Reading and Writing Together Online: Exploring Wattpad

September 6, 2015

The internet has long offered opportunities to form communities around reading and writing, particularly in the form of fanfiction, which predates the internet but has flourished online. In the 1980s, Usenet groups and email lists were created that focused on fanfiction based on Star Trek and other popular entertainments. FanFiction.net was launched in 1998 and remains popular, with sections for different fandoms such as Harry Potter (the most populated fandom as of August 2015), Dr. Who, and many anime and manga works. It retains something of the look and feel of early web forums.

Wattpad looks very different. It was founded in 2006, a year before Amazon released its Kindle platform, reading device, and store, and the popularity of ebooks surged. From its start, Wattpad has been designed to be a social platform for composing, reading, and sharing responses to stories, all of which are available for free, on the web of through an app. The platform was very much designed with mobile in mind, even though mobile wasn’t as ubiquitous in 2006 as it is today. Though it took a few years to take off, it began to catch the attention of the press in 2012 and now has an astonishing 40 million members worldwide. No wonder it describes itself as “the world’s largest community of readers and writers.”

Based in Canada, it has members across the globe who read and publish stories in more than fifty languages. It’s particularly popular in the Philippines, where the mobile version is reportedly the top-ranked mobile app. At this point it is a privately held corporation supported mainly by venture capital, though some relatively new brand sponsorships (in which Wattpadders are commissioned to write stories about new films, music, or products) may also be part of its business model. The product’s assets, like most social media platforms, is its membership and information about their interests and the popularity of the content they share. Unlike Facebook, though, it doesn’t have a “real names” policy and does not seem to be tying those metrics to other data sources, though it encourages sharing stories through social media and has recently developed a function for turning quotations from stories into graphics to share on Twitter. It’s hard to say how exactly it will make money, since the sauce is secret and the company is in that peculiar phase that new tech platforms go through that some people call “pre-revenue audience building.” Another term might be “magical thinking,” but who’s going to argue with the site’s impressive metrics?

According to venture capital researcher Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report, as of May 2015 (see slide 63 of her presentation), Wattpad had 40 million unique visitors monthly, twice as many as last year, with 11 billion minutes spent on it per month (up 83 percent over last year), ninety percent of this busy activity via mobile phones. In each minute that passes, another 24 hours-worth of text to read is posted. But not all of the members are writers; a company official told Digital Book World last year that 90 percent of the members are readers, not authors.

Dubbed “a YouTube for stories” and likened to Instagram, it’s a youthful site in style and tone, but one of its most prominent promoters is Margaret Atwood, who sees it as democratizing of literacy. In a 2012 Guardian article, she wrote,

No one need know how old you are, what your social background is, or where you live. Your readers can be anywhere. And if you’re worried about adverse reactions from your teachers, your grandmother, or others who might not like you writing about slavering zombies or your relatives, you can use a pseudonym.

She does not see this kind of story-sharing as competition for traditional publishers, but rather a bridge to them. More importantly, she sees Wattpad as a path to literacy in an unequal world. You can’t always buy ebooks if you don’t have enough money – or, like many Wattpadders, aren’t old enough to have a credit card. Nor do all aspiring writers around the globe have access to writing tools and models to emulate.

Our generation in the west was lucky: we had readymade gateways. We had books, paper, teachers, schools and libraries. But many in the world lack these luxuries. How do you practice without such tryout venues? Without a piano, how do you learn to play the piano? How can you write without paper and read without books? . . . Wattpad opens the doors and enlarges the view in places where the doors are closed and the view is restricted. And somewhere out there in Wattpadland, a new generation is testing its wings.

