Promisses No. 14: Don’t Be John Popper

Yesterday, through a fellow baseball writer friend my editor whatever a guy I know who is those things and is also into video games, I learned about this. It’s worth a read in a train-wreck sort of way, but basically: a managing editor of a gaming site and general Twitter funnyperson named Holly Green tweeted a joke at someone else that poked fun at John Popper, the lead singer of the band Blues Traveler (you’d remember and/or recognize “Run Around” and “Hook,” 1994). Frankly, the joke was probably in bad taste, not the kind of thing you should say about anyone, even when you’re clearly joking (as she very clearly was). I don’t know Ms. Green and have no way of knowing this, but if she’d thought the man himself was particularly likely to see it, I kind of doubt she’d have sent it.

Anyway, the man himself did see it, and he responded. And responded, and responded. That first link above tells that part of the story. It’s crazy. His tweets read like they were written by a nine-year-old, but it’s clear enough that he’s bullying her, borderline-stalking her, and threatening her with what would be an utterly frivolous defamation lawsuit. It just kept going. Many others got involved yesterday — mostly tweeting ridiculous things that mentioned his name (but didn’t tag his Twitter account, because there was clearly no need, he was going to see it anyway). Mine got me blocked by Popper, right after he tweeted this:

(As I went to get the link, I noticed that after we’d blocked each other he nonetheless found something else I said mentioning him and responded. That dude from Blues Traveler appears to have some time on his hands these days, is what I’m saying.)

(Also: it appears that all of his tweets have at least one winky face in them. It doesn’t make them any less creepy.)

Anyway, it’s a weird, weird thing, but the thing that sticks out most to me is the fact that John Popper, who is 46 years old and has won a Grammy and still tours and is on TV sometimes, searches his own name on Twitter and (at least sometimes) responds to whatever he finds there. This is a colossal waste of time for the most sedentary and unaccomplished of us. And John Popper, a guy you’ve heard of and whose mid-twenties singing voice you’re hearing in your head right this second, is out there doing it.

Sometimes, I’m really glad I have a stupidly common name. Not that anyone’s talking about me anyway, but even if they were and I wanted to, I wouldn’t be sure how to find it.

Googling oneself


The Internet, Sourcing Quotations, and Shouting Crazy Things on Street Corners

I love the internet. It will tell you anything.

It will tell you that Albert Einstein said this (or some version of it): “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

If you’re looking for some powerful, beautifully deep-voiced words about equal rights, the internet will give you this from Morgan Freeman: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”

It will point you to this encouraging gem from Marilyn Monroe: “To all the girls that think you’re fat because you’re not a size 0, you’re the beautiful one, it’s society who’s ugly.”

Or this lovely poem from Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Or this terrifying xenophobic diatribe by “comedian” Robin Williams.

Or this even more terrifying ornery-old-conservative-man screed called “I’m 83 and I’m Tired” by comedian Bill Cosby.

Or this well-ahead-of-its time thought (among many, many others) from Abraham Lincoln: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

It’s important to note here that I do love the internet, honestly, sincerely and deeply. It really will tell you just about anything, and much of it useful, if you know where to look. But the one thing the internet won’t tell you is the actual origin of any of those quotes above — not just who said it, but the book, speech, letter or so on in which it was said or written.

And that’s because none of those people actually said any of those things.

The “definition of insanity” quote made its first known appearance in a Narcotics Anonymous text in 1981, popularized two years later by author Rita Mae Brown. The little bit of common sense attributed to Morgan Freeman came from a parody Twitter account. The Marilyn quote has no known source, but she certainly didn’t say it; there was no size zero until after her death, and Marilyn (herself quite thin, actually) wasn’t really one for bucking trends, or for self-empowerment more generally. The Nin quote sure sounds like her and is kind of an amalgam of a lot of things Nin may have written or thought, but it was actually written for a 1979 college schedule. The Williams quote is from a much more likely-seeming source — a USENET posting that in a later reposting had a single real Williams “joke” appended to it. Of course Cosby didn’t write that nonsense whining about having to pay taxes (can you even imagine?) — that was a quite possibly insane retired Massachusetts state senator (Cosby is also nowhere near 83 years old). No one knows where the animal rights thing came from, but it’s not from Lincoln; I can find writings about the rights of animals dating back near Lincoln’s time, but the term “animal rights” as it’s used today doesn’t seem to really have been a thing before about 1975.

