Social media is like Moby Dick. You can spend waste your entire life (well, a good chunk of it) trying to hunt it and eventually it might kill you, or at least seriously ruin your life. So why do it? I’m sure you don’t want to hear the answer to that. If you are like most of us, you have accepted the importance of social media in whatever you do. There are some reclusive hermits–I know a couple at least–who have managed to stay out of it and I commend them for it. Although, on second thought, I think it was their inability to cope rather than their indifference  that made them retire from social media, which confirms the Moby Dick theory. But by and large, we have all converted to the religion of social networks, for better or for worse.

However, there is another outlook about all of this. Moby Dick can be harnessed, at least to some degree. It is not effortless though and there are a few basic questions that you need to ask yourself first. The first and most important question is why do you care about social media. If you are content writing essays in your journal, for yourself, or poems to be read to family and friends, then you are better off without social media. If you are content taking photos and hanging them on your own walls or your local coffee shop’s walls, then social media isn’t necessary for you. The inherent, implicit assumption of social media is that you are not content with those kind of situations: you want to bring your work to the public, to the world, you want to show what you make to everyone. If you see someone on any kind of social network claiming that they don’t care about showing their work to the world, they don’t care about likes or faves or whatever, then they are either lying or they suffer from serious cognitive dissonance. It just doesn’t happen that way. If a person seriously, honestly doesn’t care about approval from others then they wouldn’t show their work to anyone in the first place. There is a (now) well-known classical composer who lived in near anonymity his entire life, composing music primarily for himself. The very fact that someone is socializing on the web, putting their artwork out there for others to see negates any claim they might make of indifference. If you are trying to fool yourself into believing that you are on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ or Instagram and you really don’t care if people like your photos or videos or stories, I think you are in denial. How can I say this with such certainty? Because I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to understand how it works (see second sentence of first paragraph above) and have seen nearly all aspects of social media.

I cannot address different platforms individually, but I have seen several similarities across platforms which I will try to summarize here. How you use this to your benefit is up to you.

1. Come out of the denial about your indifference to social media. I have seen that bandied about and it’s not true. If it were, you would close all your accounts, go “dark” and compose music in anonymity, or take photos like Vivian Maier, never to show them to anyone. By the broadest definition, art is a medium of communication. It tells another person how you feel, what you see, what the world appears like to you. And communication requires a “speaker” and a “listener”. Even if the “listener” is pretend or unknown, there is still an assumption of a “listener”. In the words of John Steinbeck:

I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Even the plaques aboard Pioneer spacecrafts and the golden record on Voyager were sent out with an audience in mind.

2. Once you accept that you are not making art for just yourself and realistically you are pitching it to an audience, then the question becomes who is your audience. In the beginning it’s probably your mother, or your wife/husband or close friends that like your art/photos/writings. They say nice things about it to you, they approve your work and so on. Is this your audience? No. I learned this from two very successful social networkers, Guy Kawasaki and Trey Ratcliff, one a writer and the other a photographer and I can back it up with my own experience. Your circle of friends is not your audience. In fact, you should repeat this to yourself over and over, in the shower, while munching your cereal, while nodding off on the train, on your drive back from work, before going to sleep, &etc. Although your friends will initially like your stuff, they do that out of niceness and politeness, because you know, they are your friends. If you treat them as your audience and try to sell to them–figuratively or literally–you will quickly find out that they are not your audience and no longer your friends either. Even if they do buy from you, they’ll do it just to cheer you on. You can’t expect them to buy (again, figuratively or literally) over and over. You will exhaust them and alienate them. Your audience lies beyond your circle of friends. So if you have a group of friends, don’t pitch to them. Don’t ask them to buy your stuff. Don’t alienate them. They perform a much more valuable task for you. Your friends will tell their friends, and they will tell their friends. This is a much more valuable service than any Google or Facebook or Twitter ad you can buy and is worth a lot more than the dollar value of anything you can sell to them. They give you credibility and provide you a platform. I’ll come back to the subject of audience in a bit again.

3. I mentioned the word platform in the last paragraph. What is platform? Think of a stage. You are the actor. You now know that your audience is out there (beyond your circle of friends). A platform is that which raises you and gives you more visibility. Exactly the same idea applies here. Those friends and their friends who speak nice things about you to their friends, who share your work…. they are your platform. Sometimes there are people who fluidly move from platform to audience back to platform and that’s fine. As your platform grows your audience grows and as your audience grows, your platform grows too. Kawasaki sometimes conflates platform with the entire reach you have, which may be true in a sense because they help get your name out there and introduce more people to your work. In a stricter sense, platform is narrower.

