On “using” social media

I think some sort of invisible tipping point must have been reached with the new year, because in the past few weeks I think every virtual writing-related community I’m part of has been discussing how to “use” social media.

And it’s weirding me out a little, because everyone’s taking this business of being online so seriously all of a sudden.

I’ve been wasting time on the Internet since 1985. I first stumbled into this place via one of the free mainframe accounts all math students at my university were given. I figured out by trial and error that my account was part of something called bitnet, and that I could use it to send email to other universities as well. I stumbled onto relay soon after that and felt terribly sophisticated because I could now chat with people in other states and other countries. I tried to find my way onto usenet, but the mainframe wasn’t really set up for that on our campus, so I had to wait until I hooked up the 1200 baud modem my first employer threw away to find my way first onto fidonet, then onto GEnie. GEnie was where I began chatting with other writers online, and also began losing sleep instead of just hours at my work-study job. Along the way I followed gopher to the world wide web and text-based interfaces to graphics-based ones. I’ve been playing online for nearly a quarter century now.

That’s the thing. For 25 years it mostly has been play. Well, play and learning–hanging out online was also like taking a crash course in the business of publishing. And I first met my first critique group–from whom I got a crash course in the craft of publishing–online, too. Even now, when I post, I’m learning as much as I’m teaching–I don’t even think of it as teaching. I think of it as play.

But suddenly writers are stressing about whether they blog often enough (and well enough), complaining about how they don’t want to do twitter, trying to sell their books online with such force it sometimes gets a little bit painful, and everywhere, trying to figure out how to “use” social media. There are even classes on how to do this thing that once brought my college grades down.

My take on the Internet from a writer’s perspective is this: it isn’t a streetcorner for hawking your wares. It’s a giant sprawling party. The rules of how to act here aren’t all that complicated, because they’re pretty much the same rules that apply to parties everywhere: Be polite. Don’t talk about yourself too much. Listen to what other people have to say. Mostly all you have to do is show up and be yourself, but it never hurts to bring brownies (or other shinies), too.

Assume anything you are saying is public, and will be heard by the person you least want to hear it–this is true at real-life parties as well, only there are more people attending the Internet party. Assume the whole world is attending. If you don’t want your third-grade teacher or your ex-boyfriend or your parents or that agent you just queried to hear it, think twice about whether to post it. There are things we say at home or on the phone (or on a private email list or when skyping a friend) that we wouldn’t think of saying when we step outside, after all.

Even so … sometimes there are things that just need to be said. The fact that everyone’s listening doesn’t mean we should avoid talking about the things that matter (being so afraid of giving offense that one never speaks up at all is almost as problematic online as in the physical world). It does mean thinking twice about posting, and making sure your sure that thing really does need to be said. It rarely hurts to sleep on a comment or post. You don’t have to always be nice online. But it’s probably best to try to be kind.

Like in the physical world, networking can happen at parties, but it usually works best when you’re not doing it only because you think there’s something in it for you. It’s fine, at a party, to talk about your work a little. But if that’s all you talk about, there’s a good chance people will begin looking for other conversations.

Because most people attending this party aren’t here to buy or sell things. They’re just here to talk and have a good time. Over the long run, maybe a few people will remember chatting with you fondly and go out and buy your books, though probably not enough of them to justify the time you spend online, if that’s the only reason you’re here. Maybe you’ll make a few good connections. Maybe you’ll make more than a few good friends.

Connections and friendships both happen in unexpected places. Don’t feel like, because you’re a writer, you can only hang out with other writers talking about writing. There are people here talking about knitting, horses, etymology, ancient architecture, politics, classical literature, beekeeping, rockclimbing, bookbinding–get out a little. Join conversations that have nothing at all to do with writing. Find people who do things you know nothing about, and find out how they do them.

The challenge isn’t really how to spend enough time online. It’s how to not spend all your time here.

If you’re new, and uncomfortable, it’s okay to hang out and only listen for a while–for as long as you need to. Like in any new place, you’ll likely get to know people, and become more comfortable, over time.

Finally, like at any party, only stay online so long as you’re having fun. It will show if you’re not, and besides, on the Internet there will always be someone who can stay up later than you. When you’ve had enough, turn off the computer (or flip back to your word processing file). There’s no rule about how much time you have to spend here.

More and more, I feel like the moment someone talks about how to “use” social media, they’re already using them wrong. The Internet is not a place to be used; it’s a place to be visited. Pull up a chair, grab a drink, hang out. Have fun, try not to be a jerk, and apologize sooner rather than later if you are.

Most of all, try not take this place too seriously.

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