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Why People on Facebook Care That My Cat Is Disgusting
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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.      

19 Comment count
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Hairballs, etc.

Hi Zoe,

I love your conclusion in the last paragraph about the willingness to be vulnerable and imperfect being at the heart of posts/updates to which people are most likely to respond.

Personally, I love reading snippets about the quirkiness of other people's lives, though I happen to also really enjoy reading about what is going on in other people's publishing lives and their reading lives. (That might be related to a quirk of my own, in that I happen to find the "business" part of publishing really fascinating, and that I often prefer talking about and thinking about books to talking about and thinking about "real life.")

So, the quirkiness (disgusting cat stories, bad mommy stories--of which I have many, put-foot-in-mouth stories) I really love on social networks.

One of the things I'm not-so-into on Facebook, though (and one the things that makes me not like Twitter as much) is hearing about things like "I ate too many cookies. I feel full." Or "Rain sucks." Even when it comes to hearing about real life, I'm pretty partial to "story" (which is probably why the 140 character Tweet doesn't appeal to me as much as FB updates or links to blog posts. Or at least, implied "story." (Humor usually goes a long way in implying story, the laugh uttered by me, the reader, after reading it, standing in for climax.)

As always, Zoe, you've written a thought-provoking, uber-smart post!

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Balance & Consistency

Thanks, Zoe, for a very thought-provoking post. I think the key to promotional usage of Facebook is balance and consistency; posting a status regularly and have it be a mix of promotion and the personal from day to day so that readers and fellow writers get to know you. And it helps to be natural and sincere. I do get weary of writers who post irregularly and then, when they do, only post "Facebrags."

On both Facebook and Twitter I have come up with my own editorial style of what I feel comfortable writing about when it comes to the personal (e.g. yes, my quirky cat, but not about family illnesses or politics or religion). I also have a style when it comes to linking to articles or blog posts whether they're about writing, Japanese culture (a big interest of mine and what I've written about in my books) or just a good thought-provoking story I want to share. I liken it to publishing my own magazine.

And, Tanya, this is what I do a lot on Twitter -- point to useful and interesting content whether about the writing process, agent hunting, the latest Tokyo fashion or whatever that I feel will appeal to my followers. And of course I also do my own promotion as well, but again, it's a mix and the whole mix tells my story.

I have gotten so much out of networking on Facebook and Twitter in regards to my writing life including opportunities I never would have run into elsewhere. Yes, it can be overwhelming at times and I also sometimes feel that everyone is competing for the same shrinking marketplace. But overall, social media, when used creatively is a wonderful tool that has enriched my personal and professional life and I'm grateful for it.

And now excuse me while I go "friend" Zoe on Facebook, where I'm already friends with Tanya (and is where I first "met" her!).

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Twitter vs Facebook

I just realized, Wendy, that I'm far more likely to follow links posted on people's Facebook pages than ones on Twitter because on Facebook you can "see" the page it is linked to, with a preview. (Similarly, I never click on links to photos from Twitter. I like being able to see immediately a thumbnail of something, as on FB, to decide whether I want to click on it.) In addition, the 140-character Twitter limitation forces the descriptions of suggested links to be sometimes too brief to catch my interest.

All of which is to say, I guess, that I'm very much a long-form girl. (Not surprising, since I prefer novels to poems, and prefer 700-page novels to 200-page novels!) Which, I suppose, is why it's good that there are so many different types of social networks out there. :-)

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insightful post, Zoe!

Zoe, thank you for your clarity and honesty about this subject of Facebook. I agree with you that after a while the "great" and "congrats!" comments (or no comments) show that one's efforts to promote one's books start to wear thin. Ours is a competitive culture, and I know that the harder I'm finding my own writing life (I haven't been able to find a publisher for one of my novels, and I'm panicked about the one I'm struggling to write now), the harder it becomes to cheer others on. I DO hope to and try to encourage others --- I think this is so important as an action in the world --, and I hope that when I have good news to share, others (writers, family, friends) will be happy for me; I hope that what goes around comes around.

What bothers me more deeply is a larger phenomenon I see reflected on these social networking sites -- the very structure of FB's form reveals this: "Harriet Chessman ____________" (fill in the blank). It's flattering to see one's name, and to feel that the world is hoping for an update from yours truly!! What will the verb be? "H.C. thinks / loves / wonders . . . ." But it's all about the "I" --- harder to create a sense of "you" or "we," although it can be done. I find in general that all of us, in this culture, start to become so self-concerned, so "all about me."

A writer, of course, HAS to put herself or himself out there -- publishers push writers to do this now. Everyone is desperate in a squeezed, crunched, faltering market. I love your idea of a village square, and I appreciate Wendy Tokunaga's very balanced ideas about how to engage friends (and "friends") on FB and Twitter by creating such a mutual space. This comes as close to the "you" and the "we as I think one can get, given the forms and structures available.

