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The Mindless Robots of Social Media “Best Practices”

This is exactly how I feel about so many of the “best practices” for social media that I hear about; they have the right intention, but something goes awry:




What you see here is a robot doing EXACTLY as it was programmed to do. And yet, something is lost in translation. Is the garbage can picked up? Yes. Is the man being fed the Frito? Yes. Is ketchup being applied to the burger? Yes.

Can you imagine a world in which everything operated as these robots do – where they are following “best practices,” but with one tiny diverging mistake?

What is missing here? I suppose it could be described in a lot of ways: caring, nuance, grace, elegance.

Best Practices Are Boring

So much of my career seems to be people seeking “best practices.” And I TOTALLY understand that request – they want a bit of a shortcut so that they find new opportunity and growth. And of course, when you STUDY (and obsess) about things as I do, you notice trends, you read research, and you come to understand “what is normal and expected” for various aspects of sharing your work and growing an audience.


For a few years now, I have increasingly been feeling that: BEST PRACTICES ARE BORING. No, I am not saying they are useless, but my sense of jadedness around best practices could come down to:

  • Shortcuts such as “best practices” don’t allow you the wisdom that comes in the journey of finding out for yourself.
  • The realization that there is no “one path” that is somehow better optimized than others. EG: you can have a successful email that is sent out on ANY day of the week, not just Tuesdays at 11am ET. (which is one of many “best practice” days/times I have heard over the years)
  • By the time something becomes a known “best practice,” everyone is doing it. The value you hear about is often merely 20% of what it was originally.
  • The web is littered with “a case study of one,” meaning that every time a single person does something that works, I sometimes see articles written as if THIS WILL WORK FOR EVERYONE. So writers and creative professionals are inundated with “best practices,” many of which only worked once, for one person.
  • I would like MORE creative, MORE meaningful stuff in the world, and if we all just try to replicate some “best practice” with the justification of “I’m too busy to try out new things,” then we miss out on wonderful opportunities to create and learn. I was chatting with a friend the other day about “Amazon and publishing,” and we were reflecting on how much some booksellers and some publishers essentially ceded retail to Amazon. Amazon was a shortcut – a best practice. So these publishers, booksellers, and even authors gave up the opportunity to develop their own path to reach readers and sell books. Suddenly, when Amazon flexes it’s very large muscles, some of these booksellers, publishers, and authors are now exploring their own unique ways to reach readers and sell books. They are having to become VERY inventive in the process, but there is clearly so much value in this exercise. Is there also expenditure of resources, uncertain ROI, and very real casualties along the way? YES, I won’t pretend this process is simple and pretty. But it stretches us to not just rely on “the elephant in the room” that we are all scared of, simply because it is easier.

Do I teach best practices to writers? Of course I do. But I also push them to find out for themselves, what feels right for THEM and for THEIR readers. And this is where those moments of serendipity and magic can happen.

We Are Talking More, and Being Heard Less

My gut is that you have heard that what you share on Facebook is not seen by everyone you are ‘friends’ with or everyone who has ‘liked’ your Page. But it turns out the same thing is true for Twitter: these networks control what is seen and when, and we really don’t have a clear picture of how that happens.

Can you imagine having a deep conversation with a friend over coffee, and 30% of the sentences you say and hear are removed?

So many of people seem to feel the pressure to find “efficiencies” in communication by broadcasting out dozens of messages per day on social media with the hopes that they reach as many people as possible. We don’t like to say it out loud, but our hope is that social media works like really effective advertising… we hope it magically delivers an large and engaged audience.

I’ve become less a fan of that, probably because I feel that TRUE engagement is built one relationship at a time. This is why in workshop presentations, I always point to successful authors who also engage one-on-one with others via @replies on Twitter. Folks such as Neil Gaiman or Susan Orlean.

An interesting example of this from outside the writing world is tech entrepreneur & investor Marc Andreessen. This article explores his very recent activity on Twitter as he just began using the service six months ago. Some of the article’s conclusions:

“During the first six months of 2014, Andreessen tweeted 21,783 times—more than any of Twitter’s founders have posted since its creation, and an average of five tweets per hour, every hour.”

“Andreessen is remarkably personable on Twitter. Almost 13,000 of his tweets—about 60%—are “replies” to other Twitter users.”

“You’d think that Andreessen has more important work to do for his day job than tweeting every few minutes. (A colleague confirms that it’s Marc doing the tweeting—not a social-media assistant or intern.) But Andreessen says it’s actually very important in his profession today to have a big Twitter following: “It’s a great way to explain what we’re doing, how we think about things, and to respond to issues and questions.” He adds, with a smiley-face emoticon, a secondary, personal reason: “I love arguing.”

I’m not really interested in a rehashing of “why Twitter is valuable” here, but I do love seeing examples of what this looks like in the life of one very busy person. That to realize the value we know social media has is more about engaging directly with individuals in ways that are meaningful, not finding more and more clever ways to trick people to “follow” you.