Adventures in Convergence Culture

I joined Wattpad nine months ago and began to poke around. After exploring the social features and reading a few stories, I dusted off an old floppy disk with a young adult time-travel story I’d written in the early 1990s and posted it serially, as most Wattpad stories appear, one chapter at a time over the course of several weeks, to get to know both the platform and the nature of its interactions better. (I had to make a few changes, including a new opening from which the story could become a flashback. I have a feeling a huge proportion of Wattpad members weren’t born when I wrote that thing and wouldn’t recognize a floppy disk. Also, yes, it is deeply weird to read something you wrote so long ago envisioning a future with limited surveillance capabilities – hah, I wish! – but I digress.) I can’t say my experiment yielded much in terms of insight into the social life of Wattpad for writers. There is a lot of competition for attention and, as many members advise in various “how to do Wattpad” guidebooks, writers need to spend a lot of time engaging with others before they will be discovered, and I didn’t. But even with this limited engagement, I can make some observations.

First, the platform is great for writing. On a desktop, it’s a clean and intuitive interface that gives writers a distraction-free writing space. No, it doesn’t have all the features of Word, but most writers rarely need those fiddly bits. I found the clean, simple interface refreshing. The phone app can also be used as a writing space (if your thumbs are up to it), which is likely the most common writing method among younger members of the site who may not have access to a laptop or simply are used to composing on a phone. For me, the app enabled easy editing when I spotted a typo or missing word. The default setting for copyright is “all rights reserved” (which someone who uploaded Shakespeare plays carelessly left in place) but the platform also offers a variety of Creative Commons licenses.

Though the writing space is stripped-down simple, Wattpad offers ways to visually enhance a story. Writers can create and upload covers created DIY, by using a separate Wattpad app, or through a kind of barter system that I don’t thoroughly understand. Apparently some graphic arts-inclined members create covers for others and their work is acknowledged in dedications, which are frequently appended to chapters of stories to recognize other members. Writers can also add pictures or videos as chapter headers, and frequently do. Chapters are sometimes introduced or closed with a comment from the author encouraging suggestions, promising a timeline for the next installment, or begging readers to be patient because exams are looming and they won’t have time to post another chapter anytime soon.

The distance between readers and writers and between the story and the person who wrote it are deliberately blurred in this environment. There is a sense that works are in progress and readers and writers experience the unfolding of a story together. Writers also get a sense of affirmation when readers comment on their work or ask for more. Generally the comments are not the incisive analysis that writers would get from an editor or from comrades in a writing workshop. They tend to be short expressions of pleasure, responses to what’s happening in the story (“Whoa!!” “Nooooooo!”), or gestures of identification. (“That happened to me.” “That’s my birthday, too!” “My brother acts exactly like this guy.”) This seriality and intimate form of sharing owes much to fanfiction culture and is well depicted in Rainbow Rowell’s young adult novel, Fangirl.

There are metrics on every chapter and on your profile, constant reminders of how many people follow you, how many have looked at your stories, and how many comments and votes you’ve received. All of these pings of attention are meant to be positive. As one of the founders, Allen Lau, explained to Publisher’s Weekly, novice writers crave affirmation and so all of the cues give positive reinforcement. There are no downvotes here. Scanning through stories that I added to my library, I found virtually no negative comments. Instead, these notes are generally short, flippant, and supportive. Comments that don’t conform to community standards can be flagged by anyone for deletion.

Though it’s an amazingly cheerful and positive place, it is also part of the attention economy. Those visible metrics are a display of status, which creates a certain undercurrent of anxiety about getting reads. Comments to community boards are sometimes desperate pleas for readers or requests for advice about how to get more followers and reads. Popular writers, whose status is reinforced by being featured on the discovery page, get tens of thousands of views, or in some cases millions, or even as many as a billion views, as Anna Todd did with a series that riffed on the boy band One Direction, the kind of fanfiction celebrity that led to the insanely popular and ultimately profitable 50 Shades trilogy, a fanfiction based on Twilight. (As an aside, all three blockbusters seem to revolve around abusive relationships. I wonder what that’s about?) Whether Todd’s book contract or film deal will pay off is unknown, the kind of blockbuster bet that big entertainment likes to place. These days, both self-publishing and sites like Wattpad have become crowd-sourced slushpiles for traditional publishers. As for Anna Todd, who kept her (pre-edited) books freely available on Wattpad, the affirmation that she gets from the social features of the platform are a necessary part of writing. As she told a reporter for The New York Times, “the only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone.”

