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JuliaFierrophotoYou just launched your debut novel, Cutting Teeth, you run The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and you have two children. How do you do it all?

My lifelong insomnia has been a blessing in disguise. I pretty much sleep four hours a night, and am doing my best to ignore conspiracy theories like this, that simultaneously attempt to cut my productivity in half and promise my inevitable doom.

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you abandon all household chores that aren’t absolutely essential. Sure, we’re living in chaos, but mom’s making great progress on her next novel and the number of Sackett Street writers attending classes has doubled in the last three years. It turns out that women can “have it all”—they might be miserably tired, suffer from high blood pressure, and not have enough time to eat well, exercise or have meaningful relationships, but you can do anything when you don’t give yourself a reason not to.

If you’ve been online at all in the last several years you’ve probably noticed something: everyone is outraged. We’re offended, constantly, about everything. Social media has birthed this bizarre hazing ritual of unmasking and publicly shaming people who say idiotic things; a growing quota of our online activity involves participating in these social smugathons where crowds gather to cast moral aspersions on the hapless rube who did something awful that week. Outrage is a milieu in which we’re engaging others, and our boundless hunger for schadenfreude demands that we toss a new victim into the volcano every several days to keep the conversation going. It’s exhausting.

 

What’s the most common mistake authors make before their book launches?

M.J.:  Not investing enough of the advance back into the book or investing in the wrong things.  At least once a week I get a panicked call from an author who spent her whole budget on PR and a website and now has a gorgeous page and no press.  No matter how great a publicist is you are still paying for effort.  And there’s no guarantee you will get press.  Press is about news.  Not about quality.  My rule of thumb is for every dollar you spend on PR spend $3-$5 on marketing because marketing is guaranteed.  If you split the budget and the PR works – great – you got press and marketing.  If the PR doesn’t then at least you got your ads.  As for the website – no one goes to Google and types in show me a website I’ve never seen for a book I’ve never heard of.  Your site is mostly for readers who already love you and want to see what else you’ve written.  In the beginning – simple is fine – if they’ve heard about the book and want to know more – a pic of you, a cover, an excerpt, review, buy buttons are great.  And please please before you hire anyone – get references.

Dipping Your Toes in Social Media

Social media is here and it’s likely that using it will increase your chances of being read. You don’t have to do it. No one will hold a gun to your head. However, at the very least put your toe in the water and try it before eschewing it.

First, learn what you like in social media. When speaking with other authors we often hear: “I hate Twitter.” “Facebook is stupid.” “I don’t want to blog.” “I don’t have time for this.” Try a different approach. What can you enjoy doing in the world of social media? Who do you want to be online? Who do you want your potential readers to see? How can you craft that person? (For instance, Randy likes giving advice, researching, and being a know-it-all. Voila, her social media persona.

 

Dear Lobbyist Bowles,

I recently read about the exciting new venture your organization is embarking on and am very interested in the Social Media position you are no doubt preparing to establish. Having just graduated from the number one party school in the entire southwest, I am eager for an opportunity to get my foot in the door and begin my life in the workforce. Making that happen with a well-established movement such as yours would be a bonus. (Everyone wants some job security these days, am I right?)

A round-up of high quality tweets from people in the world of literature…

 Amelia Gray:

 

Digital native is a term coined by writer Marc Prensky, one I discovered, along with its counterpart, digital immigrant, in New York Times tech reporter Nick Bilton’s excellent book about media and technology, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. According to Wikipedia, “A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts,” while “A digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life.” According to my understanding, a digital native is someone for whom the use of digital technology is innate and natural, who never had a moment when they learned, say, what the internet was. Not so for me; I’m pure digital immigrant.

The announcement that a social media analytics company changed the way they measure things should have been a non-event. But when a company named Klout, which attempts to measure people’s “online influence,” changed the way it calculates people’s scores, the resulting firestorm caught a lot of people by surprise.

The company had been hoping for the best: “This project represents the biggest step forward in accuracy, transparency and our technology in Klout’s history,” a company blog post proudly announced, even though Klout’s “history” was all of 25 months.

But the result of their great leap forward was lower scores for almost everyone. And for a variety of reasons, that made a lot of people very unhappy. Klout ranks people’s “online influence” with a number from 0 to 100. The company compiles a dizzying array of impressive-sounding statistics to do this, including wonktacular ones such as Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, and Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %.

It “isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list’,” the company’s website says. “We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Yet according to various investor presentations and interviews, the CEO ’s vision is that when you check into a hotel, you will be get upgraded (or not) depending on your Klout score. Your resume will be electronically evaluated and possibly discarded automatically based on your score as well.  The Klout website even quotes some droid saying “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me.”

