Friendship Beads

Friendship Beadspin1

Does anyone remember this? You'd take a safety pin, string it with tiny beads, and loop it around the top lace of your sneaker – or really, you'd give it to someone else and she'd put it on her own sneaker – the idea was that each pin was a gift from a friend. It meant you could look at a girl's feet and be able to tell at a glance how popular she was.

I %&@$ing hated those pins. I think there was exactly one on my shoe, probably a pity gift. But I realise now that this wasn't because I was a social pariah - I just didn't know how to work the currency. If I wanted symbolic friend-counters on my feet (and who doesn't) I needed to hand some out myself first. Then my 'friends' would feel obligated to do the same. At the time I'd felt too shy and icked-out by the idea to do this, but that's how you accumulate such tokens. Still, it turned out that all I had to do was wait - a few months later the trend had moved on and we all had new ways to measure our social status.

Anyway, so I joined Twitter in September, and my 'followers' list is really coming along...


Yes, I joined Twitter. I was told that my survival as a writer depended on it. Some days I friendship-pinsbelieve this, and the urge to recruit 'followers' feels like an alarm bell. (Quick! How do I prove that I exist? More humans!) And sometimes the whole idea seems a bit daft. How can Twitter help me to be a better writer when it turns me into such a scatterbrained twerp? Even when it's good, there's too much of it. I emerge from a few minutes on the site feeling dazed, jumpy, my brain clubbed and chewed on, with this itchy urge to get back to it immediately and see what I've missed. Is this the right frame of mind to sit down and work on a novel?

And does this 'followers list' really mean anything? Say someday I get 5,000 of them. Great thing to tell people, right? Except this won't be 5,000 souls gathered together and patiently awaiting my next pronouncement, like something out of Life of Brian. It'll be 5,000 people who'll have agreed to follow me because I've followed them, and who probably aren't going to hear me shrieking 'Hey, world! Buy my book!' because they'll be  busy themselves shrieking, 'Hey, world! Buy my book!' and wading through tweets from 4,999 other people saying the same. Twitter is like yelling out the window of a speeding car. If anyone hears, you're lucky. If they hear and they actually care, it's a Festivus miracle.

Most of the people I follow are writers. It just happened. Once you start following a certain segment of the Twitter population, the site will display more of the same in their 'who to follow' list, meaning that if you start to follow, say, dental hygienists, eventually you'll have a hard time connecting with anyone who doesn't know how to use an air-driven tooth polisher. Now, individually these authors are all lovely people and I've made some great contacts among them. (Hi, guys!) As a mass, they can get to be a bit much. I remember the day of the school shootings in Connecticut. About half of the tweets on my news feed were reactions to the violent death of children - shock, outrage, sadness. The other half? 'Five stars on Amazon and Goodreads! Free Kindle downloads all this week! An undead love story! Sizzling erotic passion! Action and adventure in the 14th century – 99 cents, buy it now!' Let's just say that my first reaction wasn't, 'Wow. I have to buy these books.'birds-e1332199518568

Then I got curious about the established authors, the ones actually producing good books and winning awards. How many of them bother with Twitter? Pulitzer-winner Jennifer Egan once tweeted an entire short story to her followers, but this year she posted nothing from June to December. Of the last ten authors who've won the Booker Prize, I found only two with Twitter accounts: Hilary Mantel has a few hundred followers, but has never tweeted and follows no one, and John Banville's account is for 'John Banville news' and goes out of its way to inform viewers that it is not written by John Banville or anyone associated with him.

As for this Z-lister, I'm on Twitter practically every day, taking up handfuls of humans like popcorn and sticking them in my collection. I no longer have the illusion that most of these people are going to be interested in my novel. (Which is fine - I'd need several reincarnated lifetimes to get through all the books people are currently trying to sell me on Twitter.) I suppose I'm just watching the numbers climb and thinking 'I am not going to get stuck with only one friendship pin on my shoe this time, dammit!' Maybe the calculating jerk part of my brain sees these 'followers' as a type of currency, something I can show a potential buyer or reviewer - Hey, lookit! I'm popular. That must mean the book is good! Right??

Dead SoulsHere's a story: In 1842, Nikolai Gogol published Dead Souls, a novel about a scoundrel called Chichikov whose plans to marry an heiress are foiled by his lack of money or status. He decides to get around this by buying serfs, as many as he can. The catch is that they're all dead and just haven't been registered as such by the latest census. He soon has hundreds of souls in his collection – all of them of no practical use to him whatsoever, but the numbers next to his name look very impressive, and he suddenly finds that he is a person of consequence. And yes, it's quite possible to buy followers on Twitter, or 'likes' on Facebook. In fact I had someone send me a direct message today offering to sell me 50,000 souls 'for cheap price'.

But of course Twitter isn't all people-collecting and advertisements, and when a human voice emerges from all that static, it can feel like an unexpected gift. Where else could I find myself discussing Christmas selection boxes with people in Belfast, Cape Breton and Indonesia, all strangers to me? Yelling out the window of a speeding car is actually a lot of fun, depending on the reactions you get. 

And to be fair, Twitter does turn up the volume on your internet existence, in fact I can't imagine how anyone but my mom would be reading this otherwise. A few weeks ago I tried an experiment. I posted an article on this blog, but didn't say anything about it on Twitter, just Facebook and a few other outlets. About a week later, I posted a short story and tweeted about it once a day for four days. The story ended up with about 250 hits. Now, in internet terms this is probably the equivalent of two dead guys and a dog, but it's better than the untweeted article, which received less than 60.

Did any of these people actually read the story? Am I just chasing empty numbers here? Who cares? I'm off to get myself some more friendship beads! See you in the Twitterverse!

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