This is the kind of thing that will one day, inevitably, be the end of me. I see a quote that resonates with me (or angers me) and I immediately want to know the context. The identity of the speaker and the context within which it was said often mean as much as the quote itself. Did a surgeon say that, or one of our most accomplished female writers, or a madman in his anti-everything manifesto? Was he speaking to an eighth-grade religion class at an all-girls Catholic school, or at a USO stop in Afghanistan? Did she write it in the speech or thoughts of her novel’s clearly, fatally misapprehending protagonist, or in her own private journal? These things make a big difference. They can make the words mean drastically different things.

The internet (the faceless being that is made up of what must be all these hundreds of people who are apparently deciding to spend real time intentionally misattributing quotes) understands that who said what and when matter, too, but to the internet, that matters only because it gets more attention if it’s sexy. If it’s supposed to sound smart, it sounds better coming from Einstein. If it’d sound really cool in Morgan Freeman’s voice (and what wouldn’t?), then sure, go with that. If it’s about beauty or self-image, you want it to come from The One Classic Image of Beauty herself (or from this weird fictionalized, saintly version of Marilyn that the modern world has developed), and to be paired with one of her photos. If it’s deeply horrifying political nonsense, who better to hear it from than the smiling face of a normally frivolous funnyman? And so on.

It’s not just your friends on Facebook, either. You sometimes have to do real work to uncover the truth about these things. You can find these false quotes — even some of the most clearly false, silly-on-their-face ones — at what appear to be professional, legitimate places. Places like BrainyQuote (which, apparently, is neither) and Goodreads (a good site, for other things). It’s tempting to say “just take two seconds and Google this stuff, dammit,” and doing so would straighten you out very quickly on utter rot like the Williams and Cosby nutsorants, but even that can be awfully misleading on the more innocuous stuff. It’s just the entire internet that has or propagates this problem, or a big portion of the internet that’s often very hard to distinguish from the useful portion. It’s great, this internet thing is, but it’s badly broken too.

It’s like this: try to remember or imagine what life was like, in terms of the media to which one was exposed, in 1985. You had three television networks — not that they were producing consistently great stuff, but it was heavily filtered, lots of people taking lots of time deciding exactly what you should watch and how much of it. You had one newspaper, with a team of fact-checkers, or any of several similarly professionally checked and edited magazines. You could go to the movies or the theater. On the way to the movies or the theater or the newsstand, you might pass a street corner from which a certifiably insane gentleman might yell at you about Jesus through a megaphone or hand you a pamphlet about how the world is ending on Tuesday.

Now, though? Your whole world is that guy on the street corner. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, those guys won. It’s all just shouting stuff now.

You can read whatever you want written by anyone; there’s no filter to check facts or reasonableness or, hell, just to make sure that what you’re about to see isn’t just something that should never be seen under any circumstances by anyone. It’d be incredibly easy and helpful, whenever you’re passing along an interesting quote, to find room for an extra three or five words below the attribution that give you a hint of the actual spatial and temporal source of that quote; on the internet, there’s no one there to make sure you do that, and absolutely no motivation to do it. If something sounds funnier coming from Betty White than the no-name comic who actually said it, then Betty White means more pageviews or shares or retweets, and so suddenly it’s Betty White’s quote. If something is so completely batshit crazy that people will only pay attention to it if you can dupe some poor gullible souls into believing somehow that Bill Cosby said it, than by God, that’s who said it.