To recap: the company took its biggest step forward in transparency by continuing not to release its algorithm. And it says its mission is to help us understand and leverage our influence, even though the CEO’s vision is to mine our online activity as data, then use it against us like a night club bouncer. Though others have compared Klout to a credit score, with the important difference that the companies providing those are heavily regulated because of the influence they wield. They may be right, since Klout is supported by $10 million of venture capital.

The company’s blog post received over 2,000 comments, almost all of them negative. Back in June I blogged about Klout, complaining that it reduces people to their scores, and that Klout’s scientifical factorizing of innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary, techno-sekrit equation-matrix was basically bullshit.

I also parroted Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism of IQ tests, as they abstract a complex concept and reduce it to a single number used to rank people. But then I argued that Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions that IQ did, because no one has been sterilized because of low Klout. Turns out I was wrong. People unhappy with Klout pointed out that some companies use Klout scores for job searches and employee performance reviews, so moving the goalposts hurts certain job-seekers, as well as people trying to earn a living in social media.

That aside, people taking a hypothetical hit to their self-esteem didn’t explain the outrage. However, other writers had a better explanation.

In an outstanding essay titled “The Accidental Bricoleurs,” Rob Horning offers the best analysis of social media and culture I have read. He notes that Facebook (and Klout, I would add) have a “parasitic business model,” in which they “appropriate the content and connections we generate as we recreate our identities within their proprietary systems, and then repurpose that data for marketers who hope to sell tokens of that identity back to us.”

Horning argues that this is an evolved form of brand-behavior, the same kind identified by management guru Tom Peters: “You’re not a worker ,” Peters wrote. “You are not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description. Starting today you are a brand.”

Peters argued that self-branding is “inescapable,” and suggested that we brag about our accomplishments and things we are proud of. Horning calls that behavior a “concatenation of fame hunger and dismal self-exploitation.” And his description explains the rest of the furor behind #kloutfail, #kloutpout and #occupyklout: Even people without artistic projects or businesses to promote are out there habitually blatting their little trumpets of narcissism, so any downgrade, even an arbitrary one, gives them the sadz.

Thanks to sites like Facebook, Horning writes, “having a self becomes an inherently commercial operation.” Sites like Facebook are “designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear.” On top of the systemic anxiety that we’re not doing enough, our personal brand just lost value.

Horning points out an even creepier aspect to this behavior. He cites social critic Thomas Frank’s book, One Market Under God, which argues that personal branding is a form of coercive self-surveillance that corporations were anxious to induce. Franks heralded “The Brand Called You” as “a terrifying glimpse of the coming total-corporate state, a sort of Dress for Success rewritten by Chairman Mao.”

Like inmates Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison— which Michel Foucault used as a metaphor to describe disciplinary societies, and their powers to observe anonymously and normalize, we are now paying attention to random number. And we’re self-editing our behavior as a result of it, even though we don’t understand how it’s calculated, or who calculated it, in the vain hope of accruing benefits for “good behavior.”

Making the prison metaphor even more fitting is the difficulty in opting out. As one tech blogger noted, Facebook “make[s] it ridiculously tricky for a user to quit their service…. The option to actually delete a Facebook account permanently isn’t even directly available on their site.”

Klout takes it a step further.

Unlike Facebook, you don’t choose sign up for Klout—as soon as you are active anywhere on social media, it mines your data and assigns you a numeric ranking. Everyone gets Klout scores, including pets with their own publicists, and even minors, as a social media professional learned when her son (who has no Twitter account and privatizes all his Facebook settings) was assigned a Klout number. (As an aside, after I’d written a draft of this, the New York Times picked up this story.)

For a long time you couldn’t completely opt out. If you tried to delete your account, Klout would mask your account on their site with a landing page, but it would still gather your data, turn you into a number, and feed that number to third-party applications such as HootSuite and MarketMeSuite—leading one blogger to liken it to a Roach Motel.

You can now cancel your account, though when I did so, the site warned me to also de-authorize other social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook from sending data to Klout. (Good advice, I suppose, but I feel like being told to close my blinds to thwart the peeping Toms.)

But what if, for some reason, you want a Klout score—and even want to raise it? After all, even if you disable Klout, other k-infested companies are kropping up like weeds, such as Empire Avenue (“the social stock market”), PeerIndex (“understand your social capital”), Peoplebrowsr (from Kred), How Sociable, and PROskore.  To play the social media analytics game and “leverage your influence,” you apparently have to like selling out. Not only are you turning over a bunch of data to strangers, it’s also like going back to high school, where you shun the dweebs, and do a lot of ass-kissing to get in with the popular kids:

“Make sure you’re engaging with people who have a relatively good to a higher Klout score,” says a talking head. “When you engage with people who have like no Klout or a very low score it’s reflects poorly on you. Even spam bots have a score of 25 or something, it’s crazy.”