Some member/writers have been chosen to be “ambassadors” – moderators with specific duties that keep the community harmonious, but who are presumably paid only in the feels. There are also community sections of the site. Clubs are where members can talk about improving their writing, graphic design, the publishing industry, genres, or anything at all in “The Café.” There are also areas for awards, contests, #justwriteit (a place where members can commit to writing and get inspiration, rather like National Novel Writing Month), and a recently-launched section for writers on how to use the site and get writing tips. There is also a page of information on a new program, “Wattpad Stars.” It’s not clear how writers become stars, but this program pairs Wattpadders with brands, mostly entertainment industry heavy-hitters, but including Unilever, which promoted a facial cleanser to teens in the Philippines by commissioning a story in Tagalog by a Wattpadder. Though paid product placement is rare in traditional publishing, this venture is an interesting way to blend fanfiction’s love of engaging with commercial culture and the use of Wattpad by its members as a bridge from free sharing to more commercial pursuits.

My second major impression from using the site is that it’s a great place for readers, particularly young readers who enjoy fanfiction, romance stories, or young adult fiction. There are loads of other genres, too, but these seem most popular. You can discover books the hard way, by browsing genre categories or searching the tags authors assign their works, or you can click on the books covers that appear whenever you open the app – some new, some popular, some selected by Wattpad staff, some that appear, after you’ve chosen some stories, to be algorithmically chosen to match your previous choices. Each time you choose a book, you also get “you may also like” choices. All of these books are free, and they stay on your phone even when you’re offline. They are also often quite compelling to read and composed with narrative sophistication. Of course, there are stories that are full of clichés and rehashing of tired tropes, but that’s true in all kinds of publishing. What astonished me was how polished so many of the stories are.

Like users of the Kindle (which came into the world after Wattpad but, with Amazon’s enormous reach, ramped up much more quickly), Wattpad readers can experience instant gratification, the reassurance that they have something to read with them all the time, and a seemingly bottomless pool of books to choose from. Unlike Kindle, these books are free, and the social apparatus in which they are nestled is youthful, supportive, and ubiquitous. Amazon, generally a nimble company, tried late in the game to get a foot in the fanfiction door with Kindle Worlds, a place where writers can create and sell fanfiction – but only for certain willing brands, and only if they follow stringent guidelines and are willing to license some uses to the product they are riffing on and if they give Amazon world publication rights for the duration of copyright (meaning until long after you’re dead). It does not seem to have taken off in a big way. I suspect there are two kinds of “free” missing, here – free to readers and free for writers to do what they like.

What’s interesting at Wattpad is that it’s infused with the free-wheeling remixing and community-building spirit of fanfiction while also including mild warnings about copyright. Wattpad has had to remove copyrighted material, and cautions writers not to use copyrighted works in the images or videos they choose for chapter headings, but that warning is blithely ignored by many Wattpadders who remix and repurpose as if they were born to it – as, in fact, many of them were.

From the perspective of examining online reading communities, Wattpad is fascinating. Some of the socializing is unabashedly promotional. Writers engage in hopes that readers will engage with them. But a lot of it is the kind of informal chatter and friendship-building that revolves around shared reading experiences. I didn’t see any in-depth criticism or analysis, but that isn’t the point.

The point is sharing emotional responses to the work and the act of reading it: Love love love. Intense! Actual tears. Whaaa… did that just happen? Update pls. Having those reactions serially, immediately, and in the company of others within a web of social relationships is a very contemporary version of the decades-old practice of talking about books online.

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Goodreads and the Commodification of the Reading Self

August 28, 2015

Goodreads is the Google of online reading communities, so huge it exerts a kind of gravity. It operates on the same business model of “free” – offering a service in exchange for user-generated and third-party content and massive amounts of monetizeable data. That data is also described as a member benefit. As of this writing, the site’s “about” page states “our recommendation engine analyzes 20 billion data points to give suggestions tailored to your literary tastes.” Wow, all that, just for me?

Well, no.

