My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, September 21, 2020

One Million Likes [Insight, Advice, Warnings, and Gratitude]

Note: I was just about reaching for the "Post" button on Friday when the news about Justice Ginsberg hit, and it just seemed like terrible timing. So, with apologies to anyone who was waiting for a Friday post, I decided to postpone it across the weekend, go ahead and post it on Monday even though I usually take Mondays off. I was able to get a lot of writing done this weekend, but as often happens during "interesting times," they were in biter-sized chunks on my Facebook page and may not turn up here until a compilation post from the end of September.

Before the MOST recent cascading waves of bad news about computers, data loss, fires, heat, and smoke-filled air (to say nothing of the during news of pandemics, more fire and smoke, fascism, murder hornets, and meth gators) and JFC the news from Friday about Justice Ginsburg, there was some really great news, and I want to share the good part before it gets obscured any further in the mists of time, and Galadriel starts talking like a turbostoner about how things were forgotten that should never have been.

Over on Facebook in the early hours of September 3rd, I hit 1,000,000 likes. Just like that: "Achievement Unlocked: Minor Internet Fame." It was a huge milestone, and I celebrated by buying myself a bunch of books, games, and a (very rare since Covid) treat of some decent take out. 

I'll spare you the details about how my digestive system is no longer acclimated to that kind of food, and simply say that I will probably celebrate with some quinoa and kale chips next time. Or bring some....you know I promised to spare you the details. 

Still, it also had a surreal banal quality. I know we like our big, round numbers, so even though 1,000,000 hasn't offered up too many logistical differences with 968,212, it's always going to feel like a milestone. And yet, it feels unreal in a way. Like watching someone else reach a goal.

I thought I would be happier or swing on a chandelier or speed down the road and have to change the channel until I found an appropriately "Fuck Yeah!" song for my mood like I was Jerry Maguire. 

But it kind of felt like Thursday. (Which kind of feels like every other day with the shelter-in-place Groundhog's day effect of the pandemic.)

In September of 2018, Facebook throttled their pages even harder than they had been before. They guard the algorithm carefully, so it's impossible to know exactly what they did, but my page growth, post engagement, and success of blog links here to WAW all plummeted by about 90% across the board. (And they were already only reliably at less than 1%.) Suddenly, everything was crawling along at 1/10 of what it had been. Facebook told everyone it was so they could see more of their friends and family but that was the customer outreach propaganda division saying it. These were pages people had CLICKED to see, and Facebook was showing them less. The REAL reason was so that, behind the scenes, they could tell page administrators (like me) they could get their numbers back if they paid Facebook for advertising. Mark Zuckerberg had apparently completed his transformation into the next Antichrist incarnation and felt it was time to unleash the next wave of evil on an unsuspecting world. And while that might be a reasonable approach to multi-billion dollar conglomerates who are using social media to basically run free commercials, they had no way to tier the throttling. Smaller pages (like for the local cupcake store) were all but shut down (and abandoned), and pages like mine that generate TONS of non-self-promoting content got treated basically like Nike or McDonald's. 

"That's a nice reach you got there. Be a shame if something........happened to it." 

-Zuck "The Reducer" Erberg. 

Watching it coming for weeks (and even months) at a predictable--but glacial compared to two years ago--pace meant it wasn't a surprise or anything. I knew it was going to be that day by three or four days before, I went to bed knowing I would tick over in the night, I woke up the next morning and saw that I'd made it. It almost felt strangely perfunctory. My brain made the good chemicals for thirty seconds. I did a fist pump. I made plans for where I would grab take out from to celebrate (alone because of Covid). And then it was time to go downstairs and get to work. And it was a day like most any other. 

But this is Writing About Writing so let's unpack this moment a little as a writer, pull back the curtain, look under the hood, mix the metaphors and show you that it's not pixie dust and unicorn jizz that make a working writer, but it's actually a lot of work, a little bit of intuition, and no small amount of luck.