Quantity Matters Less Than Quality of Connection

Earlier this year I shared a post on how I am changing how I use social media. I have focused my activity to places I am TRULY engaged everyday, which is mostly: Facebook (Profile, Group, and Page), Instagram and Twitter. And Twitter is the place that I have most dramatically shifted my efforts, Tweeting much less, and trying to listen more, and understand how I can make this network feel more personal.

I am noticing little things in this process. For instance, I asked this question on two places: “Writers: Do you have an email newsletter? If so, please share the link with me.” The result:

  • On Twitter, where I have nearly 7,000 followers, many of whom are writers, I received one response.
  • On a private Facebook Group that I manage, which has 148 members, I received 13 links to author newsletters, plus other conversation in the mix.

The difference in response rate is astounding, and speaks to the reason that some of the authors in the private Facebook Group have said that they enjoy it – it feels like a supportive safe space to engage and seek advice. And something about that makes them dramatically more willing to share, I suppose.

Social Media Can Actually Feel MORE Personal and Meaningful, Especially for Introverts

Julia Fierro recently shared a lovely article about her experience in being an introvert, one-time agoraphobe, and yet, enjoying social media, and LOVING the people she connects with there. I highly recommend reading the entire post: “Social media saved me from my fears: How Facebook brought me back into the real world,” but here is a brief excerpt:

“Some days I receive a message from one of my online friends — a person I may never meet in person — most often through Facebook or Twitter. Many of these messages come from people, like me, who live, for one reason or another, in a bit of a bubble. They might be stay-at-home parents who spend most days in a house with two nonverbal children; or people confined to their home by a disability, or because they are recovering from trauma; they might live in a town where they haven’t met many writers or like-minded people; or they might be like me — — a little agoraphobic, a lot anxious, a homebody, an introvert who prefers reading about adventures to exotic places.”

“When critics call our “connected” online culture a farce, claiming it breeds loneliness instead of community, I inwardly scoff, but I still “like” their articles — in sympathy mostly, wishing they could feel the authentic joy I feel each time I log on to Facebook.”

“I feel genuinely close to my online friends, but I can slip into a conversation, and slip out. I can log on, and log off. And, in my busy midlife years, when I am “having it all” — balancing professional success, a writing life and family — these are the only relationships I have time for.”

As I have stated in earlier posts, I do not think there is one right way to use social media. I never liked that phrase “you’re doing it wrong,” because I think everyone should use social media in whichever way they feel most comfortable.

I simply speak to so many people who feel pressure – and I feel this pressure as well – to constantly optimize social media to be more about advertising, and less about true human interactions.

Do you feel pressure to do more, or do certain things in social media? Please share below.


Related post:Attack of the social media zombies

(the robots gone mad gifs above were found via Jason Kottke)

  • Barbara Wallace

    Dan – I find there is a great deal of pressure to share your reviews online. You see an author posting five star review after five star review and you start feeling the need to do so as well – lest people not realize your book exists. It’s easy to start feeling like you’re not having as much success as you should based on the traffic in your news feed.

    Speaking of which – you’re right about the Twitter and FB feeds. I didn’t see either post about the newsletter.

    • Barbara,
      Thank you for sharing this. I see what you mean about the reposting of reviews, and my gut is that even those authors may be doing so because they feel fear/pressure that they don’t have other news to share. I do tend to like how featuring reviews does put the voice of the reader out there though. As for the post I shared on Facebook & Twitter, I resist the pressure of asking the question 6 times in 6 ways so that I have “maximum reach.” Perhaps I am being too conservative though. Thanks!

  • Jamie Wallace

    “Best practices are boring.”
    Amen to that. And – hey – being boring online is the kiss of death, right? Why even pursue that?

    As always, Dan, love the post (and the newsletter!). Your articles offer a little oasis of sanity in an otherwise Vonnegut-esque world of crazy talk. Thank goodness for common sense and humanity. Thanks for being a champion of both. 🙂

    • Jamie,
      I think you asked that question rhetorically “why even pursue boring,” but I actually think that is an interesting question to explore. It’s hard to do this without grossly over-generalizing in such a short space, but I think that your question is a KEY challenge to one’s goals, and why I often explore goals very deeply with clients. Too often, people just want a quick sense of validation or success. And when you ask about their goals, you get the vaguest of answers. In breaking out of boring/vanilla is risk. And THAT is a whole other topic!
      Thank you for the kind words!

      • Jamie Wallace

        It IS another whole topic, but one that I’m now even more eager to explore. I think what you’re saying is that clarity leads to opportunities to break out of the boring/vanilla. When you get hyper clear on what you are trying to do – when you narrow the playing field, so to speak – you can suddenly get WAY more creative with everything else and you can better afford to take risks. Hmmm … I think I feel a blog post brewing. 😉

        • Ooooh – send a link if you write it. Thanks!

