Friday, November 5, 2010

The Loquacious Popularity Contest

Shakespeare would have hated Twitter. And not only because all modern communication forces us to condense whatever we’re saying into easily digested, tiny nuggets of scan-friendly information. Not only because our “Glance-and-Click culture” (to use Seth Godin’s genius term for it) has damaged our ability to engage with prose, to have the patience it takes to let something beautiful and transformative emerge from the storyteller. But also because writing today is as much a popularity contest as it is a display of insightful observation and a natural way with words.

Take my friend Simon. He writes very, very well. He’s published all over the place. And a good deal of his time is spent manning social media channels, chipping in with his opinion, responding to comments. He is also a very amiable person offline, completely at ease making friends at bars with a beer in his hand, getting worked up about the stuff he believes in and arguing with people about things. And the result of all of this, of course, is that he has very many friends. And very many fans and followers. His travel update emails no longer even display the recipient addresses for fear of overwhelming them.

Were he ever to write a book, his audience would already be there. His market may be untapped, but it is identifiable and quantifiable. And I would hazard a guess that most publishers today take into account the size of a writer’s social network before agreeing to sign them. This seems like a new era for writers, that requires an entirely new skill set. I’ve always imagined the Shakespeares and Hemmingways and Patons of this world to have been reclusive, introverted and quiet. And perhaps those kinds of writers will no longer cut it.


  1. Hi Al,

    I am not quite sure what to do with this, hence the delay in my response.

    My initial reaction was that you were saying that succesful writers nowadays are such due to their public social media presences, instead of their writing. Something I vehemently disagree with - good writing will out as far as I am concerned, and I would hate to think that people only read me because of a social network presence. In fact, I think my articles and columns for and The Daily Maverick did more for my presence on twitter than vice-versa.

    Also, I think it's worth pointing out that I don't man and keep tabs on social networks intentionally. I have 60% of the friends that you do, do not use 4square or Google Buzz, and don't really know what digg is. Twitter, which I use at length, certainly helps me punt my blog, particularly with the amount of followers I have (which I think stands at 1030-odd) and I enjoy the platform, but I am hardly the writer I am because of it, nor that reliant on it.

    The travel emails have the adresses hidden so that 60-odd people don't have the irritation of other people replying to all.

    I also wouldn't class Shakespeare as a reclusive type, nor Hemingway.

    I also don't think I'm all that at ease at making friends in bars with a beer in my hand.

    So, as I said at the beginning, I'm not quite sure what to do with this.

  2. That's not what I was saying at all! I don't mean that being sociable has replaced the need to be an excellent writer. I'm saying that perhaps being sociable is a new skill that writers need to have on top of being great writers. Obviously no one wants to read terrible writing, even if their friends wrote it :)

    I'm sorry if this came across as insulting. I actually had completely the opposite intention - that you're an excellent writer AND excel at the other stuff. Which is what got me thinking about it in the first place