Nay, ’tis strange, ’tis very strange, that is the
brief and the tedious of it.
All’s Well That Ends Well, II, iii
Here in The Prime of Miss Jane Friedman, I surely hope you took in the comments following the excellent Writing she Unboxed here yesterday.
Fiddler on the You Know What was invoked at one point. Sunrise, sunset. And the comments still are trickling in.
So, you know, it happened about the time I fell off that lump of concrete we call a platform. Looked ungainly (when do I not?) but we were all unbalanced, not to say staggered, by the industry study our good colleague Donald Maass brought in, particularly its assertion that “the greatest influence on book purchases, by far, are store displays and word of mouth.”
But stores? Stores? I think they meant bookstores. What bookstores? Authors are supposed to be doing advance work for their books in stores?
The only person I know who’s even seen the inside of a bookstore lately is Jonah Lehrer. And that’s only because Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (I miss Brace & World, don’t you?) seems to have read this same study and sent him, bodily, on a tour of every single remaining book emporium in the country. Imagine. I think he was back in time for a late lunch.
It’s amazing how debilitating this platform vs. writing business can be.
In those comments after Friedman’s piece, Jan O’Hara confessed, bless her heart, “I’m not always sure what is the writing and what is platform.” Not to worry, Jan and her “tartitude” are being looked after now by capable and compassionate professionals. She’s resting comfortably, and I know we’re all holding her in our thoughts.
Thank heaven Brother Michael Hyatt rowed at least a small boat ashore, pointing out, “The problem I see with this – and the challenge for writers – is that you have to build a platform long before you need it.” This was a goodly moment of grounding, even if that’s really just a sandbar, don’t tell him.
Michael Larsen felt the need to tell us that “there are many reasons why now is the best time ever to be a writer.” Gosh, was I snoring? I mean, do you ever wonder why so many people keep saying that to you? It’s getting a little Huxley, isn’t it? Take your Soma yet? Not since “weapons of mass destruction” have I heard a phrase repeated so frequently.
So — with Don and Jane battling the concrete dust, what a sight, Jane yelling “online amplification!” and Don carrying on about “bricks and mortar!” — I forgot what I was doing, silly me, and wandered into another story about Sherry Turkle.
Turkle, in case you’re not familiar with her work at MIT, is described in Sherry Turkle’s Chronic Digital Dualism Problem by David Banks as “probably the longest-standing, most outspoken proponent of what we at Cyborgology call digital dualism.”
Need me to slow down? No problem.
We start here: We’re being slammed from one controversy to another in publishing.
- There are traditional publishing and self-publishing, and any number of hybrid approaches between them.
- For many, there’s still some question of ebooks and print. Personally, I’m done with this one. To me, they’re all electronic because even something on paper can be produced POD, print-on-demand. I prefer anything and everything on my Kindle Fire. But to others, “this ebook thing” is still a big, scary deal. In fact, I’ve chatted with friends in England about how so many people there seem to see ebooks as synonymous with self-publication. Many Brits talk of traditional publishing “vs. e-” as if major publishers don’t produce ebooks; and as if a self-publishing author can’t hand you a hardback or paperback copy of her book.
- Then there’s free vs. deeply discounted vs. not discounted vs. … well, who knows what an ebook is really supposed to cost? (No one does, don’t let them “expert” you on this one. We simply need a new standard of pricing.)
- Of course, there’s platforming vs. writing, as we left Jane and Don wrestling with yesterday. That one is so maddening that in something of a peroration, we find Friedman, herself, understandably declaring, “Some days I feel grateful I’m not a new writer!”
- And then, there’s what we’re on about today: My area of noise-making here at Writer Unboxed is “social” media. That gives us the battle of the online and offline life. On-grid and –off.
And that’s what we’re talking about now. Our constructs on the grid and off.
The sites, the blogging, the tweeting, the guesting, the updating, the commenting, your analytics, your diacritics, your soporifics, that’s all done on-grid. It is intended, of course, to be connecting. You are, according to word of mouth, connecting to your community.
Your weepier Kumbaya friends from the book club would prefer I spoke here of “sharing.” In their sobbing lexicon, you are “sharing” yourself with your readership, real or imagined. It’s still done on the grid. And so is what the hand-wringers love to call “reaching out.” That means telling or asking somebody something. Les misérables feel more charitable and “share-y” if they use the term “reaching out.” It’s still done online.
In fact, unless door-to-door platforming brings out the Mark Twain in you, then you’re probably doing a lot of your career online. (Clemens’ books were sold door-to-door by salesmen in the nineteenth century. Good times.)
As I covered in Writing on the Ether this week, once you get onto the grid and into your online life to any serious degree, sharing and reaching out, sobbing and bonding, you start running into the work of Turkle and others in her field.
OK, so we’re ready to move on. Here are the theoretical underpinnings of my coming thesis.
On my left, the “digital dualists.”
Digital dualists believe we’re all being pulled apart. Torn asunder. There’s your real self and there’s your virtual self. The digital dualists say that our abilities to have healthy, rich relationships in the real world are being undermined by our engagement in the social-media world. We’re all turning into fey flighty floaties fonder of our fingerwork than anything else.
When you “do your social media,” as Jim Cramer puts it, you’re ducking into a den of Internet iniquity. You craven addict, you.
