Let’s Discuss the Politics of ‘Closed’ Facebook Groups

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I get it. I get why people want to create “closed groups” on Facebook. “Secret groups.” It’s not hard to understand.

With a closed group, an administrator can control who’s let in and who’s kept out; how it’s done and what is shared. They can keep out the caustically antipathetic and avert the toxicity of trolls. All of which is desirable.

As someone who posts on sites like The Huffington Post, with one of the highest readership ratings of any media site in the world, I have heard — oh, have I heard! — from an array, a confluence, a literal horde of trolls over my writing career, and I mean to tell you, their hateful, hissing commentary can be soul killing. And trolling appears to be an equal-opportunity affliction, as I’ve been bombarded by everyone from gun nuts and political zealots, to angry moms and independent writers.

So, yes, removing that seething demographic’s inexhaustible urge to hijack meaningful conversation is a good thing. Though I do know some pugilistic, well-meaning writers who seem energized by virtually jousting with inarticulate, hateful poop-throwers, I’m not one of them… and my experience tells me most people aren’t. Hence, “closed groups,” with their ability to block trollism, have sprouted en masse, popular amongst those who want a safe space to engage with like-minded people to exchange ideas, information, articles, calls-to-action, etc.

But given that increase, inspired, no doubt, by the shit-storm we’ve just experienced in Election 2016, I do think it would be wise to rethink a few things, not only on the general protocol of any group, closed or otherwise, but the impact of particularly closed groups on public perception. I think these points bear some thought, especially considering what was just lost and what we are now facing.

1. Do NOT put someone in any group, closed or otherwise, without asking first. 

This is a big one, and though I’d have assumed it didn’t need to be said, it does. I have now been “put,” sometimes repeatedly, into various groups without my knowledge or permission, discovering said membership only after getting notification that I was in said group. BAD FORM.

When you do that to someone, regardless of your good intentions, you are not only being presumptuous, you’re now giving that person a task they didn’t ask for: if they choose not to be in said group, they now have to take the time to track it down and remove themselves. Which may seem minor, but it’s annoying and can potentially lead to someone else being miffed that that person doesn’t want to be in said group. Bottom line: it’s messy, it’s presumptuous, and it’s bad manners.

If you’ve discovered or are starting a group you think someone else might be interested in, ASK THEM FIRST. Very simple. Send them an invitation; let them be the one to decide if they want to join. And if they don’t, don’t take it personally. Realize that many people simply don’t want to be in groups; some are already in as many as they choose to be in; some may not want to participate in that group, or, if it’s a closed group, they may have different philosophies about those in general.

2. Allow members to participate as they see fit: 

I have now been in a few groups where administrators treat members almost like errant students: they’re obligated to engage in certain ways, with measurable degrees of visibility and involvement; there are to-do lists and even “homework.”

Typically I hop out of any group that turns voluntary participation into the dirge of academic obligation, because I don’t choose to, or have time to, participate in that way. We’re all adults; we do not need to be scolded, managed, or browbeaten into engaging in specific, mandated fashion. Again, it’s bad form, and it turns the positive experience of that group into something, well… less positive.

Don’t judge what members are getting out of it. If they’re there, they must be getting something. Trust your members. Which means, don’t “guilt” people into signing petitions, donating money, taking actions, sharing stories, “liking: other people’s posts, leaving reviews, etc. Coercion, however gentle, is counter-productive. We all learn, grow, change, and are inspired in individual ways. If you invite people into a group, unless they’re trolling — at which point, yes, they’re uninvited — allow them to participate as they choose. You never know what may be gained from their quiet engagement.

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3. As for “closed/secret” groups, are they really the best way to make evolutionary, cultural change?  

I know I’m likely to get some heat for this one, but hear me out:

There are many valid reasons for closed groups: groups that allow abuse survivors to communicate privately; battered women, LGBT groups; any group where privacy is truly survival and mandatory.

But political groups? Really?

One of the biggest criticisms of Hillary Clinton over the entire election cycle, including the primary, was that people weren’t enthusiastic about her; they weren’t as “excited, thrilled, inspired,” as, say, Bernie supporters… and later, as Trump supporters. You remember that, don’t you? And it was strange, that perception, because, in fact, millions of men and women were deeply enthusiastic about her. And where were they, many of them? In “secret” groups, every day touting and cheering their support amongst each other. It was a literal spree of support in… secret groups. Out in the public forum? Not so much.

