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‘Social’ Media: What isn’t in a name

Twingly, image by permission to Porter Anderson [1]
The glowing Twingly vision of "social" media flaring in real time around the world.



O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour…

Sonnet 126




The so-called “social” media, currently our lovely boy of  communication, hold in their darting packets of data, surely, unimaginable power.

So where do we get off being so trite when we speak of these forces?


Official Twitter logo bird [2]
When you need your political uprising led by a cartoon character. (From Twitter's official logos page.)

Cuteness is revolting

Shall we say with straight faces that the brave Tunisians – whose dogged grace inaugurated the Arab Spring — tweeted their way to freedom? I suppose they’re lucky that Twitter [3] co-founders Jack Dorsey [4] and “Biz” Stone [5] didn’t consign them to quacking in glory or chirping their triumph

And does it make you love a social networking/sharing/bookmarking service better to find it spelled Tumblr [6] instead of Tumbler? Flickr [7] instead of Flicker? Licorize [8], Pinterest [9], YouTube [10]?

Denmark, like many non-English-based cultures, is seeing a steady rise in English names for companies, even when little business is done in anything but Danska. Thus, my cable service in Copenhagen was provided by YouSee [11], you see.

A bookish rendition of the HootSuite owl. Awwwwwww.

My own tweets are lobbed at a defenseless population from a dashboard provided to me by HootSuite [13]. Little owl for a logo. Adorable, huh? One can tweet out pictures with TwitPic [14]. Warm and fuzzy enough for you yet?

Does it say anything about a new service when it’s named for the company launching it and a mathematical symbol? Google+ [15] — plus what? Plus the kindergartners who must have done that graphic on its homepage? Scratchy arrows in the Google colors point to a red circle of your peers. Buy me the Crayons, I can do better than that.

I like Google+, although my interest in scrapbook/display networking is secondary to my fondness for news-ticker-ish platforms. And as for the name Google+? Well, this is the massive company that has named the Android platform for phones and tablets Ice Cream Sandwich [16]. Hope you like it, because Google is naming all the Android operating systems after desserts. Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb.

Isn’t that cute? Just shoot me now.

The organizers of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change [17] (ToC) [18] have announced the companies to be presented in the Publishing Startup Showcase [19] during the upcoming confab. The names of these lucky and promising 10 operations include Lookze [20], BiblioCrunch [21], and (hold on to your barf bag) BookieJar [22]. Awwwww.

Don’t get me wrong. These three companies and their seven counterparts in the Startup Showcase are all potentially transformative young corporations, and I’m looking forward to seeing their demos in New York. But when did we all descend into the Valley of the Corporate-Cute?

I’ll be covering the whole TOC conference and you can follow me, February 13-15, at @Porter_Anderson on Twitter and/or via the hashtag #toccon and/or on the homepage of my own site, PorterAnderson.com — I’ll be live-tweeting. In gentler times, I think this was called whistling while you work.

Since the good founders of Writer Unboxed, Teri and Kath, have asked me to get at things related to “social” media in my posts here — and since writers are sensitive to how words are used — I want to start us out by putting forward a very writerly idea. Ready for this?

Proposition: One of the biggest impediments serious writers may face in exploring, adopting, and using the powerful potentials of “social” media lie (not lay, damn it) in the frivolity of both the phrase “social” media and in the names given to some of those media (“media” being a plural word, damn it).

Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.

In coming posts, what I hope to do is help holdouts – writers who are intelligently put off by sophomoric palaver – draw closer to the advantages of being online. And those of us who already are avidly “leveraging eyeballs” (that was heard in a UK publishing meeting this week) might together find our way to some new means to see our “sweet selves grow,” to paraphrase the sonnet-writer.

Let’s become grown-ups on The Grid. It’s time.

Not so bad, is it? “The Grid” is a tolerable term in this context. We’ll put it on and wear it for a bit. Close to the skin. Getting onto The Grid is not unlike William Gibson’s early concept of jacking into “The Sprawl,” is it? That beats staggering around the “Twitterverse,” and do not call me a “tweep,” you twirp.

In normal parlance, the “grid” is all contemporary modern networking, inclusive of power grids, telephone circuitry, water utilities, satellite surveillance. To be “off the grid” is to reach a mythical place beyond billing range. Sounds like Heaven. If we isolate the term for our own purposes to refer to the plethora of “social” media, we may be able to duck some of the more chummy aspects of talking about this sort of interactivity as if it had to do with covered-dish suppers.

For now, I want to show you three aspects of gridding. They take us just off the Croc-beaten path.


Susan Cain's Quiet on Andrei Kashcha's Yasiv [23]
Susan Cain's new "Quiet" is selected on Andrei Kashcha's Yasiv.com, with recommended books surrounding it.

(1) Yasiv.com. This is set, as you click on it [24], to show you a visual representation of books bought at Amazon by people who also bought one of my favorite novels [24], In a Strange Room [25]. It’s by the Man Booker Prize shortlisted writer Damon Galgut [26].

This is a graphic interpretation of the ingenious Amazon function called “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” Try putting in your favorite book’s title (the upper right field). And when you’re tired of your literary-ness, hit the drop-down in the left search field, change categories and put a new item into the right blank.

