June 29, 2010
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.
This philosophical lead-in is to explain why my reaction is so visceral to the discussion stemming from “How I Accidentally Got 700,000 Fans on Facebook.” The article stems from Gregory Levey’s surprise when legions of Facebook users clicked the “like” button for his book’s page, not because they liked or were even aware of his book, but because they wanted to share a laugh with their friends about the phrase that happens to be the book’s title (and thus the title of the page). The article itself contains only muted disparagement of the 700K, but as I expected, it has become a magnet for more flagrant abuse of these people. In comments and in sites linking to the article you can find plenty of casual epithets of “stupid Facebook users” and a sentiment that the 700K deserve contempt for having clicked the “like” button without first investigating the author’s intentions for the page.
Let me please reiterate that I am not unsympathetic to Gregory Levey, whose main interest from the article seemed to lie in seeking advice in handling the situation. I’m glad he duly received a variety of useful advice (and some inevitable cheek), which I hope helps him take advantage of his unexpected good fortune. My interest is in the social and technological implications of the surrounding attitude toward those 700K, to Facebook users as a whole, and sometimes even (yes, hubris likes to stretch the embrace of its arms) to entire generations.
This area happens to be my technical specialty. In my day job as computer engineer and entrepreneur, I specialize in how to manage the context of information on the Web. We are all aware of the search engine context problem. If I search for “apple”, do I mean the fruit or the computer/entertainment company? When a search engine is examining a page that contains the word “apple” it faces the same problem with context. Search engines use a lot of specialized, brute-force techniques to deal with such problems, and have become remarkably good at it (the problem is far more immensely difficult than a layman might generally suppose). Search engines are not always good enough. First of all, there are many uses for even more specialized contextualization, gaining a sense not only from overall pages, but even from concepts represented within pages. This area of study is often called “Semantic Web,” where the “S” word is in respect to how to better annotate Web pages with context.
One of the core principles behind the success of the Web is flexibility of interpretation of semantics. For any Web resource (which might be a page overall, or might be things referenced within a page), there are numerous interpretations. There is the interpretation of the author, that of each of the eventual readers, and those of tools and software that also deal with the page (e.g. feed readers and search engines). From the perspective of the Web these are completely independent, and that is why the Web has been so successful. Flexibility of interpretation means that the author’s page, once deployed, can be used in all sorts of interesting ways that the author themselves never anticipated. When the Web was born, no one anticipated search engines, portals, “deep linking,” news feeds, social media or any of the myriad application of Web resources. But the barrier to innovation on such fronts is drastically reduced by flexibility of interpretation.
That is how the Web has worked for almost two decades now, but unfortunately many are too slow to appreciate this. There have been innumerable PR gaffes, scandals, technological blunders, lawsuits, feuds, and plain old arguments emerging from the failure of one side to credit flexibility of interpretation by another. Many people who have learned these hard lessons have the resources, whether legal, financial or social, to survive their naïeveté. Authors of literary works are rarely placed to squander such resources,and in fact, one of the most important aspects of The Nervous Breakdown, in my opinion, is to help such authors maximize the benefits to be gained from the Web and social media. That’s why it particularly pains me to find in this space the sort of missteps that more well-heeled clients pay me to avoid, in my position as a consultant.
The crux of this article is to point out that: flexibility of interpretation means that once you have established a Web resource, you should not expect to control, nor even fully understand how it is used by others. If you find yourself in a situation where many people have adapted a divergent interpretation, your best course is to respect and acknowledge that divergence, and to use the attention to further your ultimate aims.
It’s only natural to be frustrated with a divergent interpretation that seems to hijack original authorial intent, but it is naïve to disparage those who have followed the trend for no further reason. If the book were a UFOlogy volume titled “Aliens among us,” and a divergent interpretation emerged of wing-nuts using the page to spread anti-immigration messages, my own sympathies would lie with disparaging that group for xenophobia, but not for the basic phenomenon of their divergent interpretation. Gregory’s article does not suggest any such substantive enormity on the part of the 700K.
