Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Media Empire Strikes Back

Over the last couple of months, I’ve started a blog, joined Facebook, and even joined Twitter. There’s a method to my madness, I think.

I started with LinkedIn, because a previous boss used the “social networking for professionals” service to reach out to me and various other people in his network. That one was easy enough to justify (sort of like how pot is said to be a gateway to harder drugs, I suppose), because it would theoretically help me build a network of business contacts to whom I could turn when I needed professional services, business referrals, help with job-hunting, or all manner of other legitimate business exercises. In reality, LinkedIn works a lot like my email’s address book – it collects names of people I used to work with but with whom I rarely if ever interact anymore. Not because I don’t want to, just because I… well… don’t. But now, suddenly, I was a part of my first social networking site, and it didn’t really hurt at all. There’s even that fun little game you can play where you rack up more and more contacts and secretly compare the size of your contact list against that of others you encounter. Now don’t try to tell me I’m the only one who does that!

I stuck with LinkedIn exclusively for a couple of years. But when I decided I wanted to write, I suddenly felt adrift. As a business executive and Information Technology manager, I had a pretty decent network plus very strong personal experience. I knew both “how stuff worked” and I knew people I could work with. For the publishing industry, I basically know what I learned writing courses for small colleges and reviews for a couple of medium-sized magazines, neither of which bore much relevance to publishing fiction. I needed to build an entirely new network and I needed to learn the industry from scratch.

As something of a traditionalist, I started at the library with Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which was good, but not nearly enough.

Fortunately, my one other foray into online communities was through a forum I’d joined around six years ago and where I’m something of a “regular.” From there I got several more suggestions for books on the topic of writing, including one by Sci-fi novelist and ardent blogger John Scalzi. I liked King and Scalzi’s books in part because they took a similar approach to writing. I also liked them because they seemed to validate that my skillset and experiences were well-suited to being a writer. Scalzi, though, puts particular emphasis on the web, in part because he’s been able to make quite a career in part from the growth of the Internet over the last ten to fifteen years. While both King and Scalzi agreed that a writer needs to write on a daily basis, Scalzi took it a step further – he strongly recommended that a writer have a blog. Ok, thought I, I’m game. Let’s do this.

Virtual Vellum even got its name based on something I read in Scalzi’s book. He’s got a sometimes biting sense of humor and he enjoys pummeling egotistical writers. At one point he was mocking the notion that a writer’s work was so fine that it deserved only to be imprinted on “the finest vellum ever pounded out of a sheep.” I thought that was uproariously funny and when I needed to name my blog, the word vellum (which is a type of writing material used to make books and scrolls in the days before paper was commonplace) was skill echoing in my head. The rest, as they so often say, is history.

From Scalzi’s book to his blog, I started to hop from one link to another around the web, in search of places that were relevant to my new direction. As I did so, I noticed that a LOT of people were on Facebook and Myspace – professional people in the publishing industry, not just college kids posting pictures of their debauchery. If the goal was to become part of this online community of writers and editors and publishers, then it made sense to hang out my shingle there, as well. If you’re interested (and I’m not implying you should be at this point), my facebook page is Though it seems as though also points to me, it just wouldn’t let me cement that as my username so I dunno. In a later blog entry I’ll rant about aspects of Facebook that irritate me. I may also rant about people who have the audacity to have the same name as me, but that’s not, strictly speaking, Facebook’s fault.

Lastly, Twitter always struck me as supremely frivolous and narcissistic. I mean, what can you really say in 140 words beyond the electronic equivalent of waving your hands and shouting “Hey! Look at me! I’m flamboyantly interesting!!”? As far as I can tell, not much, frankly. But the only way to find out whether I was missing anything was to sign up for a Twitter account so I could read what was being twittered. Or twatted. Or whatever.

But here’s the thing that I’ve come to accept – social networking will certainly evolve and change, but it’s not going to diminish. Unless you’re a Marine, but even that’s billed as a temporary thing.

Here’s what I think is coming for social networking: as media becomes more adaptive, immediate, and flexible, communities (sometimes spontaneous communities assembled strictly for the purpose of enjoying some particular entertainment program) will electronically access, absorb, critique and share content with each other. It’s like having an interconnected, instantaneous Neilson audience registering their approval (or lack thereof) of a show and recommending it to other interested parties, who also absorb the entertainment, review it, and pass it along. All possibly within minutes or hours. If, for instance, it’s not necessary to tune in to see a TV show at precisely 8:00 PM on Tuesday… if that show is available online and can be viewed on demand… then a given episode might kick around for days or weeks, riding a tide of social networking frenzy until the top several tiers of the “in crowd” have seen it and moved on. FLASH – you’re hot. FLASH – you’re history. FLASH – you’re hot again. It’s up to the media producers to find ways to stay fresh and exciting enough to engender continuing excitement amongst the online community.

And this wouldn’t just be for TV, it would be for music, books, movies, products – anything that can be discussed and recommended online. This is happening now, of course, but I think in the future it will be more “built in” to the system. Entertainment providers are beginning to seek out community support and excitement in places like the San Diego Comic Con, where a preview of District 9 was twittered worldwide within minutes, engendering a tidal wave of excitement for a movie that had been flying pretty much under the radar until that point. In the future, studios, advertisers, and networks will get more savvy at attempting to bend this medium to their will, while the community participants react – either by embracing their role or working to change it. Either way, if I’m going to be working in this industry, I need to be a part of it.

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