When I hear the word “Mystique” I think of the gorgeous villain popularized by Rebecca Romjin in the X-Men movies. But I’m kind of geeky that way, especially when it comes to cool stuff like sexy, blue-skinned, shapeshifting mercenaries who pack heavy weapons overlapping into my thoughts about the real world.
Anyway, writer Jason Pinter wrote a piece for The Huffington Post called “Does Social Networking Kill the Author Mystique?” about the mystique of the writer (though you could substitute any kind of artist — painter, musician, etc.) and whether or not this “mystery” suffers by interacting with fans via social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. It’s an interesting read, and worth your time if you care about that sort of thing. If you don’t, then I guarantee this post will mean even less than usual to you. I will try and keep it peppered with fetching pictures of Mystique, though.
Pinter’s question is a good one. I read a quote from someone somewhere saying “we read because ultimately we want to know the author,” and I think there is some truth to that. At least for me there is. I enjoy when people I admire maintain ties to the real world and their fans. If a writer chooses not to, that’s fine with me too. It’s only when they make a half-ass attempt that irks me; when they turn the social media thing into just another means to advertise themselves, or their interaction with the medium is only one direction. I’m talking primarily of Twitter, which I use the most, and Facebook to a lesser extent. Blogs as well, which I’m a big fan of. And it depends on the person and my interaction. If I am signed up for a newsletter — like Naomi Klein, for example, a writer I have huge admiration for — then I don’t really expect more than just updates about books, articles, activities, etc. And in some cases I’m fine with Twitter and/or Facebook updates that they are using for the same purpose, particularly if it is clearly stated as such.
Pinter mentions a couple writers I am familiar with, John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow. Both have really enhanced their writing careers from a foundation built on blogging. Both have thousands of fans and followers, and both maintain active blogs where they not only post, but follow up with discussions in the comments fields. I’m more familiar with Scalzi than Doctorow, but I follow them both for one reason: they interact. In Scalzi’s case, I’ve even sent a couple personal messages to him which he has responded to (in case you’re wondering, he assured me he is not related to Mike Scalzi, the main man behind the greatest traditional heavy metal band you’ve never heard of, unless you are a truly enlightened one, the mighty Slough Feg). In Doctorow’s case, a couple times he has posted Twitter updates that initiated response, and followed up with my responses to them. Another example is comics writer Jimmy Palmiotti. He keeps a blog, though of a smaller scale than Scalzi or Doctorow, and also does Twitter a bit. He’s also a guy who has acknowledged my responses, and those of others, and we’ve exchanged private emails as well. I don’t expect this, but I appreciate it. I enjoy a better sense of “knowing” the people who create the art I admire. I think it’s a risk creators take — especially when it comes to discussions of politics or religion — but I appreciate that they do so.
I like to keep the number of people I follow pretty tightly managed. There have been a lot of folks who use it, and post fairly frequently, that I like — but ultimately dropped. Why? Because they were either only using it as advertisement for their work, which I don’t mind but are generally aware of what is going on in other mediums, or they just don’t respond to responses. That’s certainly their prerogative, but as a fan and a person with my own time constraints I’m not interested in “social” media that isn’t all that social. If it’s one directional, it’s little more than spam — particularly if they sought you my attention with some kind of “follow me!” message — and in this case it’s quite easy to turn it off just by clicking the “Unfollow” button. I understand that it’s all but impossible to follow up all the time, but I think if you are opening yourself to it, particularly if you don’t include a disclaimer along the lines of “don’t necessarily expect a response, but I will when I can,” then it’s a little disingenous not to interact. But that’s just me and my preferences for how I choose to use this medium, though I imagine there are others that feel the same way.
Of course I throw that all away in the case of people with huge followings that probably get scores if not hundreds of responses to every post. Then I follow just if they are interesting. Roger Ebert? His posts are great and often make me laugh. Neil Gaiman? Too much about his relationship with his girlfriend, whose music I can’t abide, so I dropped him. I’ll still happily read his works, though.
One thing Twitter reminds me of is the underground music forums I used to frequent (and still do on occasion). It is a great way to learn about and interact with artists flying under the radar of mainstream attention. I met a lot of good people in the music world doing that, and I feel like I am doing the same with other types of artists via Twitter. There is an incredible number of gifted creators out there putting out books and artwork that I would have never heard of before, and many of them are folks I’ve since interacted with via Twitter and Facebook. That is when it works best, at least for my uses. I’d guess 80% of my use of this medium is to interact with like-minded artists and learn about things that are just flatout awesome, and the remaining 20% is to keep in contact with friends and family, as well as political stuff too. If this all sounds like a lot to keep up with, it can be, believe me! Which is why I’m pretty particular about what I choose to follow.
As for Jason Pinter, I used to follow him but dropped him before this article came out. Why? He was a guy posing questions via his Twitter feed that I answered, but never got responses. As someone I’m not familiar with and haven’t read, I decided my time was better spent keeping up with those folks who were initiating social interaction, and then actually following through with it. After all, there are more books out there than I can possibly read — I like best the ones that I feel I have some connection to. The last three or four books I’ve bought have either been recommended to me by someone I communicate with via Twitter, or were actually written by one of them. I learned about Pinter via a recommendation, in fact, and I may ultimately read his books. But at this point I don’t have the burning desire to that I would if I had a more seemingly personal connection.
Now as far as the “mystique” of these people are concerned, I’d be lying if I said I don’t get nervous when I meet people I have admired for some time. When I met Naomi Klein at an event in Chicago I was pretty tongue-tied. When I interviewed Ace Frehley I was a nervous wreck. I think if I met Dan Simmons I’d feel awkward because I admire his work and I know very little about him. John Scalzi, though? I doubt it. I feel like I kind of “know” the guy already, and what he’s about. That knowing does nothing to spoil my image of him as a writer, though. Just the opposite, in fact. And there are a number of authors I’ve met online that I hope to meet one day, and hope they all sell billions of books. That would be pretty awesome.