Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Emperor's New Website

By Jay Stringer

I'm on my digital soapbox again. Some of this may sound like something I've said before. I guess it's because it's a thought I keep coming back to, honing it each time. And I may need to wash my mouth out with soap after this one.

The internet whispers in our ears. It tells us that we have to be on it all the time. It tells us that if something is worth discussing, it's worth discussing on the internet. As writers in the current climate, we let the internet tell us all sorts of things about building platforms and selling points. But is it just a big distraction? The emperor's new website.

We all think we need to be plugged in all the time. A culture that now derives achievement from being able to figure out the latest illegal download, or from telling the world that they've just taken a shit that looked like Elvis. We simply keep boiling our lives down and down, reducing our thoughts and our beliefs and passions until they can be fit into a little box for people to like or poke.

And then there's twitter. Oh, twitter. Believe me, I've spent hours defending twitter to people who I would say just didn't get it. They didn't get the greatness of the networking, or the social interaction, or the freedom of speech. I would point to Trafigura and to Iran. Because, you know, making your picture green on a social networking site is totally like standing in front of a tank.

For any of us who've gotten on a soapbox and defended twitter on the grounds of all the great things it does for freedom of speech, well, the jokes on us. We've seen the real face of social media. All of twitter wants the right to go crazy with snide jokes about peoples personal lives. It wants to be able to broadcast the name of a footballer who's had an affair, and sees no responsibility in its actions. And it's not even over any kind of principle, it's simply done because we can. Because everybody is online, and everybody wants to be the star of the show.

Everybody wants to be the clever one.

The funny one.

The sassy one.

Twitter was ablaze with people shouting about freedom of speech. But these days, it seems to me, that concept now simply means that anonymous people have the right to know whatever they want, about whoever they want, and to say anything they want. I say there is something even more basic and vital than freedom of speech. And that is responsibility.

And I really can't say I see much of that being used online. Before the net it was simple. Everybody lived in a big messy world that was governed by cause and effect. Actions would be followed by consequences. A lot of people tried not to be dicks, and a lot of other people didn't. And those that didn't were assholes. Now I go on message boards for comics, for films, for music and for football, and what i see is shouting and snark and bitching. Everybody wants to be the star and nobody wants to be responsible.

Twitter is a micro blogging site. Is that really what we need? Is there any issue so simple that it needs to be micro blogged? It simply reduces us. In 140 characters what can you do, other than snark or be passive-aggressive? As I logged onto this here website to write this post, I spelled my name wrong, and my first reaction was hey that's funny, I'll tell twitter. Looking at all of the things I really like to talk about -writing, reading, films, comics football, music, social issues- I can't think of one that can be done justice in 140 characters.

And the sense of entitlement out there on the net is mind-blowing. A world full of people who think they are owed shit by other people. George Lucas making a few shitty movies becomes, George Lucas raped my childhood. Really? Raped? That's the word you want to be going with there? Firstly, I notice that the people using that phrase tend more often to be male. Secondly, I notice that there must have been a lot of geeks with seriously shitty childhoods if they can be ruined by a film made 20 years later.

This one is directly to you people- George Lucas doesn't owe you shit.

He made some films you like and some films you didn't like. Any obligation he had to you is fulfilled the minute he creates something that you like. Same for musicians. Am I going to hate Ryan Adams for the fact he hasn't made an album that I liked in about 7 years? Or am I going to feel grateful that, in Whiskeytown and his first few solo years, he made some music that I continue to find amazing? He paid any obligation he had to me the minute he created that music. But still, we go on, and we bitch and we moan about all these things that we think we're entitled to.

Here's my thing- The internet is a tool. And a tool is only as good as the person using it. The internet isn't the problem. We are. A generation who've forgotten how to talk without being passive-aggressive, who've forgotten how to be constructive, who have to be experts on everything but panic if they can't find the tin opener.

And me, you, us, creative types, we're the worst. We all obsess over creating a platform. We need to be seen. We need to be heard. Our voices matter because we have so many intelligent things to say.

I didn't have much of a web presence until a few years back. When I realised I wanted to get known as a writer, get my work out there, get an agent, get published, yadda yadda. We all go racing online to create a platform and a selling point. You get a blog. Then two. Then a third one creeps in. Then you;re guesting on others, and popping up on podcasts, and living on twitter. Then you're spending more time blogging, chatting, and getting in twitter arguments than you are writing any fiction.

And regardless of any of our discussions about pricing and format - you can't sell it if you don't write it.

I'd had some contact with my agent on twitter prior to her taking me on, but it was my work that got us working together. She liked my prose and my ideas. Likewise, when I got nominated for that award last year, it wasn't "best comment about pooh on twitter," or, "most insightful opinion about publishing." It was for one of my short stories.

What I really want to speak for me is my work. The stories that I write, shorts, novellas, novels. These are what I want people to know me for. Arguments, debates, or crappy jokes on the internet? No thanks.