In this situation is Gregory thinks he has established a resource for his book, “Shut Up, I’m Talking“(after all this, the book deserves some straight-up link love). That’s all well and good. The 700K, on the other hand, in using that resource, are interpreting it as a resource for the phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking.” That is also all well and good. Gregory’s interpretation is not really privileged. As long as the 700K are getting the utility they want from their own interpretation, all is well. Now of course in practice the author does have some privilege. For example, Gregory could delete the page. In this particular case, however, the 700K have already extracted all the utility they want from the resource (all they were interested in was sharing a phrase with their friends in the link-able manner Facebook supports), so though such an action would stop the viral spread of the page, it wouldn’t curtail the utility of the resource by the 700K, which has already been consummated.
And that’s also where the pragmatic privilege of the author ends. If Gregory were to delete the page, he would not destroy much utility for the 700K, but he would destroy utility for the original 400 actual book fans (and for himself). This is why social media works, and this is why it’s valuable. Social media tends to work through the action of individuals to draw resources into the commons. It’s easy to call off-hand actions by individuals “stupid”, and forget that by such standards we’re all profoundly stupid. We all use phatic communication, including the most literary of intellectual writers. By their own harsh standards, they also have to wear that “S” on their chest.
Reality is that social media is the first human phenomenon that can so rapidly draw resources into the commons, a consequence of the aggregation of off-hand, casual interactions by a large number of actors. In this case, the name of the book, and to some extent a resource established for that book, has in effect been drawn into the commons. That is some prodigious power in the hands of hoi polloi. Importantly, a clever agency can share a significant amount of that power by accepting a trade-off between loss of control and expansion of platform. Smart PR firms have learned how to harness this power. Entertainment firms have learned how to harness this power. Activists have been extraordinarily effective in harnessing this power. Governments are slowly working out how to harness this power. Even old media—you know, like the New York Times and company whom we’re only too happy to write off as dinosaurs? They are slowly but surely figuring out how to harness this power. Do we really think it’s a good idea to sit back in our Lazy-Boyz lobbing casual insults at these emerging social forces? I think not. I think our focus should be on joining the ranks of the savvy who know how to harness the power of social media.
The first step to conquest is understanding. Gregory admitted how long it took him to figure out what was going on. Maybe I have the advantage of being a Web expert, or maybe I just happen to be a Facebook user who pays attention (I think it’s probably the latter), but it seems to me that if we as writers decide: “hey let me use that Facebook thingy to promote my work” it is incumbent upon us to actually understand the implications of doing so. After all, surely we’re not promoting ourselves on Facebook just because everyone else is doing it, right? Only hoi polloi do that, right? Facebook’s “like” feature has been well followed, well examined, well criticized, and overall well discussed ever since it made its debut last year.
Facebook’s intention was always to make it very easy for users to share Web resources without regard to context, reasoning that people have lives; they have jobs; they have hobbies. Worrying about context is the author’s problem, because that is where the interest lies. As it happens, Facebooks’ feature has been very successful, with all that implies, including cutesy Like-hacking, such as the “you” page, which leads to circulation on users’ Facebook wall messages such as: “Jane Doe likes you.” As with every feature on the Web, it has also led to malicious use, in this case “clickjacking” where criminals use the feature to lead unwitting users to malware. I personally deplore the feature because of my professional interest in increasing the prevalence of context on the Web, and also because I think clickjacking is a real problem. But I blame Facebook for this, not users of the feature. And since there’s not much I can do about about problems introduced by Facebook, it is even more important for me to understand the feature, so that I can avoid the negatives while taking advantage of whatever positives might present themselves.
And it seems churlish and even fatuous not to see 700,000 new eyeballs as a fat wad of positives. Even if many of them are unlikely to become readers of the book in question, a potential audience of 700,000 seems a much better divisor than 400. If the author starts broadcasting say, weekly messages and tidbits about the book, some of the 700K will start to click “un-like”, but there is no reason to think there will not be some who turn out to be genuinely interested. And certainly 700,000 eyeballs is an extraordinary incentive for anyone tasked with helping promote the book.
If the first step is understanding, the second is circumspection. A prerequisite for such benefits is to treat the 700K with respect. Even if they may have come along by following in the footsteps of a crowd, there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by the generosity of affording them the dignity of individuals.
¹”I’ll none of that” and “I’ll none of it” is standard Elizabethan (e.g. Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” and “Twelfth Night”, and Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.” Well attested as late as Dryden. For my part, there’s no more emphatic way to put that sentiment 🙂