How did I do it?

Getting to a million in eight years is less possible than it was before because of the aforementioned algorithmic changes. So the first thing is just to shake a fist at the sky, shout "Damn you, Zuckerberg!," and understand that the crapitalistic imperative to vacuum ever more cash out of this social media thing will be preventing your reach. I don't know how long it would take these days, but based on how quickly I got to one thousand, ten thousand, 100k, reached the first 875k, and then how long it took me to get the last 125k, I'd say it's going to take you at least two to three times as long. Which I'm sorry to say is around 20 years. Lord help us if we haven't moved on to a new platform by then. 

I spent some money back when I had much more discretionary income, but I will warn you that spending money on Facebook advertising will create a feedback loop that probably isn't what you want. You will get better numbers for the ONE post or the time you're promoting the page, and then they will dip down to WORSE THAN BEFORE. There's this whole theory about WHY--the people you "gain" with paid advertisements are not authentic fans and will not engage subsequent posts so they become a "waste" of your infinitesimally small organic visibility. This forces you to spend MORE money to be seen by the same amount the next time. And so it goes.

What I observed early on was, if I only posted one or two things a day, growth would only happen on geological time. (David Attenborough: "Humans are simply incapable of understanding how long it takes a page to get a thousand likes at two posts a day. If every century were a second, it would STILL be a thousand years in this primordial soup of not-very-entertaining pages.")  But even worse was posting too many things at once. FB would show fewer and fewer people and the followers would get annoyed seeing your name come up in their feed over and over again. No matter HOW good a post was (how funny, how original, how unlike your last post), and no matter how much they wanted EXACTLY what you were providing, if they saw your name over and over again, it would be like seeing the same commercial on Hulu for every break or hearing the same song on the jukebox four times in a row. They would get annoyed and unfollow. 

And the magical number when both human and FB algorithm appeared to stop being annoyed seemed to be ROUGHLY every hour. 

So that's how I did it. 

I tried to put something up about every hour. Every. Single. Hour. Unless I was asleep or just could NOT. I even made sure I had some memes saved to my phone when I went to Disneyland or Gilroy Gardens for the day. I would excuse myself during dates for just a moment like one of those assholes in the movies. ("Hang a tick, babe, would you? Gotta check my portfolio. Chaz....talk to me!") I would stick something up before and after I watched a movie in the theater. 

I was relentless. 

There's no trick. I don't know "ten ways to hack the algorithm." I didn't find the recipe for the special sauce. I just spent hours (aggregate) every week making sure I was on some device or computer roughly every single hour (or if I was really planning ahead, scheduled one) to drop something that kind of had something to do with writing a little. I've since eased off the throttle a little (and I talk about why below), but that's how I got HERE. 

I'm hardly writing my own ticket.

A lot of people seem confused that minor Internet fame is somehow the same as on-camera type fame. (It's not.) Or they think that a million likes on FB means I make a lot of money. (I don't.) Or that I can in some way write my own ticket. (I can't.) The truth is fame (even at the relatively low levels of a Facebook admin of a "big" page) doesn't really look like most people imagine. I get ghosted on OKCupid (a lot). I'm lonely on Friday nights. I need to work a few hours a week at a second job to afford Bay Area prices. 

A million likes on Facebook might feel a little empty because it didn't really come with anything. I know that every one of those million is a real human being, but with everything being online, it's like having 50 Million Bells in Animal Crossing. It's fucking cool, and the people with 300 bells think it's unbelievable, but my life hasn't actually changed much, and what has changed has done so very slowly and gradually OVER those eight years so I usually don't even notice the good stuff. (Kinda hard to not notice the uptick in online harassment.

Certainly, I have some Patrons only because my FB reach got to their eyeballs and they found me worth supporting, and some folks even say they're mostly supporting the page and don't really read my blog. So in some ways I must give the devil its due. It's just not the life of glitz, glamour, and wealth here at one million. Perhaps at TEN million, things will look a little more like so many assume it does now.

