sometimes unfairly the symbol of Technological Anxiety.

This article intends to do a few things. The first of these is to assuage some of those anxieties. Once that’s (hopefully) accomplished, we’ll take about the differences between the most popular social networks, how to behave in a way that maximizes your effort, and what’s worth (and not worth) doing.

What’s It All About?

Social networking’s basic concept is not difficult. You have people who influence you and are influenced in turn by you. Word of mouth, which depends on social networks, has always worked this way: someone makes a recommendation to a friend or family member. When that friend or family member is shopping, they remember the recommendation and act on it, purchasing the recommended good or service .

Many marketing-minded people enthuse about social networking because as social networks change to suit the Internet, the power of word of mouth balloons. Not only do more people see that recommendation, but it can be made more compelling, through the ability to point someone at a link about the product, include a snapshot taken with a phone, or even embed a YouTube clip of the product in action.

Publication time is different on the Internet, too. A book review on a website sticks around much longer than a print recommendation. While the magazine sits on a shelf or molders in the recycling bin, the web review continues spreading the word about the book indefinitely. Its popularity can fluctuate – a mention on a site such as Boingboing.net or Slashdot.org can send the numbers skyrocketing. As the editor of an online magazine, I’m fascinated by this. One of the most popular articles on the Fantasy Magazine website, for example, is a piece of steam punk gadgets. It continues to gather a significant number of hits and is almost always one of the top ten posts each week. Behold the power of a good search keyword!

Your informal social network, the people you interact with on a regular basis, has changed with the advent of electronic social networks. For example, my Facebook account allows me to connect with: close and extended family, such as my brother and my cousins in Kansas; former workvcolleagues; college acquaintances and teachers; friends from the online game I work with; friends who I gamed with twenty years ago; fans of my writing, fans of the magazine I edit; fellow writers and editors; and assorted people who just really like my name.

Facebook even makes it easy to build those networks. Birthday reminders let me pop over to their Facebook page and write quick greetings. If I wanted to go digital, I could buy them a virtual present to display on their page, like a picture of a pet or a flower.  (How smart of Facebook, to be selling what are, essentially, pixels.) I can see what my cousin Faith is up to, and drop a line of commentary on it. I’m told what groups my friends are joining, what videos they’re posting, when they update the “relationship” status of their profiles.

Perhaps you’re new to this world, deciding to dip your toe in the electronic pool for the first time. Or you’ve made a few attempts and never really followed up, letting your MySpace profile moulder or your blog sit there with one post back in 2005. Maybe you have a strong presence on one network and want to know whether or not you should expand into others. That brings new questions: how do you pick a social network? Which ones reach the most people, are the most effective, and/or involve the least amount of effort on your part? How do you avoid getting swallowed up by the social networking world?

Identifying the Important Networks

Why think about the different social networks? Because each represents a distinct group of potential readers. People tend to find a social network they like and stick with it.  Therefore, while there’s some overlap between social networks, it’s not as great as one might think.

The social networks with the largest numbers of members are Facebook, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, MySpace and Twitter. Each has its own unique aspects, advantages, and disadvantages. I use three, and by my estimate, advertising a new publication that way allows me to reach several thousand people that are already interested in my writing, for no cost other than the time spent posting. I’m a very minor author, although like everyone else on this particular rung of the ladder, I hope to expand my following. But were I larger, I’d be making as much use of social networking as I efficiently could.

Facebook:

When you create a Facebook account, you are setting up your profile: what people on your friends list see about you. Facebook can be confusing in its distinction between profile, group, and fanpage. Most people are represented on Facebook by profiles. People who want to see their updates must request that the other person “friend” them, and the relationship depends on both parties agreeing to it. A person’s Facebook “feed” consists of updates from their friends, groups, and other subscriptions. Updates can include items a person posted, as well as things they did. For example, my friend Sue just requested help in a Facebook game she’s playing, Mafia Wars, and that item appears on my feed.

Groups revolve around a single cause. Anyone can create a group, and they can range widely, from a group of people wanting to change an aspect of Facebook to a group denying global warming, or another group organized to get out urban voters in a campaign. Silly causes abound too, such as a recent one to “stop over-fishing on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.”

