I forget where I heard the following anecdote, it was either in Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks or on an episode of How Was Your Week: A comedy writer starts working for The Late Show. He approaches Letterman and says, “Hey, man, I’m really excited to start working with you,” or something to that effect. Letterman says, with exactly the sarcasm you’d expect from him, “Ah, yeah I’m sure we’ll be fast friends.” The writer ends up moving to LA and doing really well there instead. This story either illustrates the difference in successful approaches to networking in New York and LA, or the difference between David Letterman and every other human. Sometimes I wish we could all be Letterman, though.
Nowadays writers are increasingly supposed to promote themselves, and we supposedly live in an age where that’s easier to do every day. A little while ago, a lot of people goofed on Jonathan Franzen for saying that the literary world is too full of “tweeters and braggers.” Franzen, for all his out-of-touch arrogance, was maybe on to something, though: a struggling industry like publishing doesn’t have real advertising money for anybody but their most guaranteed sellers, so they say to their authors, “Hey, we live in an age of social media! Do it yourself, friend!” For the same reason that, I don’t know, your breakfast cereal is suggesting you tweet about how much you love it. All that shit, you see it all the time. “I got the #BestColonscopyEver from @DrMonroeNYC!” Etc.
Which is, by the way, the most basic use of Twitter possible. You can’t shoot out a few comical observations, some one-liners? Puns, nothing? Just appreciation for corporate brands? That’s really something you’re going to tie your identity to?
Boy oh boy do I feel uncomfortable even using the word “promote.” It makes me think of the person you’d end up talking to at the worst point at the worst party you went to in college, who would have on a dirty hoodie and have unevenly cut hair and sunglasses on inside, and he’d be kind of doughy, and he’d say, “Uh, yeah, I’m a promoter,” which actually meant that he sold weed most of the time and handed out flyers on the quad of a school he didn’t go to a few days a week, flyers with poorly-photoshopped pictures of half-naked women for some horrifying-looking club twenty minutes outside of town. His girlfriend was probably really attractive and otherwise kind of smart, too.
One person who’s really great at literary self-promotion is Gary Shteyngart. I like his books but I also like his posts on Facebook, his Instagrams of borscht he eats on tour, his videos for The New Yorker. A lot of writers would turn their nose up at this kind of thing, or just be awful at it, but I’m grateful he exists in this particular literary era.
Another is The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, who often uses Twitter to riff until she has enough material to make a brilliantly funny post.
I’ve been thinking about all this stuff because I’ve been, ugh, promoting two things a fair amount lately. One is this website, and the other is a reading series called “In Search Of…” I started with Cassie J. Sneider, in Brooklyn, where I live.
With the reading series, I’m always worried about spamming my friends and alienating them. Not very many of them live in New York, and either you can make it out on a particular night or you can’t. Except every time I post on Facebook, a new person hears about it for the first time.
With The Tusk, we post every new article on our fan page. Facebook buries a post by a fan page unless an admin pays to boost it, or unless enough people like and share it to push it to the top. Of course, if no one can see the post, no one can like it. Lizzy and I can share on our own pages, but we wouldn’t do it every day, because see the above paragraph re: spamming.
Another thing about Facebook posts is that if you post the same link repeatedly, for instance the link to where you can buy tickets in advance for a reading series, that link shows up increasingly less often on peoples’ timelines, I think. So Facebook is already conscious of the danger of you spamming your friends. Except, again, it’s not really that much of a danger at all. At one point I posted a picture of a baby hippo, without the link, but with the information about the reading, and it worked better. But maybe people just like a good picture of a baby hippo. Just look at this little guy.
Around this same time, I shared an article from Clickhole and people who don’t follow my Facebook page both liked and commented on it. Who were they? Where did they come from? Why were they commenting on my share and not the original post from the Clickhole fan page?
Clickhole represents an interesting moment in Web 2.0, right? It’s a parody of Buzzfeed-style clickbait stuff, but it also actually is clickbait, because it’s meant to make money from clicks, even when the content itself (content is another word that makes me gag), is absurd. It partly banks on dumb-dumbs not getting the joke, I’m pretty sure.
Some of the best traffic we’ve gotten lately has been from Justin Kahler’s article “I Just Want to Play Dungeons and Dragons.” It was a great article and I was proud to publish it. It got so many hits because someone none of us knew personally posted it on Reddit. More of our pieces, (such as Tom Batten’s very important post about why Michael Keaton should play the Joker in Suicide Squad,) deserve that kind of recognition, too, though, and they just haven’t made it to Reddit. Reddit, which has been host to some of the most awful things of all time, has very high standards when it comes to self-promotion. You can’t really post your own stuff unless you post a lot of other peoples’ stuff, or you’ll get kicked off.
Which I totally get, because again, spam, and again, you don’t want to be that dude in the hoodie and sunglasses from that party in college. I mean, many of the likes and faves we get here at The Tusk come automatically, from people who have programmed their blog to like any post tagged with whatever they themselves are selling: #writing, #literature; #tech; #marketing, #advertising. It’s like if vultures only fed off the bones of other vultures.
We still talk about the Internet like it’s this magical thing where anything can happen, and social media like it’s this amazing tool that gives young people all the power in the world. But “content” is a major industry nowadays. Take for example this guy, who’s getting out of the diaper business and into the content business, whose upcoming website I applied to work for despite what a pungent metaphor it is. Take also the recent Buzzfeed announcement. Most things that get popular on the Internet now have been paid for and vetted by some shadowy, powerful insiders, like out of some Pynchon novel, as totally #win viral content, as being the most relatable thing possible, the most likely to be shared by your aunt, because your aunt is the target demographic. Which means that the Internet is now run in the same cowardly way as publishing, television, and film.
I realize how all this sounds. I’m whining like the nihilists in the Big Lebowski about how unfair it all is, when I could be hitting the pavement. But think about it: if you’re reading this, you’re probably a pretty well-educated liberal type. You probably actually believe that things should be on a more even keel, that they shouldn’t be tilted in favor of corporations and rich people. I’m trying to fight my way up to the middle class with just my writing, which is the only thing I’m good at. I’m trying to have a good answer for why I’m here in New York, so people don’t think I’m just bumming around and being a piece of shit hipster. I’d say “Be more like Shteyngart or Ortberg” is good advice in general, in life as well as in writing and self-promotion, but I’d also say it’s time to stop acting like “Just post it on Facebook! Just hashtag it!” is a good enough answer for somebody trying to put themselves out there.