Currently Goodreads has over 40 million members who have attached over a billion books to their online identities.  At least I think so; it’s hard to know what exactly “1.1 billion books added” means when writers, readers, and publishers are all involved. One of the founders, Otis Chandler, has described how metrics can help publishers identify which books are going to be blockbusters through the influence of trusted readers and the viral nature of word-of-mouth recommendations on a massive scale. Recently, he unpacked how The Girl on the Train took off using Goodreads metrics, which in turn encouraged the publisher to spend even more money on promotion.

Colin Robinson has suggested that, as these vernacular  sites for book reviews replace professional book reviewers as taste-makers, midlist authors will lose out. The decline of the midlist is a long-running concern, with the Author’s Guild commissioning a report on the crisis back in 2001 (no longer available online, unfortunately). Since then, Chris Anderson’s influential theory of the Long Tail providing new business opportunities has been challenged by Anita Elberse, whose research suggests blockbusters are bigger than ever, with smart companies spending more to promote fewer works. A site like Goodreads mixes the Long Tail of books – more published today than ever in history – with the blockbuster effect, bolstered by big data metrics providing insight into readers’ behaviors that has never before been available to publishers.

Goodreads is not the first online book-oriented site designed for sharing reading experiences. LibraryThing, its geekier older cousin, launched in 2005; Goodreads went online in 2007. (I’ve compared the cultures of the two sites elsewhere.) It has a commercially appealing presence, a panoply of social features, a strong mobile app (which currently accounts for half of the traffic to the platform) and is welcoming to authors and publishers who use the site for both engagement and marketing. It has been so successful at attracting members who spend hours “shelving” books, writing reviews, sharing quotes, discussing books, and participating in contests, people’s-choice awards, and discussion groups that it threatened to eclipse Amazon customer reviews as a socially-mediated place to discover what to read next. A year after a 2012 dust-up with Amazon over restrictions on its API (with Goodreads member “librarians” scrambling to manually restore links to information that was getting lost in the transition), Amazon bought Goodreads. It had previously acquired a competitor, Shelfari, and acquired a minority interest in LibraryThing when it bought Abebooks and its holdings. That said, LibraryThing provides no information about members to third parties, including Amazon; Goodreads does and integrates members’ Amazon activity into members’ Goodread accounts as an opt-in feature. Though Goodreads lost some members when it was acquired by Amazon, it has gained far more, going from 16 million to 40 million members in the past two years.

Bullies and collective drama

Amazon has gone through public dramas over book reviews, from inadvertently exposing anonymous reviewers on their Canadian site, revealing authors praising their books and trashing other writers’ works, to deleting reviews by people who Amazon determines, though obscure and slightly creepy means, to be acquainted with the books’ authors. Goodreads reviews are widely perceived as being more trustworthy, but that hasn’t stopped drama erupting, sometimes with Vesuvian energy. A group of authors who felt they were being unfairly criticized banded together to fight “bullies,” with the author Anne Rice playing a high-profile role. In turn, readers have decried authors who they feel overreact to negative reviews, sometimes resorting to stalking and harassing readers who don’t give their books high marks.

At times, interventions made by Goodreads staff have created further strife, as when reviews and lists of books curated by members were abruptly  deleted to conform to a new policy banning ad hominem attacks on authors. As often happens on commercial social platforms, anger among users was partially due to the fact that they feel the content they created is theirs, when actually control over the content of the site remains with the corporation. Given that this site is in many ways a marketing platform for writers, including many self-published authors with few outlets for publicity, conflicts are inevitable if, at times, a bit ludicrous. Both readers and authors who I surveyed were sometimes wary about the potential for prickly author/reader interactions on the site, yet the site is unarguably successful for many readers who want to socialize with other book lovers.

Exploring Goodreads

Though I personally prefer LibraryThing because of its privacy policies and its reader-centered focus, I spent some time exploring Goodreads’ features, including joining a reading community devoted to mysteries, crime, and thrillers. (There are a lot of discussion groups formed on Goodreads. A group for moderators has nearly 1,500 members.) This group, apparently formed around 2009, has four busy moderators and over 12,700 members, with an increase of about a thousand in less than a year. Members propose and vote on two monthly discussion books and volunteer to lead discussions, rather like the practice of the 4_mystery_addicts group that I’ve previously described. Members also post items of interest, share reading challenges, discuss  and recommend books to one another, and organize “buddy reads.” Author self-promotion is confined to a small part of the group and is otherwise strongly discouraged.