If you are a writer who does has a signficant number of fans, the most useful thing you can do is probably to create a “fanpage”. For example, Fantasy Magazine is represented at and anyone, regardless of whether or not they’re a friend, can become a fan of it. Fans see the updates to the page in their Facebook feed. Post on your fanpage when you have something you want to share with fans. You’ll find that people comment on items, and the comments will be visible. You can respond to them or not, as you choose, but you’ll find that responding will tend to make the group more appealing to new members. However, don’t do it, unless there’s a genuine following for your work — nothing looks sadder than a fanpage with a following of two.

LinkedIn:

When you set up a LinkedIn account, you are also setting up a profile, but one that is considerably less interactive than a Facebook one. Only LinkedIn users that are linked to you (sometimes through another person) can see all of your profile information. LinkedIn is primarily a job and employment site, so the emphasis is on your resume and references. This is useful to writers and editors in terms of finding work or workers to do it. While I make sure I have links to my site in my profile, I don’t think of LinkedIn as a network that will drive traffic to a website. LinkedIn might also be useful in terms of finding reviewers, reading or speech venues, or markets for articles or fiction.

LiveJournal:

The primary purpose of a LiveJournal account is to create a LiveJournal blog. You network with other people by “friending” them. as with Facebook, which allows you to see their private entries as well as collecting their posts with those of your other friends in an easy to read format for you.

LiveJournal boasts a thriving collection of authors, editors, and publishers, including Elizabeth Bear, Ellen Datlow, Gregory Frost, Sean Wallace, and Martha Wells. One of the confusions that has arisen on LiveJournal deals with the issue of “handles,” special names attached to accounts which may bear little to no resemblence to one’s real name. Writers setting up a LiveJournal account under an exotic name may want to make sure their real name and contact information are listed on their profile page.

MySpace:

MySpace is very similar to FaceBook: you set up a profile page which your friends can comment on, and which can hold music, embedded video, pictures, and the like. MySpace is a favorite of musicians, and has additional functionality to offer them, but there are many authors here as well. Many people, including myself, complain about MySpace’s interface, but it does allow writers some good functionality, such as allowing people to readers to your posts.

Twitter:

Twitter is all about brevity. Users post “tweets”, 140-character messages that span a gamut of possibilities. You can subscribe to or “follow” someone’s tweets, or twitter a message that directly addresses them but which can be seen by anyone. The most rapidly growing network, Twitter was the first to exploit cell phones, allowing users to post from phones as well as the web.

Twitter is used by a wide, wide range of people, including Shaquile O’Neill, Jon Hodgman, Christopher Walken, and Ashton Kutchner, and ghost-writing tweets is a growing field for freelancers. The shortness of the form has led to a fascination with it; there are several speculative-fiction Twitter magazines, such as Thaumatrope and horror-based TweetTheMeat.

Twitter spreads information with remarkable quickness through the practice of “retweets”, signified in Twitterese by “RT.” For example, I might see a book recommendation from my buddy, user @bestfriend, and decide to pass it along to my followers, in the form like, “RT @bestfriend says Baloney by Oscar Meyer is the most tightly plotted mystery ever!” Retweets help spread news fast, such as the Hudson River plane crash or the Mumbai terrorist attacks. In both cases, eyewitnesses tweeted, and the tweets were quickly passed along and even used by the slower moving news networks.

Twitter has a secondary mechanism for passing along information, hash tags. They are called hash tags because one uses the hash mark symbol, #, to indicate one. Hash tags are words that people can use to search for a common interest group, such as #fantasy, #tengu, #buffy, or #pabloneruda. They are sometimes used to create an event such as #followfriday, where users broadcast their recommendations for interesting users to follow. Anyone can look for the word and find lists of users interested in being followed and following in turn. A Twitter stream making judicious use of hash tags can steadily increase its number of followers, allowing its messages to reach more and more people.

One of the joys of Twitter is the wide range of tools that can do things with your Twitter feed. Here, for example, is my Twitter stream displayed as a cloud of words. Words are larger and redder if they are more often used; smaller and bluer when they seldom appear.

The TweetBeep service can be used to alert you when certain key phrases (like your name) appear on Twitter, which you can have it do on an hourly or daily basis. I use Tweetbeep to monitor my name and the phrase “fantasy magazine”. Followmebutton.com allows you to generate a button, easy to post to a blog or other social network, that lets someone follow you on Twitter with a single click.

