Last week, Aliza Sherman authored a great post over at Web Worker Daily about the 10 Golden Rules of Social Media. Aliza’s been consulting with clients on Internet-issues since 1992, so she definitely knows whereof she speaks. It’s a good read for anyone wanting to understand the zeitgeist of social media at a deeper level.
I was thinking, however, as I read her post, that all of these “golden rules” were also pretty darn shiny for writers, regardless of medium. Here is my take on Aliza’s rules and how they apply to nonfiction writers.
The Golden Rules
1. Respect the Spirit of the ‘Net. Aliza tells readers, “The Internet was not meant for marketing and selling but for communication and connection to people and information.” And it’s true.
Writers can obey this rule by understanding how they fit into the “new media” landscape and where they can add value—namely, by producing stories that facilitate intelligent conversations and fuel connections to people and information. Accurate information, told in an entertaining, enlightening fashion, can cut through the gunk of e-spam and often is what gets passed from person to person via e-mail, Facebook postings, or Twitter “tweets.”
2. Listen. This rule should be second-nature to anyone trained as a journalist, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Writers need exceptional conceptual skills to help tell a story, but for nonfiction writers, listening must be the foundation that helps them find out what the story actually is.
In her Web Workers Daily post, Aliza says, “In virtual spaces where there are no visual cues, good listening skills become a powerful asset.” Writers should listen for overarching themes, patterns in responses to content, and perhaps most importantly, should listen for what’s not being said, and follow up on that to find out why.
3. Add Value. Many writers struggle with this rule, but it really sums up many of the goals of nonfiction writing that we have been taught: to inform readers of current events, to share our impressions of an event for those not present, to expose conflicts between individual liberty and the common good, etc. Even our self-expressive writings may hold value for others, in terms of connecting with our emotions or our technique.
4. Respond. This rule may seem new for some writers. In the pre-Internet era, responses to one’s writing could be found in letters to the publication’s editor or in letters directed at us, but channeled through a book’s publisher. We didn’t necessarily have to come up with a response within 24 hours!
Aliza warns readers, “Don’t be a dam in a conversation flow,” but it’s important to remember that one’s first response to a reader doesn’t have to be one’s final response. The point is to realize that we are no longer (if indeed we ever were) the “one” reporter/editorial writer/pundit discussing issues and providing insight to the “many” — we are one very skilled voice in a long, simultaneous and ongoing “many-to-many” conversation.
5. Do Good Things. Of course, reporters have reported on things in need of reform for centuries. And there is a proud tradition of service journalism, which focuses on producing articles and story packages that give direct advice to readers on how to solve a pressing issue in their lives.
However, so much is going on in the areas of citizen journalism (aka user-generated content) and activism powered by communication via mobile devices that writers need to keep tabs on how these trends are impacting the way ordinary folks use the articles traditional journalists produce to advocate for change.
6. Share the Wealth. Aliza tells blog readers that she’s often told her Internet clients, “If you’ve got it, share it, spread it around.” She continues, “…I wasn’t only talking about money. I was talking about time, information and knowledge. In social media, sharing is the fuel of the conversation engine.”
As I noted earlier, the urge to determine and share what is of value is part of what makes good writers so important in the online world. Our ability to keep the conversation going, with vibrant anecdotes, context-rich interpretations of data, and perspective-altering interview quotes, expands our audience’s knowledge base in ways that enlarge their capacity to discuss meaningful things in a meaning-filled way.
7. Give Kudos. Aliza notes, “Social media works when you are generous. There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, but things really take off when you give others praise.” Journalism has often focused on problems, scandals and potential disasters (as well as disasters-in-progress). While this has filled a valuable niche in our society, it’s increasingly important for writers to also highlight concepts and projects that work, that better society and that can be an inspiration for others facing similar situations. It’s also a nice counter-balance to the jaded pessimism that can creep in when all one writes about is how messed up everything is.
8. Don’t Spam. Hopefully, your stories are well enough received by their audience not to be seen as spam. I think the take-away for writers in this rule is to not assume you know your audience’s needs—keep the lines of communication open and be willing to alter your research plan if “crowdsourcing” or other reader feedback sends you in a direction different than the original slant for your piece.
9. Be Real. This phrase should be tattooed over the heart of every nonfiction writer. Understand your unique voice, as well as what subjects you can write about with greater authenticity than anyone else.
Aliza tells her readers: “Authenticity is the secret ingredient behind any good and valuable social media marketing campaign.” It is also, I might add, what separates the writers who have almost magnetic abilities to attract followers from those who try to break into the top tier of their profession through technique alone.
10. Collaborate. This rule ties back to Aliza’s first rule—about respecting the spirit of the ‘Net. Writers who understand their work is not just theirs, but is a collaboration with their editor, their publisher, their readers and the community they serve, can find it much easier to tap into the flow of information they need to do their work. They are also much less likely to suffer from the narcissism that can come from perpetually focusing on projects that they believe are their handiwork alone.