Back in March I wrote a piece titled, I Will If You Will: Why Clinton Supporters Need to Speak up More on Social Media, based on the fact that so many of them were oddly silent, seemingly cowed from public discourse on media, social or otherwise. And while the piece inspired a fair amount of dialogue, I continued to see more and more “closed/secret” Clinton groups pop up every day, with, still, less open discussion in public forums.

And I understand. Based on feedback I got after the article, it seems countless people, mainly women, were reticent to share their public support for Clinton because of backlash they were bound to receive: in work situations where people might take umbrage; within families where members would be incensed; amongst social media circles where trolls were all too active. Fear, and an unwillingness to set themselves up for that kind of negative response, led, then, to their participation in those many “secret/closed” Clinton support groups.

Certainly those groups provided upliftment and support to the members involved, and that was good. And maybe the group’s mission was just that, and didn’t include any intent or mission to change public perception of Clinton’s enthusiasm quotient, or build greater coalition for her campaign out in the public sphere. Clearly no group was obligated to meet that demand, but I have to wonder: did all the secrecy have an impact, a negative contribution, to the endless mantra that Clinton just didn’t have the same level of support as either Bernie or Trump?

I have no quantifiable statistics, but my gut says yes. The greater lack of public outspokenness amongst her many supporters did her no favors, and at the end of the day, the “silent majority” has never been more painfully evident than in an election where the more popular, more qualified candidate lost in the din of support for her opposition, whose supporters were always out, loud, and proud without any commensurate caution or hesitation.

Additionally, is it possible that all this echo chambering did/does little to help bridge gaps between different, even opposing groups? If we never hear from or engage with those on other sides, isn’t it possible we’re never going to find reasonable coalition again in this country? I’m not talking trolls — they get zero engagement from me and shouldn’t from anyone else. I’m talking about honest, thoughtful people who may have conflicting views as well as the ability to communicate sanely and without invectives and vitriol. They surely exist… don’t we want to engage with them… or at least try?

We liberals got this election so damn wrong on so many levels, I think it behooves us at this point to climb out of the bubble. I realize those with opposing or even just conflicting perspectives have to have the same willingness to put down pitchforks to meet us on the field (will they? won’t they?), but we gotta start somewhere. Someone needs to get out on the dance floor. Not everyone on the other side is a KKK member, a flaming white supremacist, a hate-mongering xenophobe, or a virulent alt-right bigot. Some are just less informed, have been more hurt by problems that exist in this country; have been misled by misinformation, or whose narrow concerns blinded them to the worst of the other side. They make up that BIG red blob in the middle and southern edges of our country. And many of them are on Facebook.

If there’s anything we’ve learned this go-around, it’s that we have to start paying less attention to our own biased media and flawed online polls (oh, how flawed they were!), and more to the people across the street. On the corner. In our hometowns. In those flyover states. In other Facebook groups.

Yes, closed group aficionados, I’m aware that “some of us need, want, demand a safe place to vent, share, speak, write, cry, scream, inspire, laugh, etc., without any pushback or even feedback from those who don’t share our worldview.” OK, but considering the paragraphs above, how about this?

Create the group. Leave it open; not “secret.” Create and post the mission statement. Define parameters: rules against trolling and ad hominem attacks, suggestions for participation, clear awareness of what kind of communication will get someone removed from the group, etc. Monitor conversations. Monitor comments. Monitor threads. Stay vigilant to bona fide trolls; block and delete without apology. And build a group, a circle, a conversation that is open, welcoming, and, hopefully, ultimately, illuminating to anyone open to illumination.

It’s how I’ve built and curated my own social media and, yes, it takes vigilance, but it works. It will be more work for administrators, it will take more vigilance from members to keep administrators aware of anyone breaking the trolling rules, but it might go a long way toward creating both a safe space and a public forum that allows the positive energy, thoughtful dialogue, and inspiring debates to more usefully and productively enter into and impact the pubic sphere.

We need that. If anything taught us that, it was Election 2016.

Table & chairs photograph by Jonny Clow @ Unsplash
Studying man photograph by Bethany Legg @ Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Yes, We Are ALL Part of the ‘Truth In Media’ Equation

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As most sentient people have noticed, distrust in the media is at an all-time high. It’s not just conservatives who whine about the “lamestream media”; people on all sides of the divide are generally dissatisfied, unconvinced that “all the news that’s fit to print” is actually fit… or even news… and certainly most of it isn’t in print!