4. Going back to audience, not everyone that follows you online is your audience. Sometimes a lot of people will follow you tentatively. They might or might not be convinced by your work. Then there are those who are not online but who belong to your audience. They might know about you through someone else who is online (that’s a very good example about the difference between platform and audience). Some people might, over time, start liking you. Either way, your true audience is a small fraction of your entire following, online or offline. This is the part where people often lose steam. You have ten thousand followers and your work gets no love and in retaliation you get bitter, you start writing spiteful blogs, send out caustic tweets. You start ridiculing others who do get a lot of online love. You start behaving elitist as though you are the real artist that the masses don’t understand and those other guys getting all the likes and faves, they are just vile members of the “attention generation”. I can post links to stuff like this, but I’m sure you all have seen or read similar stuff. It’s a bad idea. Your total following isn’t your real audience although it certainly has a relation to it. Hitting out blindly out of frustration makes you look mean and uncivil.

5. As a rule of thumb, if you have 100 followers, between 2 and 5 will engage with you on a regular basis. If you are lucky, up to 10 will interact on an alternate, rolling basis, which means some of the 10 will interact sometimes, a different fraction will interact at other times, but the actual percentage of interacting individuals from one post to the next will still be 2% to 5% of your following. This can sound terrible, but I am being very generous with the numbers. About 90% of your followers will not interact with you. Of the remaining 10% only about half will interact with your post. A different mix, but still about half of that same 10%, will engage with your post tomorrow or a different day. And another different mix will engage on another day and so on. And this proportion will hold, and may actually go down, as your total following increases. Put in absolute numbers, a person with 10,000 followers may get 200 engagements (highly unlikely, but possible) which is 2%. A person with 1,000 followers may get 50 engagements (much more likely) which is 5%. So although 200 is more than 50, as a percent there are fewer people engaging with your post/tweet/whatever.

6. Now, this brings us to the other quip I see all the time about I don’t need more followers. Assuming you have overcome the denial in step (1) and have accepted that you are on social media because you desire exposure, it is only logical that you need more followers to follow through with that desire. Someone mentioned that to me just a few weeks back, and everything they have done since is in contradiction. It is just another form of denial. How you deal with that denial is up to you. Once you have moved past it, it will be easier for you to see that your total following is directly proportional to your true audience. 2% of 10,000 is bigger than 5% of 1,000. And even 0.5% of 1,000,000 is bigger than 2% of 10,000. Whether you are trying to sell your book, or your photographs, or simply want to show it to others, it is only logical that you are looking for more exposure. Does it mean that you will be able to sell your photo? That’s an entirely different question. But at the very least you have a better chance of being seen by someone who may buy it. Once again, if you see someone ridiculing “more followers” or whatever version it is, it is probably an expression of frustration and may be of denial. If you are on social media, you are looking for followers. Period. If you think you are not, then prove it: take your account offline, and share your work through real life contacts and perhaps your email list only. If you really care only about a small group of friends and not the public at large, then why use social media? Every time you have a new essay or a new photo, instead of publishing it on social media (because you cancelled your account), simply email it to your group of friends and give hard or soft copies to people around you. Take that as a challenge and you will prove to yourself in no time that everything I have said here is true.

7. Last but not the least, people who fight you and argue with you and are in general negative and disagreeable are not worth your time. On a personal note: I know this, have always lived by it, except in the last couple months. I made a huge mistake of befriending someone based on criterion not relevant to my interests. It was based on something totally irrelevant, like you know a common background, hometown, etc. without paying attention to their actual online presence and persona. Due to those extraneous factors I felt a false sense of solidarity and out of that feeling I have gotten into unnecessary arguments with people who I have not met but actually like. It was out of character and I feel completely silly for having done that. But let my mistake be a lesson for you too. I am ruthless with my unfollowing and blocking. This is something I learned from Guy Kawasaki as well. We all have many burdens to bear, and we come to social media to socialize, not to antagonize. If you see someone who is negative and antagonistic don’t hesitate to unfollow them or even block them. If you have been on social media for any length of time you know who are the nice people, who support you and help you. Cultivate those friendships (but remember: don’t try to sell to them!) Then there are people who will try to use you, ignore you, belittle you, contradict you or fight you. Ruthlessly drop them. There are 7 billion people on the planet, I assure you, you will not miss their departure. Of course, I hope you will not unfollow or block me, because I may have other interesting things to say in a follow up blog later. 😉
I hope this helps you in your social media quest. Let me know what you think.