"Write What?" addendum #3: social networking

(Read addendum #1 and addendum #2 first, if you're curious about how this series of posts got started.)

Another big question that was raised at "Write What" was: What about social networking? That's important too, right?

To which I gave a fairly brief reply because it's such a broad topic and one with which people in the audience would've had varying levels of experience, and I didn't want the discussion to get bogged down in trying to define Twitter or social media. It is a very worthwhile topic, though, so I thought I'd put together a post on my own experience. (It turned out to be a very long post; consider yourself forewarned.)

The most important thing I need to state at the outset is: I never started using "social networking" with the specific intention of professional networking or promoting myself publicly. I've been mucking about with personal websites in raw HTML since 1995, because the Internet was new and cool. I started blogging in 2001 (using HTML) because it was a way to keep in touch with friends, primarily those outside Singapore. (I've now discovered, upon rereading my very first entry, that I started "because I know loads of people who do and I feel I ought to return them the favo[u]r." How reciprocal of me.)

I joined Facebook in 2007 because a number of friends were bugging me about it. I'd joined Twitter earlier, but it was only after I got an iPhone last year, combined with some evangelisation encouragement from sangsara, that I started tweeting actively (and mostly not about anything that's explicitly work-related). The only social networking tool that I've deliberately joined for work's sake is LinkedIn, where I've had a job nibble or two, but I get the feeling that it's more useful for corporate types in North America than freelancer types in Southeast Asia.

Oh, and I'm on Flickr but that's just to show and tell my images to friends.

Right now, Twitter is my primary public conduit, while on Facebook I may have similar or very different conversations with people whom I already know. Blogging is for longer-form writing like this post. I'm still not sure what LinkedIn is really for, so my profile there is merely auto-updated with my Twitter feed.

Oh, and I do have an old-fashioned personal website, where this blog is hosted, with my real name and everything. It deliberately shares a visual identity with my business cards, has a profile page so that you can get a snapshot of me without having to plough through my old blog entries, and sets apart my paid writing work from my blog.

Before I offer some thoughts on each social networking tool, I have one final disclaimer: this mixed-bag approach works for me, but it's certainly not a one-size-fits-all recipe for surefire freelance writing success. Mix it up however you will, and see what suits you. I'm sure it'll change for me in future too, in direct response to the availability (and affordability) of new technology, how much free time I have and what job(s) I'm doing.

To wit, I'm going to reflect a little on:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Blogging
And skip LinkedIn because I think I've already said everything I want to say about it above.


My Twitter experience has been very similar to David Pogue's. As he wrote in the New York Times in February 2009:
I’d been avoiding it, because it sounded like yet another one of those trendy Internet time drains. E-mail, blogs, chat, RSS, Facebook. ... Who has time to tune in to yet another stream of Internet chatter?
His piece was a good primer on Twitter, headlined "Twitter? It’s What You Make It", and once you've played around and done exactly that, you'll have a fairly versatile communications tool at your fingertips. For me, it's become part microblog, part instant-messaging tool with friends (er ... the kind who, like me, have Twitter @ replies and direct messages pushed immediately to their smartphones), part water cooler or tearoom (both links via Mridu Khullar Relph), part cocktail party, part live news feed, part zeitgeist meter, part wiretap on smart and way famous people whom I would otherwise never hear directly from, and, if nothing else, a time-filler. I use it primarily on my phone and even on a busy day --- or, conversely, on an idle day when I don't want to open my laptop --- it gives me a loose connection to important news and ideas from sources that I trust/love/respect.

(I like ideas. Very, very much.)

Above all, though, let's not forget that, as I tweeted last week (yes, I'm aware of the irony of that)(no, I'm not parodying Twitter or myself)(I think):
Twitter is performative (Facebook even more so, IMO): I Tweet, Therefore I Am by @peggyorenstein http://nyti.ms/ayiBkH /via @textually [permalink: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01wwln-lede-t.html]
Twitter is and isn't the real you, all at the same time. (When I've completed my Masters in Cultural Studies next year, I'm sure I'll be able to load that statement up with a lot more theory.) Hence its usefulness in self-promotion and marketing, up to a point. If you are bound and determined to use it for marketing, come hell or high water, um ... you'll have to go somewhere else.

On a lighter note, lest you think all this talk is far too serious, I solidly encourage you to read Dan Kennedy's "Truly Groundbreaking Marketing Research: Understanding Twitter" at McSweeney's (31 March 2009) and the Guardian's directive last April Fools', "Twitter switch for Guardian, after 188 years of ink".

After all that, it could be that YMMV and you're not sure that Twitter is for you. Which is fine. See for instance Lee Woodruff's "Let's Stop the Twitter Madness", which was published at The Daily Beast not long after the Pogue piece that I started this section with. A less #getoffmylawn reaction is Farhad Manjoo's "Do I Really Have To Join Twitter?", published at Slate last year.


I use Facebook's status update feature like Twitter, except there are no complete strangers chiming in. It's great for keeping in touch with friends and associates who otherwise only use the Internet for email. I sometimes also get a kick out of seeing who our mutual Facebook friends are.

That said, I don't spend time trawling through Facebook friends' lists of their Facebook friends (still with me?) to mine those lists for new friends. It's understandable if you've just joined Facebook and you're playing catch-up with all your contacts who are already on it. But doing that to randomly add complete strangers or people you've barely exchanged five words with, strikes me as excessive and verging on socially inappropriate.

As Lisa Cullen points out, there are also plenty of ways that Facebook users can be annoying. Another cautionary tale: Lamebook.

Last thing: my friend otterman pointed out at his talk at the National Library Board meetup last week that while Facebook is user-friendly and successful at drawing the non-geeks, it doesn't make it easy to search archives of your own previous shared links or other content. It's even more of a nightmare if you try to search your friends' feed ("I know someone shared that nifty article about XXX but who was it ...?"). If you like saving and referring back to what you write, especially in a public or semi-public space, then having your own blog and Twitter archives (the latter can be generated using BackupMyTweets or a similar service) may be a better way to go.


Because if you enjoy writing, 140 characters isn't enough.

Because it helped me to find my writing voice over the years, without which I'm not sure I would've been psychologically prepared to take the plunge into freelance writing some years ago.

Because it still gives me a public space where I can write for myself, not to a brief or because I'm paid to.

See also freelance writer P.S. Jones's "Why I Write This Blog".

(Ironic, isn't it, that most of this blog post is about Twitter, while most of the lines about blogging could fit in a tweet?)

Questions/comments/suggestions on social networking for freelance writers? Leave them in the comments.

I have one more post in me about freelance writing, this time not based on a question from the audience but on something I stumbled across while preparing for last Friday's talk. I'll get to that later this week, then this series will be a wrap.

Edited to add (4 August 2010):
For even more reading, see the unfortunately headlined "The tweet elite" (via @neilhimself) at BBC News, in which Neil Gaiman and Laura Kidd are interviewed on their experiences with Twitter. You don't have to be a celebrity to appreciate the hows and whys of their respective approaches.

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At 8/03/2010 1:31 pm , Blogger Sivasothi said...

So fun to read! Nice that you still blog, phew!

At 8/03/2010 10:42 pm , Blogger Tym said...

Thanks, Siva! And yes, must keep blogging. Writer mah. ;)


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