Saturday, 4 May 2013

Precious specimens: name authors and group dynamics in social media

It's not bullying, but what I want to talk about is group dynamics online in social media. I heard someone a long time ago talk about schoolyard politics; in fact probably dozens of people have said that. In fact it's probably already a meme, even a cat meme (although I prefer horse memes, having always had a long face myself).

Specifically I want to talk about the people online who have a public profile. In journalism - and many of those people are journalists, a very popular bunch online - it's called being a "name author". Even more specifically it's about my decision yesterday to unfriend a name author and feminist on Facebook because she's one of these people who never participates in others' threads. She has plenty of support, of course, and she's even seen on the TV giving commentary. She has established her own PDF magazine, which is what she spruiks online. Now, I've had a look at this magazine and frankly there's nothing really special about it; think the Good Weekend without the name value. And I learned that it's made by volunteers, so there's no compulsion for me to help fund it (and a volunteer model, apart from being unethical, is unlikely to be sustainable, or even produce material that is much good).

But what annoyed me is that this person has a sense of entitlement - "I'm well-known and interesting so of course you want to comment on my posts, but I'm not going to deign to comment on yours" - that isolates her from the fruitful melee that is social media. What do I think will happen? Her magazine will never accrue capacity, she'll get tired, her volunteers will get disenchanted, and the venture will fall over. Her elitism means the undertaking is unsustainable; if you want people to pay attention, you have to reciprocate, especially when you're asking for something from them - in this case their time and attention; the online space has its own attention economy.

We've all come across such precious specimens. Online, there's a hierarchy, and it's linked intimately to individual status in the wider public sphere. For example, there's one author who is frequently online, where he interacts energetically with a particular TV magazine show host. But if you send a tweet his way it's likely that he'll ignore it, although he'll always respond to the TV show host with warmth, sharing literary advice, talking about a favourite book, that sort of thing. There's another precious specimen I know who writes for a small news website who is very active in social media, and it's fun to read what he says but if you reply don't wait for an answer; he's got his shtick and he's not really interested in your take on it. It stings, but you forge ahead anyway; there are lovely flowers to gather elsewhere. There are plenty of interesting people online, and they can add value to your blogposts with their incisive comments.

Even if people can't spell properly they can have useful things to listen to. The best name authors do listen to these people and interact meaningfully with them; there's one man in particular I'm thinking about who came to his name author status by an unconventional route. Even more productive and inclusive are those people who make a living out of social media; these people listen and like and comment on others' posts, and in this way generate the goodwill that can help to ensure future viability.

And there will always be cliques. There are four specific individuals I interact with online who together form a sort of chorus, and we trade compliments - three of us run blogs - and retweet when something good pops up. But the danger for name authors is that their charm can fade when they neglect the people whose continued attention is what constitutes their strength.


Birmo said...

This is all true, Matthew, but there's one factor you're overlooking. 'Name authors' tend to have huge followings, or at least comparatively huge, meaning they get hundreds of responses, call outs, cold calls, whatever on any given day. Some will be gushy. Some will creepy and stalkerish. Lots will be boring. And some will be witty, and some will be from other 'name authors' or micro-celebrities they themselves follow and have an interest in, or even more importantly, a relationship with in the real world.
Everything you wrote is true. But it's not the whole truth.

Vicky said...

This is cool!