Scanning through discussion threads, one sees the kind of relationship-building and affirmation that keeps an online community humming along peacefully. The group rules begin with “be kind and courteous to everyone and refrain from personal attacks.” They go on to ask members to hide spoilers with a Goodreads technical feature, stay on topic, and provide links to books and authors mentioned without relying on cover art, which may not be easily viewed on a mobile device. Several restrictions also apply to nominating books for discussion, including making sure the book is available to an international audience and that authors and their publicists may not nominate their own works or interfere with the voting process.

Goodreads offers groups functions for sharing photos, creating polls, and inviting friends to join. Members’ profiles are available, including information about whether a member is currently visiting the site and what book they are reading at the moment. It’s fascinating to see so many of the same practices used at this site as on the older Yahoo Groups formed for book discussions, but Goodreads is growing fast while traffic to Yahoo sites devoted to books seems to be falling precipitously.

The Double-sided bookshelf

Lisa Nakamura , a literary scholar and professor of American culture and film at the University of Michigan, has published a lot about race and gender in social media. Her insightful article about Goodreads published in PMLA in 2013, “Words With Friends: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads,” suggests that scholars should stop focusing so much on the differences between print and digital texts and instead examine discourse about reading books taking place online. Such sites use “bookshelves” to express identity in a public way, producing a public “reading self” just as displaying books on a living room bookcase does. She ties the identification of self with consumption to the history of the bookcase in American homes, drawing on Ted Striphas’s fascinating research that uncovered the marketing strategy that led Americans to use books as a marker of social status and taste in the early 20th century. (Both Striphas and Nakamura are compelling writers and critics, well worth reading.)

Nakamura points out how this consumptive display means that we, ourselves, are being collected.

Goodreads is an amazing tool, a utopia for readers. But by availing ourselves of its networked virtual bookshelves to collect and display our readerliness in a postprint age, we have become objects to be collected, by Goodreads and its myriad commercial partners. . . . Goodreads efficiently captures the value of our recommendations, social ties, affective networks, and collections of friends and books. Goodreads bookshelves are unlike real bookshelves not because the books are not real but because they are not really ours.

She goes on to contrast the joyful and seemingly democratic nature of these shared (but corporately-owed) bookshelves.

Goodreads uses algorithms to rank and evaluate books and organize them into egocentric networks. Seen in this light, it’s a folksonomic, vernacular platform for literary criticism and conversation—that most esteemed of discursive modes — that is open to all, solving the problem of locked- down content that pay-to-read academic publishing reproduces. On the other hand, open access to a for-profit site like Goodreads has always exacted a price—loss of privacy, friction-free broadcasting of our personal information, the placing of user content in the service of commerce, and the operationalization and commodiication of reading as an algocratic practice.

She urges literary scholars to pay attention to sites of social reading like this and the ways that commodification and vernacular criticism intersect. “Let us hope,” she concludes, “that reading’s digital future will include the kind of critique and unmasking of the technoimaginary’s hidden ideologies that readers and writers deserve.”

I couldn’t agree more.


Authors Interacting With Readers Online

August 20, 2015
Twitter connections mapped

Social Collider image courtesy of Channy Yun

Authors are often pressured to connect online to develop a reader base and promote their work. This puts them in the dicey situation of relating to people socially while also marketing their books. I was curious about how writers manage that balance and what they find rewarding or frustrating about interacting with readers online.

I created a short unscientific survey for crime fiction authors and distributed the link through a number of social sites where crime fiction authors participate: Dorothy-L, the Sisters in Crime Yahoo group, Twitter, and the crime fiction communities on Goodreads and Wattpad. Of the 33 writers who chose to participate, two were under 25 and eleven were over 65, with the largest number of respondents (16) between ages 45 and 65. One respondent preferred not to specify demographic details. Most respondents were women (27), with only five men participating. All but two or three of the respondents live in North America. (Two live in Europe; one chose not to specify a location.)  Fourteen of the respondents are traditionally published, 12 are both traditionally and self-published, four are self-published, and two chose “not yet published; I am evaluating options.”