The internet is a wonderful place, and for largely those reasons — the lack of filter and accountability and all-around final-frontier nature of it are what makes it all worthwhile and so endlessly fascinating. The world is better, lots better, than it was in 1985.

But, come on. Can’t we get some quotes with proper attribution, every now and then? Or a site (like Snopes but less focused on things that kind of, you know, matter) devoted entirely to sourcing or debunking widely-shared quotes? Do I have to be the one to do this? Because I will do it. And I will spend all my time on it, and yet the internet will slog on unabated, happily pretending that MLK disapproves of our celebrating getting Osama Bin Laden. And it will be the end of me.

Twitter for Writers (a Sort-of-Outsider’s Perspective) and Promisses No. 3: What to Do with Your Body Parts

Twitter_Logo_by_MegachixSo I started this blog as a way to get thoughts out of my head that weren’t strictly about baseball. It’s been slow going, largely because I have this whole life and everything, but I’m determined to get into it eventually.

The great thing, though, is that I have a very good friend who was already pretty well entrenched in this community of writers, which has allowed me to quickly meet some great folks. I look forward to reading Emmie Mears and Amber West‘s and Jenny Hansen‘s blogs as often as they’re updated, to name a few, and they’re each great people to interact with on Facebook and Twitter besides.

But the referenced great friend (whose name has been mentioned altogether too often around here as it is–not this time, dammit!) put up a post yesterday that got me thinking. The post itself is a collection of tips for authors on managing their social media lives along with their work and the like.

The post is very good. What it got me thinking about was certain trends I’d noticed in how people within that circle — we’ll call them “indie authors” (or “IAs”), which I think is the closest thing to an identifying characteristic they have — tend to use Twitter.

The typical IA’s Twitter experience appears to me to be like so (this doesn’t apply to any of the wonderful people named or not-quite-named above, and certainly isn’t true of everyone else by any stretch): he or she has something between 600 and 6,000 followers, and follows almost exactly that many. The vast, vast majority of IA’s tweets are scheduled auto-tweets and append a link to one of three categories of things: (1) to IA’s own most recent blog post; (2) to IA’s book; or (3) to the blog posts or books of people IA knows and is hoping will return the favor. The content of those tweets is the title of the book or article, a related hashtag or two, and the link — there’s nothing to suggest why IA recommends that you click on that particular link (or even that it’s actually recommended, when you think about it) — title, link, maybe hashtags, boom.  And most of the rest of IA’s tweets are curt thank-yous sent out to the other IAs who have recently promoted IA’s blog or book.

This is really weird to me. My 3.5 years of tweeting (I’m here) has mostly been in the tiny and insular world of baseball geeks, where we’re (those of us who write, which is most of us) pretty interested in promoting ourselves too. And there are probably some people who act more or less as the IA described above, but there’s a real conversation there, too, and one feels like these are real people typing things, not scheduled advertisements.

A few disclaimers. First, self-promotion (for authors, and for at least half or so of all other people on Twitter) is a pretty important thing, and promoting others can be a pretty important part of that; I’m not out to knock any of that. And I know a lot of IAs have thought a lot about their social media strategies and whatnot, and I’m sure there are things they’re doing that are very effective.

Which leads into the second disclaimer: I’m not actually that good at Twitter, and I’d never try to tell you there’s a right or wrong way to use it. I haven’t built up a huge number of followers, really. Most people who follow me are baseball fans, and yet I don’t actually tweet about baseball that often, which can’t be advisable. I sometimes get in silly angry fights on Twitter, which are probably literally the most useless things two or more humans can possibly do with themselves.

So I’m not an expert. I don’t think there’s a right way to do it, and if there is one, I certainly don’t know or abide by it. (If that’s what you’re interested in, Chuck Wendig, who is better at it than I am, wrote what I think is a really brilliant list of things to know.)