          • Jamie Wallace

            Will do!

  • Pamela Taeuffer

    There are days I don’t even look at responses other than to my own posts. Too much information flying by. It’s only when something personal is shared that it catches my attention.

    • Good observation – thanks Pamela!

  • Carrie Ann Lahain

    I started on Twitter as a way to build my “author platform” and learned quickly that I was one of zillions all trying to sell something–books, services, personality. This might have been disheartening. Instead, it was liberating. I could let go of ROI expectations and simply enjoy meeting people and coming across information that I wouldn’t in my day-to-day life. Typing quick 140-character (or less!) reply to someone’s tweet gives me such a burst of pleasure. Just a little tiny nudge that says, “Hey, I’m out here, too. Isn’t this life a wild ride?” And getting a reply? A thrill.

    I’ve given up trying to predict which of my networking or marketing activities will result in a sale. Seriously, with $2-3 in royalties per download, it isn’t as if even dozens of sales in a month will change my life. So, I just hang out getting to know people. Reading THEIR books and blog posts. Sometimes these interactions result in sales. Often they don’t. But I enjoy the human contact either way.

    • Thanks so much Carrie Ann – interesting to hear your experience on this!

  • I agree with what Julia says about valuing her online friendships. I have met so many amazing people through Facebook and Twitter. Over a year ago, I reached out to a new author like myself, on Twitter, whose book I was reading, and since that time she has become one of my dearest friends, though our friendship is long distance. I have Twitter to thank for that! And Pamela, I’m like you, drawn more to the personal stuff that’s shared, which is why I try to do the same in my own FB posts or tweets. 🙂

    • Shelly – how cool is that! Wow.


  • Sara

    Gosh, so true. I worked as an ‘accidental social media manager’ for the last 12 months,and the more I read about what the social media ‘experts’ were saying was best practice, the more icky it felt. As someone who likes social media and uses it often, the thing I like about it is how personal it is. I like people’s personal stories on fb, I like how I can tweet that I’ve just read my favourite author’s new book and SHE replies back…this best practice stuff takes all that out of it. For starters, employing people to DO your social media is flawed, and will never work – because unless you’re coca cola, people want to engage in a personal way with you, not your social media manager. you know? It’s a shit shortcut to inauthenticity. In my opinion 🙂

    • Sara,
      I love your job title, with the word “accidental” in it. I think LOTS of job titles should have that included!

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom & experience here. I actually have seen some ways that small teams of people can manage some social media accounts in a meaningful way, but it is nearly always because each person’s personality comes out in a very real way.

      • Sara

        Yes, me too 🙂 I think that when it falls down is when social media is outsourced because the owner/manager can see the need for it, but they can’t be bothered or don’t like social media themselves. When everyone works together, it can be good, and fun too.

  • Jennifer M Eaton

    I am much less stressed now than I used to be over social media. I used to spend tons of time. It was wasted time though, because I was just going through the motions just to get it over with. I spend less time now, but it is quality time. My time on each (twitter Facebook blog) is meaningful, rather than blanket replies or thanks for following. I basically think about what annoys me in social media, and make sure not to do those things to anyone else. It cut down my time, and the pressure, and I’ve even started to enjoy Twitter now. Who knew?

    • Love this – THANK YOU Jennifer!

  • I used to feel an incredible amount of pressure to be everywhere. But after taking your courses, Dan, (and I’m not just saying this for brownie points!), I’ve paid attention to what feels best for me. I find my true peeps are on Facebook, along with Pinterest and Instagram. Not only that, these are the places I love to be too.
    I actually get upset when someone states that people on Facebook aren’t your real friends. I may have not met most of them, but I really feel supported by the majority of folks who follow my postings and chime in now and then. I love to interact with them.
    I’m also now very turned off by 5 ways to do this or that or top 10 best practices. I continue to try and follow what my heart is telling me and what feels right and good.

    • Barbara,
      I love that, and how it directly relates to your actions every day. And of course, thank you for the kind words.

  • Marjorie Tracey Phillips

    I totally agree with you Dan in that it sometimes feels overwhelming to stay on top of all the social media. I know at work we feel the pressure to just post something even if it’s just some re-post without really analyzing the value of the information. I feel on Facebook that it’s so much better to read personal stories and not just re-posts of internet pictures, puzzles, games, crazy stories and etc. Reminds me of what happened with e-mail when it turned into just getting forwarded e-mails by the hundreds of totally useless information. The sender not even so much as adding a Hi, how are you???. This is what I am seeing more of on Facebook and I try to keep my personal page and our business page from becoming that type of material. I tend to only post personal info created by me on my page and same is true of work and then if I re-post, add why it’s being re posted and thoughts about the post. We get a lot of good feedback so I think that is working. Thanks for the article.

    • Marjorie,
      Thank you! You make such good points about the value of ORIGINAL stuff – not just aggregating and curating. That is a big thing I have been obsessed with as well.
      Have a great day!