On my good right, “augmented reality.”
This is the countervailing body of thought. This group says that rather than being frittered away by digital duality, your life on the grid is blessing you with an “augmented reality.”
Our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, a la The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic “first” and “second” self, but is instead an augmented self.
The camp preparing to march on the Turkle-ites is led by sociology researcher Zeynep Tufekci of Harvard’s Berkman Center. She says “real life” may just be the problematic side of things, not your grind on the grid.
Tufekci has a fine new essay at The Atlantic here, headlined Social Media’s Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships:
Social media’s rapid rise is a loud, desperate, emerging attempt by people everywhere to connect with *each other* in the face of all the obstacles that modernity imposes on our lives: suburbanization that isolates us from each other, long working-hours and commutes that are required to make ends meet, the global migration that scatters families across the globe, the military-industrial-consumption machine that drives so many key decisions, and, last but not least, the television — the ultimate alienation machine — which remains the dominant form of media.
If I had to choose, I’d side with Tufekci. Who can resist a name with a “kc” instead of a “ck” spelling? And we’ve really heard enough of Turkle’s lament. Her book Alone Together came out at the top of 2011, feels like it’s been holding the door open for a decade.
I don’t have to choose. Neither do you. I’ve got an idea. (Run for your life.)
The creative world handles relationships differently.
As we take our seats gingerly in the intimate Theater of Porter’s (not Jonah’s) Imaginings, I’m reminded of my days as an Equity actor.
When happy about it, actors will admit to you that relationships are more like carry-ons for them than checked baggage. Some in the theater (I will dutifully indict myself here) tend to pick up and put down people more readily than most other folks might. We rarely think of our relationships as research for roles (which, in acting, is really the study of oneself), but they are just that. And, as such, we can at times be fickle, feckless, fancy men of short duration in your life.
We like our significant others to fit neatly into the overhead bins. And we may blithely deplane without them when we land in Paris.
Not all actors. If you are one, I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you. In fact, I’m sure I’m the only one in the world who is like this. Class action is unnecessary, sit back down.
Moving on to other art forms, I think we can see similar patterns, not only in deeper relationship but also in regular workaday contact and discourse. I will offer you:
- The painter at his easel watching a model on her pedestal. (Think of Thomas Eakins in his studio sketches for William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River. )
- The composer whose understanding of a father’s loss of a son is distilled into just four notes searching for a contrapuntal explanation of a brilliant tragedy. (I’m hearing here a part of Eric Whitacre’s masterful When David Heard.)
- And off course, for the choreographer, much of human experience is made flesh and sent moving. (Some of the most eloquent examples today are set by Bill T. Jones on his company.)
When we see workers in sister creative disciplines handle life around them as such brightly aware participants, we aren’t bent out of shape by it. We understand they’re seeing us and others from a point of aesthetic and conceptual remove. Sure, if you marry this, you may find yourself perplexed at times, but for the most part, the observational and interpretive elements of an artistic approach to life make sense for creative types.
As we discussed in an earlier post here at Writer Unboxed, we work with certain elements of persona on the grid. For all the usual protestations of “I’m just being myself,” we’re not really quite being ourselves online, and that’s fine.
Turkle complains, “Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology.”
This is inaccurate, particularly for writers. I’m not about to take Turkle’s messy life and clean it up for her.
No, in my online career, I’m busy manipulating a chat here, an exchange there. Yes, manipulating. At my keyboard. I want to see what moving parts I can jostle and tickle and hold down and coax or trick or force to tell the stories I need told. I’m not doing this to anyone’s detriment. Every courtesy and care of offline life is in place. But online, I can isolate a streak of character, a tone of retort, a sweet refrain. Surgically striking, isn’t it?
I think the gridly life, the stuff online, is particularly well-suited to this because we work in persona, we can cover more ground with more people, explore interaction and reaction without having to get married and have those disastrous families.
Do you ever seem somehow to forget yourself and think about or treat a dear friend as a character in your current project? Actors certainly do this. I think writers do, too. I think they need to. The closer to Earth you can get your people-research, the better.
You try, we all do, not to hurt others with this odd position in the life class. Yet sculptors are, after all, the ones who have to stare for 15 days at someone’s left pec. And worse. Or better. Depending on your preferences.
The online context, our lives on the grid, Profs. Turkle and Tufekci – yea, even in the service of platforming – may just be something a bit different for those of us who make things from life than it is for others.
I think Turkle and her fellow digital dualists are too het up about a separation of online and offline lives. Sure, it gets weird at times, but how are you enjoying your tech revolution otherwise?
And I’ll much more gladly sit down with Tufekci because I think she’s likelier to understand me when I say that what and who I encounter on the grid augments my artistry.
Can you spend too much time online, to the detriment of your writing?
Well, can you spend too much time offline doing things other than your writing?
So let’s be careful when we carp about this vast digital dimension opening up at your feet. The line’s getting pretty skinny between legitimate complaint and muse abuse.
Your turn: Do you find material for your writing in your online interactions with the community? Ever feel as if you’re studying your colleagues as much as you’re exchanging ideas with them? Do you have any examples of character traits or story ideas you’ve picked up in your online life? Or am I just freaking out of my mind?