I was dragged kicking and screaming into the social media age. Had I not been a professional writer, warned by publishers to become my own platform, I would never have issued a tweet, posted on Facebook, sent Constant Contact e-blasts, done audio promos, video promos, podcasts, webinars, teleconferences or Google chats in this lifetime. I would also have died a happy man.
Instead, like millions of other self-employed folks, I was hit a decade ago by a mandate I had never signed up for. If I wanted to stay in print, I needed to morph from being a plain old writer, locked in his office with his brains falling out, to being a brand with a public platform. (A platform, for those of you lucky enough not to know, is a media-driven launch device that elevates your market value.) The thing I loved most about my career -- disappearing into a book for years, being public only to publicize it -- disappeared overnight. Now it was tweet or die, post or perish, build a platform or sink in the mud. It wasn't enough to write a book. You had to become an advertisement for yourself.
I hated the thought of it. I'm an introvert with privacy issues, in addition to being a technophobe. My entire being just said no and I refused to get with the online program. My sales dropped, my publisher admonished and my agent spoke to me very gently about the demands of a changing marketplace. I promised to try but it was no use. I didn't know a hashtag from a hole in the ground. I couldn't get into the conversation. I really didn't want to share. Discouraged and annoyed, I just gave up and went into a long phase of social media denial -- a form of baby boomer grief for earlier, less informative times. Eventually, this had to end when it came time to sell my next book and rejections appeared citing weak platform.
I had no choice but to hire someone to be my social media stand-in. For $85 an hour (what I used to pay my therapist), I hired a bright young woman to be my digital ventriloquist. She created a system of posting content (another creepy social media term) five times a week, in the all the right places. All I had to do was supply the content once a week, which allowed me to go on autopilot, believing that I had dealt with this issue. All seemed to be OK, until a friend asked one day, condescendingly, who was posting my stuff, since it obviously wasn't me. Peeking online, I was mortified to see how the assistant had been playing me in a voice better suited to infomercials than a middle-aged writer with self-respect.
I found myself at a moral crossroads. Firing the social media assistant, I had two distinct choices. I could go the sleazy route and buy myself a chunk of followers (in $500 bunches of 20,000, as the strategist told me was possible, bumping up my numbers permanently and freeing me from this ball and chain). Or I could take the high road, defy my resistance, play the social media game in a way that worked for me, and see what happened. In Buddhism, there's a practice known as "working against the grain" -- pushing against our aversions in order to transcend the ego. If I could turn this social media thing into grist for the spiritual mill, somehow, it might gain some redeeming value for me, and become interesting in a way that it wasn't. This seemed like a strategy worth trying.
What followed was like a slo-mo movie of all my secret neuroses and fears. The more I engaged with Facebook or Twitter, the clearer my social intelligence quirks stood out in nasty relief. I saw that I wasn't just introverted; I was an isolationist attached to my cave and the moat around it. Social media felt invasive to me. It created the sense of being watched -- exposed -- 24/7 by Big Brother, even though this wasn't happening. I felt like there was a party happening around the clock to which I had been invited but could not find the door to get in. It was a lot like being in high school (the worst three years of my life), when I felt like a freak, bonded with no one and avoided all hints of human connection.
There was also the issue of OVERLOAD. For 20 years, I had been in the habit of writing all day, turning off my machine and staying away from my desk until next morning. Now, the workday never ended. There was blogging, email, scanning, sharing -- always more connection to make. This led to an exhausting sensation of staying way too long at the fair. It was the online version of weltschmerz -- world-weariness -- only here it was infoschmerz: too many details about too many people way too often. When I tried to keep up, it made me crazy. And that, I realized, was the major problem... which led me to the big aha.
I was trying to keep up with it all -- pushing too hard, caring too much, being far too gullible about how important this stuff really wasn't. I'd been viewing social media as a great obstacle to surmount, another dimension to compete in (and in which to fail), instead of as what it was: neutral technology with pros and cons, opportunities and illusions, wrapped in gold rush-style rhetoric that promises the jackpot to anyone with the right key words. How ridiculous!
As soon as I saw how absurd this was, I slowly became more OK with the whole thing. In time, I learned to chill and let the social media issue be, keeping up my digital dinosaur life as best I could without the stress. That is where I drew the line. Platform or no platform, life is too short to care about tweeting.
This blog first appeared in Purple Clover.
Follow Mark Matousek on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markmatousek