Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Social-media marketing is horrifying

I was sitting on the couch last week, watching an episode of the PBS series Frontline because I’m a geek, when my flatmate walked in the door.

“Hi!” Flatmate said, hanging up her keys. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Having an existential crisis,” I replied. “Wanna join me?”


This exchange alone should tell you everything you need to know about Flatmate. But this blog entry is about the existential crisis.

The Frontline episode is called “Generation Like”, and you can watch it here. I highly recommend it. It’s a terrific in-depth look at social-media marketing, and how successful YouTube vloggers and the like do it ... and what major corporations do with the data, which is of course quite creepy.

The DVD, which I did not buy.

But the existential crisis had nothing to do with Big Data. No, the existential crisis came about because of a girl interviewed in the documentary. Caeli, she’s called, and she is approximately the 59th biggest Hunger Games fan on Earth. Seriously. There’s a website that ranks them. She got this title by spending four or five hours a day obsessively clicking, tweeting, liking, reblogging, and generally spreading all things Hunger Games across the internet. She promotes The Hunger Games until her hands are sore, but it’s all worth it, she says, because she gets little electronic pips called “sparks” that advance her in the rankings of Hunger Games fandom.

She’s about sixteen years old.

This is her.

So here’s the existential crisis. My first thought when I met Caeli, via the Frontline crew, was, “Wow, I wish I had fans this dedicated. That would be cool, and it would make my job as a self-promoting writer much easier.”

My second thought was, “Holy crap, I would never ever EVER want my fans to be this obsessed! I want to hug this poor girl and tell her to go play outside! And I want to strangle the Lions Gate marketing team that’s using her as free child labor!”

Now, I’m not actually going to try to dissuade any fan from being a fan. If anybody ever decides they want to be a Caeli-level superfan for Masks or Teh Novel or Street of Bakers or even a new project I’ve working-titled The God at the Back of the Bus, I will not try to talk them out of it. If people want to geek out, about my work or somebody else’s, that’s aces by me. Hey, I’ve probably spent an unhealthy amount of time already geeking out over the upcoming Winter Soldier movie, and I spent five days last week dissecting the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer. My glass house would not withstand any stone-throwing.

But I can’t help feeling there’s a difference between geeking out because you genuinely love something and geeking out because a huge marketing corporation has manipulated you into doing their job for them. I’m okay with the first one, and I will always encourage my fans--whether there’s two of them or two million—to do that. It’s the second one that bothers me.

Yes, I am a Winter Soldier geek. Possibly even a megageek. I am planning to attend a midnight screening. I designed a Bucky Cap T-shirt just so I could wear one. I am helping a friend out with a Winter Soldier cosplay. I am so excited about this movie that I periodically find myself making little happy “eeee!” noises under my breath for no apparent reason. But honestly, all Marvel had to do to get that reaction out of me was make a movie out of one of my favorite comics, and not put any sucky bits in the trailer. I’m excited because I love the character, and I loved the character long before the marketing people got involved.

Say it with me anyway: Eeeeeeeeee!

I was a fan of the character back when he was just part of a batshit-crazy storyline running in Captain America comics in 2004, and everybody assumed it would end with the Winter Soldier getting killed off because he was one of those characters who always died. I followed the character’s adventures as he adjusted to life as a free man in the twenty-first century, and I thrilled to his every rise and fall because I connected with him on a deep emotional level. The reasons for that affection are complicated and very personal, but they boil down to this—I liked this character before he was a billion-dollar franchise, for reasons of my own, and I will go on liking him whether the movie’s any good or not, for the same reasons. It’s pretty much independent of the marketing. All the marketing has to do is tell me that this thing I already love exists, and I will buy it. Hell, I still own the Daredevil movie on DVD, and I knew it sucked when I bought it.


But I’m not reblogging stuff four to five hours a day. I have no interest whatsoever in being the  fifty-ninth biggest Winter Soldier or Daredevil fan on the planet. I’m actually fairly careful about that; my family has a big, nasty history of addiction, so I watch for signs of addictive behavior in myself. I switch off the computer before it gets creepy. I will never be the kind of viral marketer Lions Gate is looking for. I am not Caeli.

And that, I think, is at the heart of my discomfort. For all I know, Caeli loves The Hunger Games and obsessively reblogs all things Katniss because she connects to Suzanne Collins’ novels the way I connect to my favorite comics. But I think there’s something terribly sinister about a multi-billion-dollar media machine feeding Caeli’s enthusiasm to the point of addiction. The marketing plan for Mockingjay Part One includes on-the-hour scheduling of things like when set photos will be released, what production tidbits will be dropped when, and so on. I would never tell Caeli to stop being a Hunger Games geek, or stop doing things online that she’d probably do whether Lions Gate were involved or not. But I’m massively creeped out by the idea that the Hunger Games marketing crew is trying to create as many Caelis as possible ... and that this is, no pun intended, the object of the game.