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Thanks for the interesting,

Thanks for the interesting, thoughtful comments, Tanya and Wendy! I think we all make our own way through the thicket of social media and have very personal ways of using it and responding to it. I've loved hearing about other people's approaches to it in response to this post.
There are of course SO many other things to say about FB, Twitter, etc. -- but yes, Tanya, I agree that there is nothing more tedious than the pointless, over-sharing post that makes me silently ask: Why, exactly, should I give a fuck?
I also agree that humor rules. If someone makes me laugh, I kind of love them -- and it makes me feel there is actually something wonderful about this strange virtual community that we create and are a part of.

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I love that expression, Wendy, and it speaks to what Harriet is saying about the way FB is set up to start every status update with your name. And I think you touch on something really important, Harriet. How enthusiastic we are in responding to other people's good news often has to do with how we are feeling about our own work -- or even ourselves -- on any given day. And Lord, I know just the feeling you are describing -- the panic over whether something I'm writing will a) every be finished and b) ever be published. Sometimes I think just staying OFF of social media is the healthiest thing to do when I'm in that state of mind.

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Thank you, Zoe, for starting

Thank you, Zoe, for starting this thoughtful discussion. One thing I like about Facebook is that it can be a lot of different things: a place to keep in touch with family, a place to share kid stories, a place to play games, etc. I use it as my clipping service, and love how I can find vital links to information and articles I want to read. I keep a short list of good posters who I check regularly. The other thing I like is how it's a straightforward forum for hearing about people's good news. I think women in particular worry a lot about bragging or sharing their successes. And with Facebook, it's so easy to skip what you want to skip, so no one is forced to read anything. So I guess I'd weigh in on the side of encouraging women especially to share the good news about their successes and let people who aren't interested pass it by.
P.S. Been meaning to write and tell you how wonderful your book is! Being one of three sisters, with parent care the central issue at the moment, I was grateful that you shared your story.

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Thanks for the kind words

Thanks for the kind words about the book, Lucy! Much appreciated.
And I agree that it is probably part of my female conditioning that "bragging" on FB can feel uncomfortable. I have had other women authors tell me to just go for it, that "everyone expects you to"and, in fact, was operating under those assumptions. But the cat post incident made me wonder about what people really want from FB.
In the end, I think some self-promo is fine as long as we mix it up with other stuff, keep it genuine, and are occasionally funny.
Btw, I also enjoy people's links although I find it hard to get to most of them!

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Thanks for this

Thank you, Zoe, for providing a forum for this conversation. (And thank you to everyone for these lucid, honest comments.)

FB, email, Twitter are both a curse of distraction and a godsend for extrovert writers, in that we can virtually "drop by" the massive on-screen party, a mix of people we know well, or slightly (or only through their screen presence and books), be reminded of the world outside, and say something to that world. (And especially when one is revising something that's taking forever.)

Maybe we tend to post what we want to read. FB and Twitter seem to me most useful in giving leads to navigate all that info out there. So I try to send on to my Friends interesting articles, YouTube videos, maybe occasional news. The people who seem to comment on what I post tend to be other writers (friends, students, ex-students), so I try to put up quotes or links that encourage writers. Also, I do want to know when friends are giving readings from their new books, and to be reminded of those reading dates, in case the fast-moving stream went by when I was away from the computer and missed it. But it's also great getting a glimpse into people's lives (stuffily, I prefer that this not include their bedrooms or bathrooms...)

Thanks for a chance to think about all this!

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Great essay!!

...and, kind of a relief. Someone recently suggested she might put me in touch with a currently very hot novelist, a novelist generous with time and advice, etc., whom I won't name here. I was happy of course, to think I might get advice from one of publishing's successful authors. Only four days later did the writer's name even begin to ring a bell in my head. I tracked the novelist down on Google and realized that I had not only read a wonderful interview with her on Fiction Writers Review, I had posted a comment which I'd spent some time composing.

The incident revealed my growing feeling of social network "exhaustion." I couldn't even recognize the name of a writer who'd made a big impression on me in Cyberspace? But spending social time on the computer feels, for me, like flying economy class: cramped, full of stale air and little nuance of human interaction. Just like in life online, you don't remember the person you flew strapped in next to for five or six hours unless you're lucky enough to strike up a rare human connection.

So it's not just me!! Thank you so much for your post!! I was afraid I was the only writer who feels this way...