That’s putting it mildly.

MY BETTER NATURE: So what drew you to discuss your teen age masturbation practice at such length?

ME:  Well, when you put it like that, I sound like a perv, but that is how I thought of myself at that age. I thought I was just this overly horny person and what I was doing was completely abnormal. No one ever explained what masturbation was or that is might be a healthy part of adolescent development. I always felt very dirty and shameful about it and I figure, I’m probably not the only one. So I write about it in the hopes that I can be a little less ashamed or at least find some other people like me, and then we can all be shamed together.


Where do you think this shame comes from? Isn’t sex ubiquitous?

Sex is, but its taboo to discuss it. Especially with young people. We’ve decided that sex is the purview of adults and to imply that young people try these things out for themselves give young people agency and action as adults, even if we don’t trust them to use that agency responsibly. Its all very fraught, but the culture of silence around it doesn’t help.


Were there things that helped you at that time? Other than sick days and Red Shoe Diaries?

Finding other writers, both of fiction and songwriters, who talked about their own experiences really helped. Its one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer. I also sought refuge amongst a group of guy friends all of whom talked about masturbation and stupid sex stuff WAY too much, as teenage boys are apt to do. I related to them, but cultivated a healthy air of misogyny in the process.


How did you get past that?

College. It took going to college and meeting other cool, smart women for me to believe they existed. Not that there weren’t smart women in my high school, there just wasn’t a whole lot of openness. I went to Berkeley for my undergrad, so open sexual exploration was the name of the game.


What’s the most valuable thing you learned there?

How to pee just about anywhere. It was very liberating. Also, biochemistry.


What attracts you to poetry?

I love the economy of it. It’s a whole world that you can carry around in your pocket, especially if you take the time to memorize a poem you particularly love. Its writing in concentrate form.


What themes or topics do you see recurring regularly in your work?

I was counting and I now have 5 or more poems about sex, porn or masturbation, so I suppose that’s a theme. I write a lot about death, not in the morose, gloom-cookie kind of way that romanticizes it, but rather I find myself writing about people who have died and to what extent they shaped their own end. I feel like I write about love with the same kind of approach, sort of this disbelieving “why me?” awe for the whole subject, grounding in perhaps an unhealthy degree pf pragmatism.


What’s the best thing about being a writer?

The pay. No, wait… the respect? No… Maybe its that its just an easy mode of expression to engage in any time and at any age. I can’t imagine being a dancer and knowing that at some point my body would no longer be able to move the way it once did, or being a musician and finding myself on a train or bus, longing to play my upright bass or piano and having no recourse. I think writing is also a pretty easy art form to share with others, especially in the digital age.


How do you think living in the digital age has affected your writing?

It’s a little hard to say, since it’s the only “age” in which I find myself developing as a writer, so I don’t have a lot to compare to.  I think the ease with which writing can be published and shared has certainly made it easier for folks like me to pursue publication without devoting an entire career to it. It’s easy to send out several submissions on your lunch break over email. I can’t imaging I’d manage the same volume of effort if I needed to print, stamp and address each one. I think that having an online community of writers is also pretty cool in that you aren’t as likely to get locked into whatever artistic sensibility pervades your local scene. You can get feedback from folks in Chicago, Seattle and LA with the same or greater ease than you can by attending a workshop in person.


Have there been any negative affects?

The Facebook and Twitter culture of posting on every banality of you existence I find incredibly lame and self indulgent.  Subsequently, I get hyper-conscious that I’m duplicating that behavior in my own writing. That’s certainly a hang-up that keeps me from chasing after some ideas as a writer that might be really worthwhile. But I just have this shitty little voice in the back of my head that says, “No one cares about your little life.”


How do you deal with that?

Xanax and booze. But now that I’m pregnant, I’m substituting with misanthropy and gnashing of teeth.



The biggest problem I’ve always had with Western philosophy, especially in the wake of the neo-Platonic Humanism that fueled the Renaissance, is contempt for crowds. Pericles’ famous comment about “hoi polloi,” hailing the masses as the fount of Athenian greatness, has somehow been transmogrified into a symbol of contempt for crowds and crowd behavior by Western intellects. I’ll none of that¹. Crowds, like individuals, are capable of intelligence, and of stupidity.  Yet bigotry against crowds seems a common affliction of modern intellectuals, especially progressive ones.