Blogs

Blogs are a favorite form of networking. THe wide variety of blog-based networks includes Blogger, Blogspot, and WordPress. Blogs tend to be time-intensive, although you can take the labor-saving approach of only posting excerpts from your work in progress and/or announcements of events. If the former, responding to comments will, as with any network, help drive traffic.

Sometimes virtual networks are dedicated to meat-space meetings. For example, you might use TweetUp.com, Twtvite.com or Meetup.com to organize events such as signing, readings, lectures, or other performances. Or it may be just as easy to use one’s social network presence elsewhere for such organization.

The feel of different social networks vary according to their communication model. Facebook communication is like being at a party in a very large house or apartment building where everyone knows everyone else, even if sometimes only in a vague way. You can wander into someone’s space and join the conversation, comment on the decorations or the items stuck to the front of their refrigerator. MySpace is the strip mall and trailer park down the road. LinkedIn, on the other hand, is much more like an office building or conference center, where all communications center on employment and professional networking. Of Twitter, novelist Kelly Eskrige has noted, “It’s like being in a stadium full of people and having a shouted exchange with friends on the other side of the field, while also overhearing random bits of strangers’ conversations, which every once in a while tell you something that you actually needed to know right now — a weird and wonderful synchronicity.”

By contrast, blogs usually contain a single resident, unless they’re one of those hippie commune blogs like the Daily Cabal or SFNovelists. – they’re like being invited into someone’s house. All communication is, by the virtue of the location in which it’s taking place, addressed to them, and the sense is that of a one to one relationship between reader and author/host. While readers may address each other in the comments, they’re always aware that the host is there watching, and some, like John Scalzi, have a notoriously firm hand in ejecting trolls and steering the conversation.

There are other networks. GoodReads and LibraryThing, for example, are book recommendation, review, and listing sites. Good reviews on there will help sell copies of your book. You can make use of these networks in two ways, one of which is considerably less time consuming. This first way is simply to spend some time figuring out who the prolific reviewers who you think might do justice to your book are, and then make sure they get a copy. The second is to actually join, and then spend time reviewing other people’s books, so you develop a reputaiton that leads to people seeking out your work. If you go the second route, I would suggest making sure you have links to your work in your profile on the network.

Flickr and YouTube

Flickr is a great site for publishing visual images. It’s free, but a professional account will allow you to publish more pictures. YouTube is often used for video, such as interviews, readings, or book trailers. While there are a number of audio-based social networks, none of them have yet emerged from the pack as a standout.

YouTube is particularly appropriate if you do something visual. For example, writer and SFWA secretary Mary Robinette Kowal has published a number of clever and interesting videos, ranging from popular pieces to DIY to interviews. Book trailers can make for great video. Mario Acevado has done amazing trailers for his Felix Gomez vampire detective series using Lego and a driving sound track.

In selecting a network, figure out what you want to achieve through social networking. Promote events and new material to fans? Reach new readers? That helps you decide both what sort of venue you want to opt for as well as what you do with it.

Behaving Correctly

No matter which social network(s) you decide to join, the important thing to remember  there is to behave in accordance with the rules of the group. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s house and spray-paint the title of your latest book on their kitchen wall. You don’t want to do the equivalent in virtual space either.

Don’t spam people by posting the same message or messages over and over again. Make your content interesting, meaningful, and/or entertaining in order to keep people still reading.

One pitfall is thinking of your blog as a billboard. It’s not, or at least it’s one where people have the ability to put notes on it. Read and answer the comments you get, and engage your readers. Answer their questions and give them a reason to feel invested in the blog. Some bloggers periodically ask their readers to introduce themselves if they’re new, or to weigh in on an issue.

What’s a Writer To Do?

Internet social networking sites can provide valuable space for publicizing events such as signings, convention appearances, or book releases as well as products. They also provide ways for you to influence where your writing and publicity efforts appear through tagging and word-of-mouth sites.

An early concern is branding. Writers understand the power of names. You want a distinctive, memorable name representing you on the Internet by . You want readers to  find you easily when they use a search engine. For example, my name is one where, nine hits out of ten, they mean me. (The other one time, someone has named their housecat Rambo.)