Platforms of choice

I asked participants to tell me which social media they use from a list I provided. Of social media platforms, Facebook was the most commonly used, with 30 respondents saying they use it. This is not surprising. A recent Pew Internet report found that Facebook is far and away the most commonly used social media platform, though its membership growth is plateauing, while the less-popular sites Pinterest and Instagram have doubled their membership since 2012.

Blogs (including either writing posts or commenting on them) remain a major social tool for these writers, with 24 respondents involved in blogging, closely followed by Twitter (22). Email discussion lists focused on crime fiction were the next most popular medium, with 20 respondents participating in such groups. Slightly over half (17) used Goodreads, with far fewer using LibraryThing (3), not surprising given that Goodreads has a much larger membership and encourages authors to promote their work, whereas LibraryThing explicitly focuses on readers and their books. (There is an LT Author badge and regular author chats and book giveaways at LibraryThing, but the overall culture of Goodreads is more commercially oriented.) The four who used Wattpad were 45 or younger, including two respondents under 25. Only one respondent (over 65) reported using none of the social media options in the survey. There did not appear to be any particular patterns of use by age among these respondents except in the case of Wattpad.

When asked what makes particular platforms useful to respondents as writers, the most common response across the board was interaction or relationship-building. This was mentioned by eleven respondents as a plus for Facebook. Four praised email lists for this quality, and three felt blogs were useful for relationship-building. Some sites were valued as places where authors could express themselves, with Wattpad and blogs each having this quality mentioned by three respondents. Another reason respondents preferred various media was reach, where, again, Facebook (the largest of social platforms) was most frequently mentioned, with Twitter an also-ran. The sheer size of membership can be a factor. As one respondent put it, “I’ve found Facebook and Goodreads to be the most useful. They provide opportunity for a writer to get to know and interact with a large number of people from around the world, people who – once they get to know you – may purchase your books or at least recommend them to their own circles.” But several respondents mentioned that they found it hard to keep up with all the options and weren’t sure whether they were useful to their writing careers. As one respondent put it,

Despite the worldwide spread of the Internet, I feel I only reach a very few people through my social media efforts. Only a handful of people like or comments on my Facebook/blog posts. There’s so many blogs and so much “noise” on the Internet that it’s impossible to rise above the clutter.

Positives and negatives

I asked what authors liked most about interacting online with readers. When coding the results, the two most commonly-mentioned positives were socializing or meeting people (11) and getting affirmation (11). As one respondent put it, “this is a profession rife with rejection. I get validation from the interactions.” Two interrelated benefits were learning about writing and the publishing industry and finding out what readers like, both in one’s own writing and in crime fiction generally, with 12 respondents responding in one of these ways. Other qualities mentioned by at least two respondents were appreciating candor within a community, having fun, the immediacy of interacting online, low cost, and being able to belong to an affinity group.

My next question had to do with the downside: what is most frustrating about interacting with readers online? The two most-commonly mentioned problems were the time it took away from writing (7 mentions) and dealing with hostility or argumentative people (9). As one respondent put it, “The Internet can be a mean forum.” Most of the problems arose from disagreements over personal beliefs or political issues, but some irritation was caused by people criticizing a writer’s work or disparaging it because it included elements such as “bad” language or sexuality that they disapproved of. Five were bothered by the shallowness of many interactions. Five were troubled by lack of response to their comments or posts. Three mentioned that they were frustrated by not having any way to connect the time spent on social media with sales. As one put it,

there’s no measurable way of assessing impact/results . . . The lack of metrics dismays me because my time is not unlimited and my main job is writing.”

While social media platforms often include metrics (and even promote them), traditional publishers don’t provide up-to-date sales information, and even if self-published authors have current information, it’s difficult to correlate with time-consuming social interactions online. Another respondent wrote “I don’t blog anymore. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for my career. 3000 words per month to a blog – 3000 words not directed to my next book.”

