Let’s face it, we click on tweets, or posts, with a headlines like this one all the time. Shrewd folks playing in the fields of social media know that to get your attention, they need a grabber. It’s what sold newspapers once upon a time and it lures you to all kinds of content on a daily basis, even if the content doesn’t always support the sensational come-on. As with every infomercial, we can’t help wonder if what’s promised isn’t actually as good as we’re told; as with every con game, we’re willing to be lulled by the belief that some people have a secret that has long eluded most of us. In an era when a highly trafficked source of news and information rigorously chronicles “side boob” photos, the title above is downright dull in its allure. Although not to the right readers.
Since you’re here, let’s take a few minutes and dissect that headline, and consider what makes it tick, o.k.?
1. Numbers: Apparently, people like to know what they’re getting into, so quantification helps them make a decision to explore. If I’d said 100, you might have thought that you didn’t have time. If I’d said three, you’d figure there’s nothing really there. 10 is a reasonable number — high enough to avoid the appearance of simplicity, low enough to appeal to a generation that now calls in-depth reportage “longreads.”
This isn’t necessarily new. A number of popular religions subscribe to The Ten Commandments (the stone tablets, not the DeMille film), so Top Ten lists are fairly ingrained in the consciousness of many, reinforced by Letterman’s nightly humor by numbers. That’s right: I blame God, Moses and Dave for this redictive approach.
We also seem to be drawn to round numbers, even though I would argue they should make one suspect from the get-go. How can rules, guides, what have you, always manage to work out to multiples of five? Sure, if it’s choosing the 25 Best Side Boob Photos, you can impose an arbitrary limit, but neat numbers setting forth ideas suggest to me that there’s always been a stretch to make things align, so they’re padded, and not all equally of value.
2. Guaranteed: Nothing in life is guaranteed, and that’s abundantly true in social media. Don’t we all get a chuckle every time someone talks about just having shot a “viral video”? “Viral” videos happen, we don’t create them, they’re viral only in hindsight. If anyone knew the perfect formula for widespread attention in social media, we’d all be doing it, just as if there was a right way to put on shows every one would be a roaring success. There’s no question that if you claim to have nude pictures of Prince Harry, and actually do, you’re going to garner a lot of attention, but even a nude photo of your artistic director is going to have limited appeal in just about every case (exception: Spacey).
As someone who shares a great deal of content on Twitter and Facebook, I can tell you that my most popular content has proven the most surprising. The most retweeted items I’ve shared were a late 1960s music video of a singing Leonard Nimoy with Spock-eared go-go girls (554 RT’s) and a mock apology to England for Sherlock’s losses at The Emmys (429 RT’s). My most popular blog was about my wish for greater respect for community theatre; under the title “Theatre The Theatre Community Disdains,” it has been viewed 300% more than my next most popular post. Yet these are all small potatoes compared to what can be achieved by celebrities, or cute animals. They’re not viral; they’re the common cold.
3. Social Media: There is no singular, unified social media. Social media is now a pretty broad category of sites and apps that seek to connect people, known to each other and strangers alike, though some manner of electronic communication. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Pinterest, Myspace (heh, heh), Instagram and countless others can all be easily categorized as social media, along with plenty of up-and-comers and also-rans (Google+, cough cough). So, unless you are actively engaged on every significant social media platform (and as an individual or small arts group, I suspect you don’t have time for that), it’s quite possible that some or all of the vaunted advice doesn’t even pertain to something you use, even if it is on target.
4. Hacks: While this word can mean everything from cabs & their drivers to incompetent, in this instance it’s derived from “hackers,” those greasy-haired, t-shirt wearing, basement-dwelling computer geniuses* that do everything from foul up corporate websites to reprogram the Kobayashi Maru scenario, exerting their will precisely where no one wants them to be. So “hacks” promise some illicit secret that will give you a competitive advantage in the dog-eat-dog social media jungle.
There’s only one problem. If it’s in a headline on a publicly available site, it’s hardly a secret, and therefore not much of a hack. It surely doesn’t involve fiddling with code or hardware like a real hacker. Use a rule of thumb I was once told about investing: by the time a great stock tip is featured on the front of a magazine, you’re too late. It may not be a complete waste, but you’re way late to the party.
You can’t hack social media. It takes goals, strategy, and a good deal of time to build an effective online community. Can you buy “friends”? Can you give them incentive to “like” you?Apparently, yes. But as in life, it’s not about the number of friends, but the strength of relationships. That can’t be bought.
5. The Arts: Exactly what does “the arts” cover, anyway? If you follow the editorial leadership of Sunday’s New York Times, it could be movies, TV, theatre, dance, rock music, classical music, opera, painting, sculpture. Although on Friday, they make a point of breaking out “fine arts” from the rest of the pack, so it’s not a one size fits all term – just like social media. The generality draws you in, often to find specificity irrelevant to your needs and interests.
But let me now turn that around, and suggest that if you’re only drawn to posts and tweets about the arts, or sharing those same items, you’re probably being too narrow. The social media practices of in other fields might be perfectly adaptable for your purposes; while there are wonderfully innovative people in the arts, there are also great ideas in other professions, and if you only stop for items about the arts, you could be missing out on a lot of great thinking that hasn’t yet trickled into the arts sector.
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Now that I’ve dissected this common come-hither construction, you have two choices. You can use it to save time by not reading every bit of ostensible wisdom you come across and looking at some things that may seem off-topic but intriguing. Or you can use its fiendishly clever ruses to draw more attention to your own work and ideas. It’s up to you.
* This is the stereotypical depiction of hackers as portrayed in works of popular fiction. My apologies to all fashion-conscious and hygienic hackers with elegant workspaces.
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Update 11/5/12 2:30 pm Just hours after posting this piece, I learned of a brilliant, deadpan, satirical video produced by the Canadian ad agency John St., promoting a mythical service called Buyral, which purports to allow you hire clickers to give your online video the appearance of going viral. It’s quite superb. I hope it never comes true.