I don’t like the idea that something I make--out of love, because there’s no other reason to spend years making up stories for people I’ll never meet--might be used to encourage addict behavior. I don’t like the idea of exploiting kids. It bothers me on a fundamental level. It’s creepy enough that I can legitimately say that I wouldn’t want to be Suzanne Collins, even though I know it’s not her doing it.

Not even for this much money.

I worked a marketing job once ... for all of one month. I discovered that while I was great at spinning yarns--I was a fantastic liar when I had the motivation--I was absolutely wretched at selling things I didn’t like, and didn’t believe in. That job ended because I was supposed to be hyping a suite of software that supposedly did everything its competitor did, and more--but the software didn’t actually work, according to the engineers who were building it. I couldn’t write promo copy for something that was never going to work. I all but stopped sleeping, my grad-school coursework took a nosedive, and in general I hope I never have to work a job that awful again. I still remember watching my stressed-out boss claw compulsively at his own skin, scratching until he bled, because he couldn’t take the pressure. And he had it easy. He thought the software worked.

I like my job now. I have a tiny, tiny fanbase and I love them. I don’t have a Caeli, but I wouldn’t want a Caeli who didn’t volunteer for the job, and I wouldn’t want a Caeli who was reblogging until her fingers hurt. I think I’d cry. Even if Caeli said she loved it and wanted to be doing it, I would cry.

She said it during this interview, and I still cried a little.

Much as I love interacting with my favorite artists and understand the desire to do it even more, I love my fans. I want them to be happy and well.

I’d like to have a larger fanbase. I’m trying to get better about posting stuff and interacting with my fans and all the good social-media things I’m supposed to be doing in this age of self-promotion. But my marketing staff consists of me and my laptop, and I can only control the message as long as I’m the only one sending it out. If Teh Novel takes off, and people other than me get involved in promoting my work, I am fairly certain that my biggest worry will be that somewhere out there, a Caeli is getting hurt because of something I created out of love.

Look at this picture again. She's like me at twelve, but cooler.

So here and now, before any actual money or marketing people can possibly come into the equation, is my promise to you. On this blog, on Pocket Coyote, on Facebook and Twitter and whatever other platforms come along, I will share as much of my life with you as seems prudent and interesting, and whatever I share will be true and will be me. If it shows up on this blog and it’s not signed with somebody else’s name, I wrote it. If I post a photo, I took it. If I say it, I thought it. No calculation, no hyperscheduling, no pressure. Just me and my keyboard, with ink on my fingertips and graphite smudges on my arm. That seems to be what you guys want, and it’s something I’m quite willing to give.

And in return for all that--however much or little it’s worth to you--this is all I ask, and all I will ever ask.

I drew this in a coffee shop because I was bored.

First, take joy in what I make. Have fun. I make this stuff because I love it, and I share it because I want you to enjoy it as much as I do. If you’re not having fun, go do something else. Seriously.

Second, share your joy with others simply because shared joy is increased. Go ahead and tell all your friends how wonderful my stories are--but only do it if you think your friends will enjoy them, too. There’s a reason I make the Masks chapters available for free, and it’s not because I don’t think I can get you to pay for them. Some of you do (and thanks for that, by the way). I make the chapters available for free because I never want to have to work a horrible marketing job again, selling software that will never work. I make the chapters available for free because it’s the ultimate truth in advertising--because I will never feel like I’m selling you a pig in a poke when there is no poke. I don’t post free chapters because it’s good marketing, or because I’m so confident that you’ll buy my stories if I give you a free sample. I’m not confident at all. But if I know you can read before you buy, and you do buy, I know you’re buying because it makes you happy. I know I’ve shared joy. And that’s worth more to me than any number of dollars in the tip jar.

Third and finally, I do ask you to pay for my work--to pay what you can, when you can, where you can. I’d like to pay my bills with this stuff, it’s true. One of my great dreams in life, second to writing the kind of stories I love best, is to own a home of my very own so I never have to worry about where I’m sleeping next month. I would be over the moon if enough people bought my stories that I could do that. So yes, if you enjoy my work, I’d like you to pay a reasonable price to support it. I’d certainly produce more if I could do it full-time. But I know that life happens and money gets tight and sometimes you can’t put a dollar in the tip jar. And that’s okay. The joy comes first. Money is on my wish list, but joy is a lot higher up.

And that’s it. Those three things, in that order, are all I will ever ask of you, my readers and electronic friends. Enjoy the art, share the art if you enjoy it, and pay for the art if it’s worth it and you can afford it. Have joy, share joy, and tip your server if you can. If by some bizarre twist of fate you ever encounter a multi-billion-dollar marketing campaign for my art, please don’t be Caeli. Take care of yourselves instead.

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