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)