All of Amazon is watchable here, so now for something completely different [27]: Music bought by customers who also bought recordings of the compositions of Nico Muhly [28], an American composer whose work is particularly nourishing to writers [29].

Yasiv is the work of Lab49 [30] consultant Andrei Kashcha [31], and it’s an effect of “social” media. The ad hoc society of people who are buying things that you might like is tracked by Amazon with devastating promotional efficacy, as we know. And then it’s deftly conceptualized in a visual interface by our friend Kashcha. Not trivializing. Not cute. Useful and interesting. You’ve just gridded your preferences.


Simon Spurrier's appeal [32]
Author Si Spurrier takes to video to do what a broken publishing infrastructure can't.

(2) Author Simon Spurrier [33]. He’s in the UK, which is why he’s named Simon. All English guys are named Simon.

And he has had the disheartening experience of releasing a book, A Serpent Uncoiled [34], to what he calls “the most brain-shatteringly effusive reviews” – only to find that the usual suspects can’t sell it. News media, bookstores … we know this story, don’t we?

He writes it up for Sam Missingham [35] at TheFutureBook [36]:

The newspapers struggled to know what to do with it. Retailers arched eyebrows. Readers pursed lips. How can we possibly handle this book, the world wondered, if you can’t tell us what it’s similar to? Originality, it turns out, can be its own worst enemy.

And so our Si has done what might have been a normal book trailer video. Wait, wait, I hear that yawn, me too, but hang on, this one is different.  Both in execution and in what it says. [37]

Simon Spurrier: A Serpent Uncoiled [38]

As he writes at TheFutureBook:

It’s the personal experience of the Failure which makes the thing, I think. That unmistakable whiff of humiliation.  So I simply said so. Truth, or a version of it, is critical in these matters. I simply vented my bile the only way that felt right – with a deluge of ridiculous curses – and, yes: felt a lot better for it. 5,000 people watched the result in the first three days. I hope they felt better too. The book?  If I’ve done my job right, that part will look after itself.


(3) Twingly.com [39]. Say it with me now: Awwwww.

I have some acquaintance with these developers, a really crack group in Linköping. That’s in Sweden. I’d have kicked their Scandinavian butts if I’d been around at the time they seized on that name.  For American eyes only: I think they meant Twinkly.

Nevertheless, Twingly is a blog search engine patronized primarily by European newspapers. What I want you to see, if you’ve never encountered it before, is this (it’s free, not “for free,” damn it):

Twingly Screensaver [40]

The Twingly model is an evocation of the blogosphere as Earth majestically rotating on the engine of the data-drive. Huge pillars of cyber-power rise up into the air above the geographical location of each IP address that posts.


The Twingly blogosphere in action. Gorgeous. [41]
The Twingly view of the world sparkles in bursts of blog posts, glimmers of writerly light in a dark void.


Once the Twingly world is downloaded [42] to your computer and up on your screen, you hit “i” on your keyboard (for “interactive”) and you then have control. You can spin the world faster or slower, turn its 3D image around in any direction, resize it, inspect its activity, click on blog posts listed on the left to see more and link out to them.

Watch the times of day at which Europe is most active, the States, Asia, South America. The penguins have zero social media presence. Bless their hearts.

Some pillars turn Knossos-red, indicating especially bullish traffic. Note the parts of the world that are rarely active – they’re off The Grid. Not as global as we like to think, are we?

There’s even a counter that tells me, last I checked, that the Twingly had tracked 77,009,518 blog posts since it started scanning in 2007.

The point for us, though, isn’t the Twingly search engine’s rich success. That’s the pride of the boys in Sweden. For us, it’s the concept of a world fairly bristling with comment. Just look at all we have to say. Look at how many of us are saying it. Look how frequently someone is holding forth about one thing or another, punching out into space with this opinion, that report.

Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

Time for me to shut up.

Your turn

It’s in the Ether-green beauty of the Twingly’s twinkle that I want to leave you this month with the idea that these “social” media may gather their strength and fearsome reach from massive crowds of us, sure. But “social?” Really?

Sometimes they’re commercial (Amazon’s offerings). Sometimes promotional (Si’s book). Sometimes aesthetic (Twingly’s radiant sphere). But they’re far beyond two agents gossiping about their author-clients over the electronic fence. That’s social.

Our Grid is much too grand for our boorish colleagues who scream BUY MY BOOK! in every tweet.

This Grid can do loads with visuals from your last family reunion but its main currency is words. These are verbal media. And if anybody on the Twingly planet can spend words to their advantage, it should be us, the unboxed writers of that luminous world.

You’ll find me here next on February 25, and Thursdays on the Ether [43] at the site of Jane Friedman [44], a fellow Writer Unboxed contributor and my courageous host.

For now, tell me what you think.  Is your own experience really social on these media? Originally, did you engage in them originally for that? Or were you looking for a market from the outset, your platform’s community, to sell your work? Today, are you hunting colleagues, tricks, and tricksters of the trade online? Are you in search of readers, buyers, and advocates for your cause? Are you seeking buddies, best whatevers forever, Vespoli rowers, bowling teams? Tell me (a) how long you’ve engaged in “social” media, (b) which ones you find most useful, and (c) and whether their usefulness is truly social.

And can you name for me an anti-social medium?

See ya. I gotta grid.

About Porter Anderson [45]

@Porter_Anderson [46] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [47], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [48] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [49]