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great comments, Helen and Sarah

Yes, it's been fascinating to hear all the different ways people use and think about social media. I'm impressed that you are thinking of how to entertain and encourage other writers, Sarah. So selfless, although perhaps with a self-promotional aspect as well? (After all, having people read and comment on your posts is part of the game.) And I love your story about the "hot" novelist, Helen. I do sometimes think that a lot of this endless exposure does work but on a subliminal level. That I will remember a title in some deep recess of my brain and when I see it somewhere, not even knowing why I am drawn to it, I'll pick it up and... buy it. Scary. Or good, depending.

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What Color Kitten?

More thanks.

Yes, i get really tired of self-promo stuff on facebook, but if i had a book out right now i'd be doing it, too.(And typing better .)Promotion is just boring to me, and yet I know we gotta do it and I respect people for believing in their work and caring enough to do it.
I don't know why i'd rather see a kitten, or read a good quote, or watch a pretty video of clouds, or a hear a song, but I would. I'd like to say it's cuz i'm such a hard working author i need a break from the literary world, but i think more than that i'm alone in my writing room and i want to know someone else is looking at the full moon, or thinking about what to do that weekend or just back from hacking an overgrown lavendar bush.
I don't post a lot because it makes me get too wound up. I've spent about half an hour finding my password for redroom to post-- and then trying to figure out what i want to say that is honest and somewhat coherent. i don't find these forums really conducive for me. if i have to APPEAR to have it together and respectful it just makes me uncomfortable. so it seems best to just take it lightly.
By the way, I'm thinking of getting a kitten. Maybe a gray one like I had as a kid.

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I like kittens

Okay, it was a random subject line. Just wanted to say I'm glad Katia found her Red Room password because I'm not sure I even knew Katia was *on* Redroom. Hi, Katia!

Zoe, all I can say is that you did a great job of starting a conversation that drew in a lot of folks I know and like and a lot of folks I'd like to know. Thank you!

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Great post to spark

Great post to spark discussion and bring new and old friends together.


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Careful about the kitty...

..they turn into strange and baffling cats pretty quickly. But I'm glad you found your password too, Katia. I think I am more cynical than you in that I find those posts about the moon and the lavender bushes another form of self-promotion. It's harmless -- not to mention human -- but I think we all kind of sculpt our online image via photos, events and thoughts we just happen to share. But maybe this says something about me that I even think about it like this...

And thanks Tanya for all your wise and generous contributions to this discussion and for helping to keep it going. One of these days I hope to talk again in person!

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Online personas

I agree that we "sculpt our online image" this way, Zoe. (I like that turn of phrase, btw.) But I don't think this is a bad thing or even a fake thing.

I was having a discussion last night at Why There Are Words about the personas we ("we" meaning people in general) bring to social events. To me those personas are no different than sculpted online images. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a "public" you that is somewhat different than a "private" you. Unless, of course, that public "you" takes the "private" you hostage or makes you feel unreal.

This last is a problem that comes up for characters in that novel of mine that I almost-but-not-quite-shamelessly plug on Facebook. And, oh yeah, here. :-)

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Back to The Village Square

I just took a walk, and thought more about this. What I like best in Zoe's original post is the idea of Facebook as village square. You call yourself a cynic, but that is not cynical idea; it helps explain why we need to stop by.

Hello Tanya! (I've been wanting to get to Why There Are Words in Marin.)

About sculpting the persona/Facebook post: I once performed a multi-hour improvisational theater piece. After it was over, I looked in the mirror and realized what I called "myself" was also a temporary performance. I no longer knew how to move my mouth, what character was I?

However... we need a consistent mask to survive daily life. I believe we make (or try to make) ourselves real and solid through books and art. (Then in turn, we feel guilty when a marketing departments sells the superficial aspects of our mask to hype our book.)

Or we feel guilty when we promote "our mask" on a Facebook post!

I love that Lucy says as women we have to have the guts to promote (shall we call it "SHOW" ourselves), because no matter what we can't do it enough, and we feel guilty for cultural reasons. We just have to find a way to be comfortable with it.

Helen, I agree about social network exhaustion!

Harriet is one of the most supportive, thoughtful souls I know--so never worry over there, Harriet. I'm glad to hear you are deep in a book.

And Sarah, I agree that we post what we want to read. And you are on twitter, huh? I never would have guessed. I haven't gone there yet. I'm glad I dipped in here,today; excuse my long post, but it's rare I do this so indulge me. Thanks again Zoe for provoking a great discussion.

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village square

It almost seems as though this topic has created a small village square--an idea that I also love. & gives me the chance to say hi to Katia, who lies low on FB, but whose invisible presence I'm aware of, like Natalia Ginsberg was an invisible recording angel in FAMILY SAYINGS.

Thanks for this topic, Zoe. It's inspired a lot of thought and discussion.