When setting up accounts , use the name you write under so your readers can recognize you. If you’re a longtime Net participant (or even a short one), you may have developed an avatar name, like grouchyoldwoman43 or PrinceSparkle. Unless that is the identity you wish to embrace, consider making new accounts with the correct name. You may want to make sure that your e-mail address is similarly straightforward and recognizable, as well as professional sounding.

What if someone has your name already? Play around with your name. Can you use a special character, like an underscore, or perhaps a middle initial? Perhaps first person, such as IamYourName, or append something that signifies your genre, like SFwriterYourName. Perhaps a number that’s significant, like 2010YourName (be aware some names may age more gracefully than others.)

Representing yourself visually: It’s worthwhile spending time picking a photo that shows you well, and perhaps even paying for a professional photo. Don’t use an abstract image, like a guitar to show you play one, or a petunia to demonstrate you like flowers. But no matter what, do include a picture – one study showed that no photo decreased a person’s likeliness of being followed by 80%.

Networks don’t do much good unless you’re using them, no matter what. The Associate Editor of PANK wrote: “If you’re going to have a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, update them regularly. One of the things that drives me crazy is going to a blog that hasn’t been updated in months. If you’re not updating a given social networking tool regularly, you don’t need it.”

And In The End

In the end, are social networks bane or boon to the modern spec-fic writer? While I’ve regretted the hours I’ve frittered away on Facebook games or checking Twitter, in the end I’d still land solidly on the boon side. To me it seems inevitable that we procrastinate and dawdle, and that we poke at the Internet doing all manner of things. Inevitably, we’ll let those pixillated butterflies lure us into enjoying a chat here and there. All in the name of networking.

Ten reasons I might actually want to know what you had for breakfast

  1. You are a close friend or family member and I am interested in your health.
  2. Your breakfast was particularly poetic.
  3. Your breakfast was particularly unfamiliar and thus interesting to me.
  4. You tried a food I am curious about.
  5. You tried something that I know an Interesting Fact about.
  6. You had something that has strong emotional resonance for me.
  7. You tried something a favorite fictional character eats.
  8. Your description persuades me to try something new.
  9. Your description warns me off from something I know I won’t like. (If you’re reliable or I know your taste matches.)
  10. I am stalking you.

Simple Things You Can Do To Build Your Online Presence

  1. Tag things.
  2. Comment, comment, comment. Responding to someone is the best way to show that you’ve read their content. FaceBook condenses this down to the simplest possible form with the “Like” functionality.
  3. Share your opinion.
  4. Tell authors when you like something.
  5. Include links in your e-mail signature.
  6. Make sure your fans gets link whenever you publish something on line.
  7. Sell to some of the online pro markets, which pay as well as the majority of the print magazines, and which allow you to link to your material from your website or blog.
  8. Put a press kit on your website that includes: a headshot, a brief bio, and links to interviews.

This article has been reprinted, with permission, from The Bulletin

Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her collections, EYES LIKE SKY AND COAL AND MOONLIGHT, and THE SURGEON’S TALE AND OTHER STORIES (with Jeff VanderMeer) are available on Amazon.com.  She is the fiction editor of FANTASY MAGAZINE. Upcoming appearances include a reading for RASP on January 29, 2010, a one day workshop for the FIeld’s Edge Writers Community program, March 13, 2010, Norwescon, WisCon, WorldCon, and World Fantasy Con.

6 Responses

  1. Charlie Stross

    ADMIN REQUEST: For the benefit of those of us who get the SFWA feed via LJ, do you think you could add an lj-cut tag to Bulletin-length articles? They overwhelm our friends lists …

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Sorry about that. I’ve been trying to remember to do that and forgot again.

  2. Liz Argall

    Great post Cat,

    I’m working with a few clients on their social media strategy and this is a great overview that avoids jargon. I may have to put this article on the recommended reading list

  3. Kimberly Unger

    Great overview Cat!

    The speed and constantly evolving nature of the social networking sites make it hard for many people to get a handle on them out of the gate. Like so many other things out there, once you dip your foot in to take the temperature, it becomes easier to get into the swim :D

    -ekim

  4. Andy Romine

    Thanks for a great post Cat.
    I consider myself relatively tech-saavy, but the social networking options can be bewildering. I’m still experimenting to see which one is the right fit!

    thanks!
    -andy