In the glory days of good old-timey journalism, the mandate was to report, to chronicle the events of the day, absent of opinion and rife in verifiable fact. Nowadays, as we march onward in our digital revolution to accrue ever-more 24/7 online news/media sources, the sheer demand for content is so relentless that any story, any opinion, any slant or perspective is granted the same status as actual news. Which means much of what we perceive as news is actually an unholy mix of bias, misinformation, rushed reporting, and facts twisted so precipitously as to resemble bias, misinformation, and rushed reporting.

This “news food” (like “cheese food”… as resemblant of real cheese as, well, you get the point) is then put through various delivery systems that render it digestible pseudo-news. And once that gets bleated about by cable/network talking heads, splayed across blogs and online news sites, written/covered/spun by writers (some posing as journalists), or printed in newspapers and magazines, it becomes TRUTH. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t; it’s been given the pedigree of pontification and publication, and, therefore, must be true. Sorta true? Even a little bit true? 

Oh, hell, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it’s believed to be true, that it supports someone’s point of view, and once it reaches that dubious bar, it then becomes “bandiable.” Spreadable. Ripe for sharing, posting, tweeting, blogging, slathering across the media landscape like so much warm butter (or, more accurately, congealed lard). Whatever greasy mess it is, it ain’t pretty.

And where does that leave us, those of us who do want “truth in media”? It’s become increasingly difficult, in a culture that readily serves up this pseudo-news cocktail, to know what, exactly, IS true. What is factual, verifiable, worthy of our viral attention… and what is not. And, sorry to have to say this, but we partakers have been, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, collaborators in the metastasizing of this regrettable phenomenon. Don’t think so?  

I bet we’ve all done/experienced some of this:

• We read an article posted by a friend, a family member, someone in our circle. It resonates, we “like” it, we express our outrage/support as appropriate; we might even share it… then we discover it’s a two-year-old article, the event is no longer relevant to the current conversation, or the reported “facts” have been discovered to be false, different, evolved, and therefore, the article is not useful. But, too late; we’ve sent it all over the place.

• Someone in our circle posts an article that is highly critical of some person, organization, political party, etc., they do not support. They even offer accompanying commentary to further fan the outrage. But as readers look a little closer, they discover the writer of the article works for a rabidly oppositional site, or is a fire-breather of known bias whose “reporting” could only be described as opinion, often faulty opinion teeming with dubious “truths.” But, again, it’s too late; it’s already been shared, “liked,” and commented upon as factual.

• A major event occurs somewhere in the world (terrorism, police brutality, plane crash, etc.). As the coverage tsunamis in, we rush to our TVs, our computers, and immediately begin sharing and commenting. Unfortunately, what often gets reported at the beginning of a news cycle, particularly as the facts are still being ascertained in the midst of chaos, is inaccurate and hazy, built on rumor and faulty witness reports. But those faulty reports and false rumors have now been thrown all over the media, social and otherwise, and unless those doing the throwing are quick to follow up with corrected, more accurate information, the misinformation exists online forever as fact, misleading many in the process.

• An incendiary, salacious, click-baity article is posted; it revs up the pitchfork throwers, sending commenters and trolls into a frenzy… only to have it pointed out that the site is a “satire site,” the article was tongue-in-cheek, the content was a joke, and so on. But before this is made clear, hordes of people have disseminated the information to be discussed and debated as fact.

• And, even in the most benign of circumstances, some of us are guilty of posting, say, notices of a celebrity death… only to have someone clarify that the person being mourned actually died months, even years, earlier. (A year or so ago, I—yes, I—posted a bittersweet piece about my favorite childhood DJ from Chicago having passed… only to be informed that he’d died three years prior! That’s the last time I posted something without first checking the date!)

And that’s the point. We gotta do a better job of checking what we post and share. We do have a role in this “truth in media” equation, an obligation even. Because we—the readers, listeners, sharers, commenters, posters, tweeters, bloggers—are like bees that spread pollen, birds that flit from flower to flower; Johnny Appleseeds with our bags of, well, apple seeds. We may not write the stories, but if we’re out there pollinating cyberspace with our shares, tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, comments, etc., we are participating in either informing or misinforming the reading public.