Additional thoughts

I closed the short survey with an open question: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your experiences participating in social media? The conflict between the time spent on social media and writing the next book was felt by many respondents. As one put it,

Too much new technology to learn. Writing blogs can be time consuming for little results. Social media was leaving me too tired and with too little time left to actually WRITE! I put my energy now on my stories instead of social media.

Another said, “I spend far too much time on it. If you’re not careful, you can waste a good part of your day.”

The focus on getting attention promoted in many social media platforms was also a concern. As one respondent put it, “I’d rather be writing books than participating in online fashion shows.” But another respondent had mixed feelings.

Sometimes I feel like I’m simply adding to the social noise when I post anything, and maybe it would be better if we all unplugged. OTH, I live in a rural area with few opportunities for reader contact, and I do think the contact makes me a better writer.

For some, it was important to maintain a careful balance between being authentic and coming across as a heavy-handed marketer. (My previous reader survey bears this out – readers enjoy genuine interactions with writers, but are quickly turned off when they feel that the interaction is geared primarily toward sales). One offered advice about how to pull this balancing act off.

Don’t force it. Be cool. Don’t be a jerk screaming “buy my book,” every eight seconds. Give content, answer questions, be funny (not forced), pleasant and available.

Though one respondent reported seeing a spike in sales whenever she had a blog tour, another wrote, “It’s actually pretty hard to find readers on social media. Most of the folks I’m finding are authors trying to find readers.”

While a majority of respondents in these open comments reflected on how much writing time could be wasted on social media, some respondents said that once they overcame a learning curve and established a routine, they could fold communicating with readers online into their workflow. Learning best practices from one another also helped. As one respondent explained it,

I started early and have kept up. I’m glad I did. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but because I got in early I found a few really great people from whom to watch and learn. And it cost me nothing but time.

Of course, the lack of time was a major issue among respondents.

While authors are frequently pushed to engage with readers online to promote their books, these writers were thoughtful about the nature and value of their use of social media. Like readers, they value authentic interactions (and, sometimes, the affirmation readers provided), and seemed largely realistic about the limitations such interactions have for boosting their careers. Some have deliberately reduced the time they spend online to focus on writing the next book. Others enjoy social media interactions but still question whether they have the value that publishers often put on them.

A quick search online will turn up thousands of articles explaining how authors should (or shouldn’t) use social media, often in the form of listicles: five essential sites, ten rules for engagement, 100 tips . . . Just reading through search results can be exhausting. The lack of metrics that tie sales to interactions online, the amount of time it can take away from writing in a genre where a book a year is a minimum expectation, and the sheer volume of writers seeking attention can be daunting. This is particularly true given that building a presence in an online community takes time and overt marketing is met with (often fierce) resistance. But there are benefits apart from the sales aspect, particularly in learning readers’ perspectives on books and gaining a sense of connection and affirmation.

Thanks to the authors who took the time to share their thoughts and experiences. For writers who feel they’ve been pressed to do too much connecting, there’s a satirical piece by Heather Havrilesky in the New Yorker, “How to Contact the Author,” that illustrates the fraught aspects of being expected to develop close relationships with readers when carried too far.


Goodbye, FriendFeed

March 13, 2015

It has been a long time coming. Still, I’m gutted. Friendfeed is pulling the plug on a platform that has been a big part of my online social life.

Chances are you’ve never heard of FriendFeed. It was a bit under the radar, but those who used it were avid. It had a simple, uncluttered, and intuitive interface where you could form groups, have RSS feeds stream to the group, and have fflogodiscussions – with any active discussion popped to the top of the page. It allowed anonymity (which can be extraordinarily useful) and private messages, which is where surprise parties were planned. Facebook aquired FriendFeed in 2009, but somehow it kept going. Every time it went down for a few hours there were panicked backup plans made, but it always bobbed back up – until the final offical announcement was made.

This is awkward. I’m writing this in the past tense as if it’s an obituary but we still have a few weeks to run.