I would actually warn people against reach exceeding content.

If I could somehow go back and time to do it ALL again (assuming I could only give myself philosophical advice and not warn myself of more logistical things like, "Look, FB is actually going to become SUPER evil right around 2016 and all the kids are on Tumblr anyway"), what I would tell myself is that maintaining a delicate balance between reach and content is as important one way as the other.

A lot of writers have the problem that they don't have a platform. They write perfectly well and then they don't or won't self-promote. And even if they're still stuck in the last-generation model of traditional publishing, they aren't spending enough time having release parties, going to readings, or pounding the pavement to put their books on consignment in bookstores. (Usually because they have this mythical idea that good writing will sell itself and a true artiste never gets dirt under their fingernails. All bullshit, BTW.) So they have this really good ability, multiple novels, dozens or hundreds of short stories, often PUBLISHED work--occasionally even in prestigious venues--and no one knows about them.

I have the opposite problem. 

I have a blog, and it is quite a monument, but I'm still working on my first book. It is likely to get a lot of attention when it's finally done, but given the pandemic and my current life circumstances, that could be years. In the meantime I have this absurdly huge platform that is mostly just quietly promoting a couple of blog links a day. My "reach" FAR exceeds my content. I know when I'm writing more and HAVE WRITTEN more, I'm going to be grateful for all the interrupted dates and Disneyland trips, but right now I sort of I feel like I'm killing mosquitoes with a bazooka. I have more likes than many NYT bestsellers, and there are days when that feels simply ridiculous to me. I'm a small-time writer with a huge platform that is a big time commitment just to maintain.

That means I more time moderating comments than I do writing fiction by a factor of ten. I won't just let the comments descend into the wild west and hateful bullshit because if you invite wolves and sheep to sit at the table, you end up only with wolves. Plus, people are focused on my every move so that I can't post something that is mostly true most of the time for most writers without some jackhole getting RIGHT up in my face about it because I have had the audacity to post something that does not apply exactly to them. Or if I nuance something like NaNoWriMo or getting an MFA or don't let people cast aspersions all over fanfiction. And don't even get me started about how I can't post a point about how linguistics affects social equality without having to babysit the responses from SQuiDs all day long. 

If there's an air/fuel mixture to self-promotion....   One where most writers have too much ability but not enough reach to show those abilities off..... One where finding new readers is good, but it's still mostly about your work.... 

I went too far the other way. 

So what I would tell past me is to relax a little. Take more days off from social media. Just ENJOY the damned day at Disneyland. Post every two hours instead of every one. It's not going to matter if you have half a million likes instead of a million if you still have just as many READERS of the blog. (Hopefully because you're cranking out just as much or more quality content.)

But I did it this way. Live and learn. And now that I'm here, I wouldn't give it up for the world. I understand the pervading love that artists and entertainers have for those who follow their work. 

Lastly, thank you.

I know not all of you are coming from Facebook, but there are other milestones at least as arbitrary and you ARE the reason for those. Plus most of you are (coming from Facebook, that is), and I couldn't have done it without you. I mean I literally couldn't have done it without each and every one of you. 

So inasmuch as this has been a time of quiet reflection and perhaps the acknowledgement of a few zigs where I should have zagged, it is still a breathtaking moment and a huge milestone and thank you all so, so very much. 

Reminder the second: I'm currently working on a clunky older computer made for gaming (not writing) while my new Mac Air is on order. I will keep working, but it's a bit like pulling toffee. Nothing QUITE works as well and every step takes extra time. So please be extra patient with me as I navigate that in addition to all the pandemic/fire season/quarantine/rising fascism stuff. And if you like what I'm doing and have always wanted to donate, helping me offset the costs of buying a new computer is a great time to do so.  My Paypal:  paypal.me/WritingAboutWriting  Of course, if you really want to help, become a patron at a level you can handle monthly, because that is money I can factor into my budgets. 

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