Facing Off with Facebook

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Editorial by Debra Ollivier

facebookIf you’re a published author or soon-to-be-published author, chances are you’ll get something like the 63-page document I got from my publisher before my recent book was launched. It’s called “Internet Advice for Authors: Getting Started, Getting Online, and Getting Noticed,” and starts with the almost quaint question: “What is Online Marketing?” Every author is expected to at least wade into the giant electronic pond of posters. But between blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, Youtubing, and maintaining a fan base (oh, and did I forget emailing?), what author has the time — never mind the mental clarity — to write? Being off-line has never been so attractive — even though I am writing this for an online venue. (Modern life is full of ironies and contradictions).

I’ve been vacillating back and forth about Facebook for months. I have a long list of invites, some from people I adore, but somehow I can’t get myself to type “confirm.” The only “friends” I have are my thirteen year-old son (who was my motivation for getting on Facebook in the first place, after a mother told me he was using “inappropriate language” on the Net) and a friend, who explained Facebook to me in the hopes that I’d jump on the bandwagon.

I didn’t. I kept on vacillating. Even so, with just two “friends,” my “wall” was already cluttered with hundreds of posts from my friends’ friends, and friends of their friends, and friends of those friends. What to focus on? I was reminded of those banners that run along the bottom of your TV screen while you’re watching CNN (“300 dead in car bomb in Tehran” and “Wildfires blaze across the Southland”) that compete for your attention, while Anderson Cooper talks about health care reform and your kid is behind you, dripping ice cream on the sofa while asking about pimple cream.

The utility of Facebook for professional groups, and for people with friends and family in far-flung corners of the planet, is evident. Still, for me it remains an existential problem.┬áNever mind that Facebook sometimes seems like a giant popularity contest (“I have 679 friends,” a colleague told me, before admitting she only really knew around 50 of them); something about the stunning array of humanity and the sheer jumble of peoples’ posting unsettles me — postings that (some sane, some insane) will live insidiously and eternally online. And then there’s the loss of a certain anonymity that I feel is essential to a writer’s sensibility — or at least my sensibility.

So it is with a certain distress that I consider whether to have a fan page for my books. Of course, without hundreds of accumulated Facebook friends, why bother? My real friends know me and my books. My readers, hopefully, will find their way to my website (the very term sounds antiquated). I’d have to build my friend base, and dig into their friend base for “second level” friends, and direct everyone to my book’s fan page to get any leverage. If there’s leverage to be had. Is there? Do fan pages and social networking really sell more books? Or increase your “platform” in meaningful ways? It is vital, or is it not?

I decide to take a random, non-scientific stroll through the fan pages of various authors. There’s David Sedaris, with 61,165 fans. Ironically, the first post I see on his fan page is from someone who writes: “I’ll bet you an important figure David Sedaris doesn’t even know about this page.” Perhaps not. But that doesn’t stop his 61,165 fans from posting to each other — and to David, wherever he is. Because despite all the posting to David, I don’t see any responses from The Man. Ditto on Sarah Vowell’s fan page. Vowell has 7,000 fans, but in that sea of posts Vowell’s voice is nowhere to be heard. What’s the deal? In fact, Ms. Vowell has what’s called a “page curator” for her fan page, and if you read the fine print under her photo and you’ll learn that, “Ms. Vowell is not involved in its production or content.” What to do if you’re desperately seeking Sarah? “If you’d like to contact Sarah,” we’re instructed (presumably by her page curator), ” you can send a letter to the publisher.” What? A letter? On paper?

I keep clicking from one fan page to another, but there’s no rhyme or reason. Pulitzer prize winner Jonathan Franzen? 311 members. Elizabeth Gilbert, whose “Eat, Pray, Love” has been ensconced on the bestseller list since the Pleistocene era? Only 1,439 members. Malcolm Gladwell? 3,531. Nicholson Baker? Non-existent. Some writers, less obviously in the media spotlight, seem to have started fan pages, then let them drift to sea like phantom ships without a crew.

Still, fans keep posting away about authors — some in ways that might make you wish for the days when we wrote on papyrus. Take Sandra Tsing Loh. I love her biting humor and dry wit in her radio essays for US broadcaster National Public Radio, but she’s nowhere on Facebook either. Instead, there’s a terribly mean-spirited and cantankerous “Please Take Sandra Tsing Loh Off the Air” group. Jeez, with “friends” like that, who needs Facebook?

Okay, so I know I’ll get grief from some people for writing this. I know I’m defying the New Social World Order. Or sounding like a curmudgeon. Or old-fashioned. Or asocial. I assure you I am a cheerful, sociable person. In fact, I spend so much time socializing in real life, that I’m too tired to do it on the computer (where I spend most of my time anyhow, trying to write). Is there such a thing as Social Networking Fatigue Syndrome? If you’re an analog writer in a digital culture, with little desire to network online and not enough time to write, do you embrace Facebook anyhow? My sense is that most authors, particularly those with the luxury of having “page curators,” are too busy writing to even care.

Meanwhile, despite invites from certain people who’ve brought me very close to jumping into the electronic fray, I still have only two friends on Facebook. One of them came up to me other day.

“Mom,” he said. “I have a new girlfriend.”

Turns out, my son met this girl on Facebook, but has never seen her in person.

“You can’t have a girlfriend you’ve never met,” I tell him.

He rolls his eyes in despair. “OMG mom, you are sooo 20th century.”

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.