Maxine Clarke, who I’ve written about before, intoduced me to FriendFeed by inviting me to join the Crime and Mystery Fiction group.Knowing that Maxine was not only a trustworthy guide to crime fiction but also extremely informed about technology (helping make Nature one of the most lively interactive and trend-setting web presences for science), I dipped my toe in. I found a lot of bloggers who I’d already discovered and met far more. It was easy to go to one place and get a stream of new reviews, interesting links, and companionship. Though the room functioned primarily as a place where we could share RSS feeds and occasionally comment, real friendships bloomed. I intend to stay in touch with those who I met there, but it won’t be as easy. A Facebook group has been set up where refugees can go, but I’m not a friend of Facebook, so will have to update my Feedly links and try to make the rounds of blogs to keep up the interaction there, which is where a lot of the more extended conversations happened, anyway. I sensed a kind of unspoken preference for taking comments to the original blog whenever possible so as not to dilute their impact.

It will be trickier to replicate the community found among librarians in the LSW FriendFeed group. After getting to know my way around the Crime and Mystery Fiction group, I poked around and stumbled across what has been my go-to professional (and just-for-fun) group ever since. FriendFeed has been the Library Society of the World’s most active hangout for some time. Previously Meebo was an LSW space. It was acquired by Google and killed in 2012 in hopes we’d all flock to Google+. These ceremonial sacrifices don’t always pan out, do they?

Rather than use the platform as a shared RSS feed, it was a conversational space. It wasn’t unusual for the threads to run to dozens of comments. Members would raise problems (is this database acting weird for you, too? can someone check this reference for me?), professional issues (open access, privacy, the behavior of publishers or funding agencies, how to do cool things for our communities), and a lot of giddy fun and companionship. Because there are a number of technically adept members, we’ll probably have another meeting place of some kind rigged up by the time the plug is pulled. We’ll pass the hat to pay the costs. There isn’t really a commercial substitue for what we have ensjoyed until now, and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

It’s hard to know what makes a social media platform work for a group of people who come together in a community. It’s clearly not the infratructure itelf. The two FriendFeed rooms I participated in regularly used the affordances of the platform very differently. It really is the people and the way they develop a common identity through individual practices (choosing what to post and how to respond), a means of welcoming new members and celebrating membership, and the indirect development of group norms. How those norms evolved in this space is truly mysterious.to me. There were no posted rules. There was some kind of administrative status some members took on – was a very light hand on the rudder (mostly refreshing feeds if they stopped working). Every now and then there would be drama in either of these groups, but even at its most heated it never seemed to fundamentally alter the nature of the community. Perhaps the relative obscurity of FriendFeed made it unattractive to trolls and spammers. In any case, these were remarkably civil, balanced, and inviting spaces.

One other thing true of both groups: they may be tight, but they are diverse. FriendfFeed earned users around the globe. I was intrigued when the news broke to see Tweets about it in Turkish, French, Spanish, and (above all) Italian. In fact, some Itaian programmers have knocked out a replacement. For the LSW, the mix was in library types (academic, public, and special) and geography (U.S., Canadian and British librarians as well as a Singaporean member and others). The Crime and Mystery Fiction group was smaller in membership but more widely distributed geographically, with members from the UK, Australia, Canada, the US, Spain,Denmark, and probably other places I’m forgetting at the moment. These international reading communities create an interesting situation – the buzz around books doesn’t respect the regional boundaries around rights. Books are released at different times (or not at all) in different regions with different covers and, often, titles. It will be interesting to see whether online commerce and these international reading communities might break down some of those borders or whether the separate sale of rights by region will continue to feature in the publishing world or perhaps even be artificially reinforced, as it was with DVDs splitting the world into regions and continues with streaming of videos tied to location – the sort of control of audiences that seems so self-defeating.

Finally, one thing that is lost as the plug is pulled – the record of those conversations. FriendFeed has an excellent search feature which I often used to find a link or retrace a debate that I needed for one reason or another. That won’t be possible. As we entrust more and more of our lives to companies that come and go, the words we wrote, the things we think of as ours, are not under our control. As we lose our community gathering places, we also lose our histories. Something to think about as we live with our heads in the cloud.