The fix? Simple: before you post or share anything, apply the following:

  1. Check the date. If it’s old, odds are good the information is as well. Either don’t post it, or—if it’s a topic/person/event you feel strongly about—find a more current source. Or at least make a point of alerting people that it’s an old article. 
  2. Check the site you’re sourcing from. If you’re sharing information from a far Right or far Left site, or any site known for a certain slant or opinion, odds are good the information being shared is biased toward that philosophy. Biased doesn’t necessarily mean not true, but it does mean one ought to share and read with a grain of circumspection. Even caution. Even cynicism. If you post something from such a site, be so kind as to make note of the political/philosophical penchant of the source so readers and sharers are aware and can judge accordingly.
  3. Check the veracity of what you’re posting. This one may be most important, particularly in regard to information that is incendiary, sensational, accusatory, insulting, potentially defaming; possibly not-true. Do us all a favor and get some fact-checking in before you post that sort of thing (or, really, anything). Between Snopes, Politifact, FactCheck, even Wikipedia, you can certainly do your own due diligence. In fact, it behooves us all to either refrain from posting slanderous-type material (particularly from a biased source), or be damn sure we’ve verified the truth of what we’re sharing. There’s enough misinformation and inaccurate propaganda out there without any of us contributing to the muckraking. 
  4. Be upfront when posting from satire sites. It’s all well and good to be so savvy, so culturally hip, that you know all the cool satire sites in the world, but presume not everyone else does. Posting a disclaimer like *SATIRE* is not only appreciated, it goes a long way toward keeping horrified folks from sharing as fact what is meant to be humor.
  5. Do your homework and figure out which news sources post the most neutral, most factual, most verifiable, least salacious news. Then share from those sites. This may take some time to sort out, and designated sites may go in and out of the category, but it’s worth it in the long run to get a decent list together, not only in terms of what to share from where, but what to reference for your own news information.

I’m sure there are other items that would be useful to the assignment (feel free to leave yours in the comments), but for now, these five, if vigilantly applied, would contribute mightily to the stanching of misinformation, and the propagating of more “truth in media.” I urge us all to do our part. Then, when we complain about the “media,” we can do so knowing that we, at least, have not further contributed to its “lameness.”

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

The Weight of Words and What I’m Doing With Mine

QUIET DOWN AND THINK

I can’t write anymore.

Actually, that’s not true. I write constantly. I just finished my second novel and spent enough hours a day, over enough months, to get it done in about a third of the time I’d have expected… or it took to write my last novel. Of course, my left eye exploded in the process, making me look like a pugilist in service to my Muse, but dammit, I met the publicist’s deadline, I love what I’ve wrangled into being, and we all know burst blood vessels look way worse than they feel.

What I can’t seem to write? Articles. Opinion pieces. Analyses of the world around us.

Which is odd. Because I used to. I used to put out two to four articles a day during my Addicting Info “all politics/crime/current events all the time” phase. Now the last piece I wrote at Huff Post has been up for over two months (although it is a very cool piece about Lisa Schultz of The Peace Project!) and even here I barely manage more than one or two posts a month (if I’m lucky!).

What gives?

Clearly some of this has to do with getting the aforementioned novel to its deadline. But, to be completely honest, that wasn’t it. The real reason: I lost my jones. And I had an epiphany.

I used to be compelled to write articles. Things would happen in the world, in my life, and I had to say something for my own sanity; I had to organize my swirling thoughts on the topic to help me frame it, make it make more sense to me, then try to make it make more sense to readers. It was a form of therapy. I also felt like I was providing a service, “giving voice,” as one reader said, to things others felt and believed but couldn’t put into words. I felt like a thought crusader, noble, in a way.

Then it changed. I started feeling less like a thought crusader and more like part of the screaming mob at the gladiator pit. A fist-pumping, blood-lusting, click-baiting mouthpiece for the worst of the world. Not pretty. And I never looked good in togas.

pitchforksThe process of throwing in on stories already being written about, talked about, screamed about by millions of voices—social media users, pundits, talk show hosts, cable news anchors, commenters, your next door neighbor, newspaper writers, web journalists, bloggers, that guy on the corner, and everyone in your Facebook circle—simply lost its glow. Our 2.0 world of “all media of all kinds at all times” has, yes, democratized commentary and opinion writing across the board—meaning anyone anywhere has access and a platform to share their own…and pretty much everyone does. Which has led to a media crush of biblical proportion. It’s also led to redundancy and oversaturation, misinformation and ugliness, and loads of ALL CAPS and exclamation points (!!!!!), often drowning out, or at least neutralizing, the best of opinion and commentary from our most seasoned, experienced writers.

