The Poetry of Social Media

by Lester Smith

In The Philosophy of Literary Form, Kenneth Burke famously portrays writing as an ongoing conversation in a roomful of people. Each of us arrives with the conversation already in full swing. We wander the room, listening to bits and pieces of what's being discussed until we find ourselves struck with something to contribute. Other people reply to what we've said, and we respond in turn, thereby refining our understanding and expression, adding our own unique imprint on the communal conversation. In the end, however, each of us has to say goodbye, leaving the conversation in the hands of new arrivals.

This seems an especially wonderful metaphor for poetry, partly because of the oral origins of the art, partly due to the intense way in which poetry illuminates its subject matter. In poetry, the sense of conversation is strong, whether in modern confessional lyric poems or in formalist poetry's inherent awareness of earlier works.

As luck would have it, the metaphor is also excellent for describing social media. Facebook and MySpace pages, Twitter posts, Weblogs, online forums and message boards, even email lists, all are best approached not as a means of advertising ourselves, but rather as an online party to which we have been invited. Treated as a party, social media can do wonders for a poet's exposure.

So put on your party shoes, and let's consider how to best use each of the aforementioned social media for your own poetic cotillion, so to speak.

“My card, sir!”

In an earlier age, all gentlepersons carried a card to present wherever they arrived, announcing their presence. Today, business people continue that practice. In effect, a business card is the recipient's first introduction to its owner, the owner's opportunity to direct attention to desired facts and features, instead of leaving things to chance.

The online equivalent of a business card is a profile page on a service such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google, or an “About Me” page on a blog or Web site. Each of these services has a slightly different flavor, as we'll discuss in a moment, but each contains (or allows for) a profile space where you can provide basic facts about yourself.

What should you post? A personal photo is essential, something with enough personality that people will want to learn more about you, but nothing that might turn away a potential employer. Contact information is also critical, though you might want to avoid posting your street address and phone number on a page open to the general public. (While true crazies can track you down through  traditional public records anyway, why make it easy for them?) One advantage of Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and the like is that people connect with you through the service itself, and you can set your level of privacy as you like. However, if you're looking for exposure, it's good to post an email address. Just be sure your email service has a good spam filter: A Gmail account will serve the purpose; Yahoo!, AOL, and Earthlink are also reasonable choices, although to some people they seem less professional.

A short, engaging bio is also essential. Don't just formulate yours like most others you see, however. Look for examples that give you a chuckle or leave you truly wanting to know more about the person. Then you'll be ready to write something that makes other people perk up and take notice.

Finally, your profile is an opportunity to feature links to other sites you care about: Perhaps a Web site where your work is featured, a blog where you share your thoughts, or an online shop where your chapbook can be purchased. It's also good practice to include links to other people and works you recommend. Remember, social media is a party you're attending, not a stop on a door-to-door sales route.

“What's your pleasure?”

You might be wondering which of the social-media services—MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on—are most deserving of your time. Both MySpace and Facebook are well-attended parties, each with an ever-increasing number of features, but trying to pay sufficient attention to both is more than most people can manage. It's generally best to choose just one.

MySpace: If your intended audience is mainly teenagers, or you're in a band, MySpace is probably the better choice. Just be prepared for visual chaos. Most MySpace pages are designed with what one graphic-design company has described as an intentional lack of “slickness,” a teenage rebellion against the commercial inundation they experience elsewhere.

Facebook: For people in their 20s or 30s (or older), Facebook is likely the better choice. It hosts more of a college and professional crowd, somewhat more than half of them being female. If you represent an organization, such as a poetry magazine, publisher, contest, or the like, consider building a Facebook “fan” page for it after completing your personal page.

LinkedIn: LinkedIn has a reputation as an online résumé site, where professional people can request recommendations from past colleagues and request connections to new ones. Numerous national organizations also maintain a presence on LinkedIn, and many groups carry on professional discussions there. Whether you have an account on MySpace or Facebook, it's a good idea to set up a LinkedIn account as well.

