Platforms Are For Divers (updated)

January 21, 2015 § 9 Comments

I don't remember his name but he told us it meant 'Ocean.'

I don’t remember his name but he told us it meant ‘Ocean.’

Platform, platform, platform. If you’ve got a book coming out–or are hoping to have a book coming out, or just hoping to raise your profile as an author, chances are you’re buckling down to work on your “platform.”

How many Twitter followers is enough? How many Facebook friends? Do I need an author page separate from my personal page? What about Pinterest? Does anyone even read blogs anymore? What happened to success on the merits of writing, and how did all my time get sucked into the Internet?

Sometimes I suspect ‘platform’ is shorthand for “We don’t know how to sell books any more but everyone seems to be online so the secret must be in there somewhere right? Please let the secret be in there somewhere…

But I’m doing it. My agent sent a questionnaire asking about, basically, my ability to sell books. Do I have an email list? Do I speak at large events? And yes, how many followers, how many friends, etc, etc. So I’m following and hoping for follow-backs, retweeting my little heart out, setting up Instagram and Tumblr and counting on my 17-year-old intern to fill me in on how it all really works (Thanks, Macy!).

I don’t love Twitter. I do it because book people are on there, because it leads to interesting things to read, and because I can schedule it for a week in advance and then do extra in spare moments (I know I’m not the only toilet-Twitterer out there). Right now it’s in the same mental pile as my MFA–might be useful someday. And I still haven’t really figured out Tumblr, other than to know that if I write a YA novel I’ll probably need to learn it.

But I made a little discovery on Instagram. Yeah–Instagram, the pictures-only one. I sort of staggered along having fun with photo filters, and then I discovered Jeff Sharlet, who’s doing some pretty cool things with micro-essays paired with photographs. And that made me want to do it, too. I travel a lot, and it’s become a joy to sit in the airport waiting for my flight, or gently wake up in a strange hotel room, pick out a photo from the past couple of days and write a micro-essay. They’ve become postcards to my family and friends (I crosspost many to Facebook), and an exercise that keeps me writing more often, more days, and thinking about how to tell the truth simply and succinctly. It’s not a chore anymore. It’s not a platform. It’s a chance to write, every day.

(UPDATE 1-21-15 1:38PMEST) Jeff Sharlet adds:

I love being called a photographer, but the truth is I’m not, except in the sense that I have a phone and I take photographs. I’m a writer and have been all these 20 years of working life. But I started with Walker Evans and James Agee, and under the tutelage of Michael Lesy, and became obsessed with Helen Levitt, and found a copy of the rare and out-of-print Sweet Flypaper of Life, by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava–words and pictures–and then, Instagram gave me my chance.

For what it’s worth, I don’t see it as a platform for selling books. A platform for making one, or two, as may happen. But none of these social media do more than sell a few copies, I think. One of my books was a longtime bestseller, for which I did a lot of media, and gained a relatively large number of twitter followers. If that added 20 sales I’d be surprised. It’s one of the great cons of publishers these days, or maybe they just don’t see it — social media speaks to the converted, OR those who are happy to learn what they learn online.

But, of course, it can also change the way one thinks about writing. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few groups — an MFA program, an arts lecture series — about using Instagram to write. Some want to try it, or their own experiments. I see them as recognizing, as I think you and I have, that there are all sorts of interesting lessons about essays to be had there, about the visual as text and text as visual. Others are horrified: some because they’re aesthetically conservative, some because they believe they’re avant-garde, and either way Instagram is too populist for the priesthood. That’s fine. More room for us.

(Thanks, Jeff)

Platform is a tool like any other. You can hang it on the wall and it will do no good, you can learn to use it as a way to make your work easier, or you can, yes, decide it’s not your tool and do something else. It’s up to you.

Check out Jeff Sharlet’s Instagram, and he’s also teaching a class who are doing photos+micro-essays as @mutantjournalism. And hey, stop by mine, too. I promise I’ll follow back–platform’s a lot more fun when we’re standing on it together.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Yes, she’s on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr

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