But I sure do have a lot of fun on Twitter, most of the time. And to my eyes, the typical IA’s way of doing things just doesn’t seem any fun or particularly effective. My sense is that most writers don’t really want to be on Twitter, but look at it as a thing they have to do. And it shows.

So with that in mind, and without wanting to tell anybody the right way do anything, here are some things I think are kind of screwy about the IA tweeting paradigm:

  1. You’re shouting into the void. You follow everyone who follows you, and (for the most part) only those who will follow you back. That means you’re all of you out for the same one thing: exposure. You tend to post much more than you read. So what are the odds that any of the people you follow, who are presumably doing the same things for the same reasons, are reading what you say?
  2. Relatedly: if you follow everyone, you’re following no one. It feels like the nice thing to do, following anyone who follows you, and the surest way to collect a respectable-looking number of followers. And there might be some people who can follow 4000 and still kind of keep up with some of them. I just can’t get my head around it. I’m currently following close to 600, and that’s just about my limit. I try to follow most people who have interesting things to say and seem interested in what I have to say (but certainly haven’t succeeded in getting them all), aiming for a sizable community without overcrowding the field.
    If I get a new follower with like 6000 followers who is also following about 6000, that’s almost a bit of a letdown, because it’s so unlikely that that person will ever see anything I have to say, it’s hard to imagine what the point is. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t appreciate those people, just that I regret not being able to interact with them. And I don’t mean to say that one’s follower/followee ratio is important; I do think having a number of “followees” that you can plausibly, y’know, follow probably is.
  3. No one reads links unless you tell them why they should. That’s not literally true, of course. But linking your blog post with the title alone, unless it’s a great title, isn’t likely to do a ton for you, and linking others’ blog posts (and them linking yours) in a similarly impersonal way does even less. All else equal, I’d much rather have five people who have really read my stuff promoting it and telling people why the person thinks they should read it than have twenty people post a “[Title] [link] by @Bill_TPA [hashtags!]” type of tweet. That reads like spam to me, especially if you’re doing loads of them a day.
  4. Relatedly: personality is a good thing. Whatever else it might be for, finding people you like and who like to talk about things you like to talk about, and then actually talking to them, is probably the greatest, coolest thing anyone can do with Twitter. Drawing followers to you that really enjoy you — the personality you show rather than your potential as a marketing or sales tool for them — can only help them be more likely or engaging readers, customers, promoters and so forth.
  5. The utility of hashtags is pretty limited. They seem like a great idea, # signs in front of the important words to allow people who are interested in those words to go searching and find you. They can be very useful; most pertinent to the IA group, it seems that Kristen Lamb has had quite a lot of success starting conversations with her #MyWANA thing (though it’s sometimes overrun by opportunistic self-serving links, which is what tends to happen, and is part of why the next sentence is true). That’s an exception to the rule, and the rule is that hashtags kind of suck.
    Relatively few people will click on or run searches for, say, “#flowers” or “#mystery” or “#romance,” and most of the people who do probably aren’t going to be looking for tweets like yours. Those terms can all mean many different things in different contexts, so your hypothetical hashtag surfer would have to sort through a lot of crap to get to the specific type of item she’s looking for (which probably isn’t whatever your tweet was about anyway). Twitter isn’t a great place to fish for strangers who are looking for certain terms — and they can always search for those terms without the #, regardless. It seems to me that it’s much more effective to develop an audience that knows you, likes you and is eager to introduce you to an even wider audience…and that #peppering each #tweet with #jarring #hashtags is probably not likely to #encourage #that #kind #of #devotion among them. #hashtags

That’s it, those are my thoughts. I don’t know anything about anything, but I think a few things.

This is already too long (maybe some established IA can write a post on blogging for outsiders with a “Don’t write such dense rambling nonsense!” item), but I’ll leave you with my weekly Promisses image, which has no particular deep thought behind it this week but is really only a slightly creepy-old-uncle-ier version of the real thing:

Promisses No. 3