Twitter Profile: Twitter is an odd little service that has gained quite a bit of attention over the past few years. It began as a place for people to post short status reports instead of sending text messages to individual phones. That way college students could easily arrange to meet for a movie after classes, for example. As buzz grew about the service, increasingly more people flocked there, additional options and behaviors were layered on (such as flagging messages with hash-tagged subjects like “#haiku” to make them easily searchable), and even business and congress members began using it to spread announcements.
For a poet, Twitter can be amazingly helpful. Posts are limited to 140 characters (including spaces), which makes succinctness mandatory. That's always good practice for a poet. And while conversations on other parts of the Web can run on and on, Twitter conversations are like a series of clever quips. Use the list feature to organize by topic the people you're following, and hash-tags and the search function to keep an eye on your favorite topics, and Twitter may become your favorite place on the Internet.

Google Profile: Google is currently the biggest, most important search site on the Internet—besides being one of the most important Web presences in general. Besides considering Gmail as your default email account, at least for your public Web presence, you would also do well to create a Google profile page. That way, when people search for something related to your name, they'll also be presented with your chosen photo, bio, contact information, and recommended links. Also, Google has recently launched a Twitter-like “Google Buzz” feature. Some people make Google their preferred home on the Web, using it for email, profile page, blog, shopping cart, and even workspace (check out Google Docs).

“About Me” Page: If you have a blog (about 17 percent of adults do), make a point to include an “About Me” page with the information described under “My card, sir!” above. Note that organizations such as the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets also provide space for member pages of this sort. Don't pass up an opportunity to expand your exposure in such places. (This sort of exposure can also increase the chances of your name appearing in search engines.)

“That reminds me of the time...”

Commenting on other people's posts can be a great way to expand your influence online. The best way is to adopt a trick from improvisational comedy. Comics will tell you that the way to keep the ball rolling is to adopt a habit of “Yes, and....” The idea is to build upon what has gone before, inviting further repartee. Social-media professionals (and there are a few) will tell you something similar about carrying on a conversation online.

The fact is that few people comment online—most just read and surf on. (Attention spans on the Web are notoriously brief.) Of those few who do comment, many have been inspired to argue. (We'll address that in a moment.) Of the relatively few who comment in agreement, most just say “Good point!” or something similar. The conversation stops there.

If you want to be truly helpful (and build your reputation) online, develop a habit of expanding upon whatever you're agreeing with. Even if all you do is provide an example of a time you saw the point in practice, you'll have added value to the conversation and to your reputation.

As to arguments, it's generally best to avoid them online. Studies show that tone is far too often mistaken in electronic text—as in fully 80-90 percent misinterpreted, which is how “flame wars” start. If you do have to disagree with people online, try complimenting them first by pointing out all the ways they are right, before addressing the detail or two you see differently. Kill them with kindness, even if they respond with anger (remember, it's about 85 percent likely they didn't mean to sound so sour, and 85 percent as likely that you're misreading their tone). Kill them with kindness, and your online reputation will blossom.

“You may have read my monograph.”

The primary purpose of using social media should always be to get involved with other people and have fun. But as you can see from what's been said so far, an underlying reason is to gain exposure and build a reputation. As that happens, some individuals are going to want to know more about you. Seth Godin of Tribes talks about groups seeking leaders; Laura Roeder of “Creating Fame” characterizes it as nurturing a group of followers. In either case, it really just comes down to people shouting, “Hey, look who's here!” whenever you show up online.

What's more, some of them will begin looking for you even when you aren't online. One of the great things about the Web is that your blog, Google profile, Facebook or Myspace page, and even list of Twitter posts can maintain a presence even when you can't.

Once you have this sort of attention, you can direct it toward longer pieces of writing. You can use a Twitter message, a Facebook status post, or the like, to point people to an essay on your blog, a poem you've had published online somewhere, or even a book you have for sale.

“A kiss, and then goodnight.”

A poet works phrase by phrase, line by line, paying attention to the details to create a work of art that people read and react to in its completed form. Similarly, successful social-media users build an online reputation piece by piece, element by element, until the end result seems something inevitable. There is, in effect, a certain poetry to creating an online presence. Best wishes in your own experimentation with that art form.