I had a rethink over the weekend. I logged off twitter and sat back from the laptop. I realised that so much thought was going into creating a web presence and a platform that I was starting to forget why I was doing it all in the first place. I'm pretty sure my agent will have more success selling work from a productive writer who only shows his face in a couple of places online, rather than an unproductive writer who's all over the net getting into discussions and arguments.

One of my favourite British writers has often pointed out to me that folks like George Pelecanos don't feel the need to maintain a huge presence. Winslow? Don't see him very much. Richard Price?

Now, I'm no fool. I'm not sat here thinking that the only thing stopping me from being as good as those guys is my internet connection. There's the small matter of talent and practice. But I'm pretty sure that my presence on the web isn't going to improve my chances.

So I'm pulling back to basics. I figure the web only needs to see my ugly face once a week. Twice at most. And I'm sure twitter can live without hearing my opinions on everything, all the time.

How about you? Do you get caught up in the trap? Do you find yourself falling down that rabbit hole?


Scott D. Parker said...

Absolutely! It's one of the main reasons why my personal blog has taken the hit it has. I've decided do what you wrote: "you can't sell it if you don't write it."

I made a name for myself in 2008 or so by writing a LOT of content for my blog. The connections I made are invaluable and the very reason I write with this DSD crowd. But now, like you, I want to be also know for fiction. Thus, less blogging and more fictioneering.

Re: the internet - One of the big draws for the new Nook e-reader is its *lack* of a web browser. Now don't get me wrong: the only thing preventing me from just reading on my iPod Touch rather than surfing the 'net is me. I understand that. But in a paradigm shift, I'm actually thinking I'd like to have multiple devices for multiple things. Nook for reading. iTouch for surfing/music. Mac for writing. Distraction is way to easy nowadays. Time for some reigning in.

Ironically, I went back and read through the notebook I used when I wrote my first book. The thing I didn't see was entries like this: "Blogged today about historical fiction." What I did was write. Time to go back to that mentality.

John McFetridge said...

George Lucas making a few shitty movies becomes, George Lucas raped my childhood...

That's funny. The thing is, George Lucas made movies FOR my childhood and then like everyone else I didn't want to grow out of my childhood. When I did those movies didn't seem so... important. I started to look into the same source material he did.

For a while I went to a film school that had a "new media" department (seemed to be working on websites, no one was really sure) and one of the guys in the program was explaining it all to us, how the world going digital was going to allow for the free flow of ideas and communication and on and on until one of the film students said, "The free flow of really simple ideas, like company logos and brand names," and the conversation stopped.

Sure, I get caught up in online distractions because it can be really hard to do the work.

Jay Stringer said...

apologies for the weird formatting today folks. Can't seem to route out the cause of the font colour and the post goes crazy when I change it.

Unknown said...

This is a great post, Jay and it's something that has been on my mind more and more over the last few months. I spend all my time thinking about what I'm going to write on my blog rather than what I'm going to write in my next book. And as for those A-holes who use the anonymity of their computer to "speak" without fear of comeback? Come the revolution they'll be the first to lose their freedom of speech.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I don't twitter (but do have an account) and did the Facebook thing for a while, but that lost it's appeal fairly fast. I do spend a lot of time on blogs though, as I like to keep track of what's going on and who's doing what and even though I have never met any of the writers/ bloggers I follow, I do get a sense of comraderie / friendship out of it. Plus I learn a lot. When writing, I try to avoid social media, and only use "the net" for research type of stuff, but as soon as I'm done writing, I always check my fav blogs.

Diana said...

I want to know how you got the font to do the disappearing Star Wars scroll. Seriously, as I scroll down through the post the letters fade into the background as they move up. Cool. :)

Back in December, I decided to stop all online activity in message boards, twitter, facebook, etc. Everything but blogger. I check my email, blogger, and a few other things, then I log off for the day. And since then, my creativity has come back and I feel more peaceful as I'm not getting drawn into someone else's drama.

I don't regret disconnecting and I have no desire to get back into it. I kind of like my quiet creative space.

I'll be interested to see how you feel about this in a month or so.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Twitter and facebook are great - in moderation. I check them when my son is busy running around and I don't have the time or the ability to concentrate on writing and have a blast talking to people about a variety of things. I also love knowing that if I'm feeling stuck or down on my writing, I have people I can talk to about it...not just send a long e-mail and wait for a response, but actually have a back and forth about my problem...or theirs.

Which means I'm probably doing the twitter thing wrong. For me it isn't about building an online platform. It's about conversations. Which is probably why I have no problem shutting it down and not logging on when I need to get things done. If I don't have time for a real conversation, I don't tend to be online. Yeah - I'm totally doing it wrong.

And yes! I don't think you need an online presence to sell. I didn't have a website or facebook page when our agent first sold me. Those came later. (I did twitter after signing with her because she said everyone else she signed was on twitter...I kind of wanted to know Team Decker so I jumped on board. Yep - I'm a lemming!) Your writing is the most important thing. The social media and websites and the rest of the crap is just filler.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I used to smoke when I wanted a break. Which one is more harmful? I am not sure.