And I admire the best of those writers, figuring Nicholas Kristof, Michael Tomasky, Frank Bruni, and others doing the job with aplomb have got it covered. I’m not needed. There’s too much noise anyway.

Maybe it’s because I’m one of eleven children, but I learned early on that jumping up and down, screaming and waving your hands to be heard over the din is not necessarily effective or particularly useful. When things get too cacophonous and out of control, it’s sometimes better to go off to your own stillness to sort out how best to get a point across or affect change where you believe change is needed. That’s where I am… in my stillness. It’s quiet in here, there are no screaming commenters, and it’s amazing how much more insight and direction one finds with the news off.

Certainly I’m flattered that readers have commented that “we miss your voice,” or have written asking when/if I might write about Ferguson, grand juries, racial politics, NYC cops, Charlie Hedbo, Nigeria, Keystone, Mitt Romney, even Bill Cosby. But this is where the second part comes in. My epiphany.

Beyond losing my jones, beyond figuring there were enough voices already covering the news, I simply stopped wanting to focus my readers’ attention on the darkest corners of our world, whether events, people, or bad behavior. Instead, I wanted to focus their attention in another direction. Towards positive thought and action. Which is not easy. Not as interesting. Not as buzzworthy. Not as virally. But still, epiphanies are rare and not to be ignored.

See, about eighteen months ago I realized I needed to reassess my life, my priorities, the ways in which I framed my world. I went off by myself for six weeks and spent a great deal of time exploring, researching, reading, meditating; did a workshop, learned about forgiveness, talked to wise people and insightful guides, and one of them asked me, out of the blue, without even knowing I was a writer: “What are you going to write about? What do you want to write about? Ponder that. See it as change.” And that struck me.

I had already decided to pull out of the click-bait world of sensationalized political reporting, but this seemed to push me even further. I began exploring the subject of how what we think and verbalize tangibly impacts our lives, and that brought me to something I already knew but had forgotten in more recent years:

The World We SeeThoughts matter. Particularly persistent thoughts. Words matter. The words we think, the words we say, the words we read and share publicly, both verbally and in writing. We create the world (certainly our own world) by how and where we focus our attention, by what we consistently think about and talk about; by what we believe, hold on to, and put forth about ourselves, our lives, and the world in which we live. And I realized that by spending so much of my time on the negative—skewering, critiquing, exposing, and analyzing the very worst of the world, the very least admirable people, the most egregious crimes and misdemeanors—I was adding energy to a great many things, events, and people I did not want to add energy to. And I was putting my readers’ attention on those very same things.

I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I stopped.

You can say that’s all a bunch of new-agey hooey; you can accuse me of going soft, of abdicating responsibility to illuminate the dark corners of humanity; you can even dismiss me as an “old woman who just doesn’t want to deal with conflict,” as one pissant writer I used to edit said to me. You can say whatever you want about me and my perspective, that’s okay. You’re free to think, do, have your own experiences, even about me. But my life—particularly in the last eighteen months—has unequivocally demonstrated to me that I’m on to something.

When I see people with their cable news on all day, see them spending hours in scream fests on Facebook, immersed in the recyling click-bait of the moment, it’s clear to me that modern society has been fed a bill of goods about the value of “staying informed.” It’s been misled by the way media “illuminates the dark corners of humanity.” Media is doing that, certainly, but why do we think we need that? Why have we been led to believe that being a responsible, caring, proactive citizen requires this immersion? Especially when news all too often skews reality rather than just reports it. When it misinforms, distorts, propagandizes, repeats to the point of indoctrination, and regularly spins life in its most despairing of hues. We can barely breath for the day-to-day onslaught of horrific events, fear and anxiety are mongered in epidemic doses, and the primitive, teeth-gnashing battlegrounds of those who take to the threads to “debate” have become positively neanderthal. Yet, what most us don’t realize (or believe) is that by putting our attention, our thoughts, our words, so firmly on the very things we don’t want in our lives, in our world, we are participating in keeping them energized into being.

Hope Never DiesI can feel some rolling their eyes. I can hear others hollering that “activism is sparked by rage!!” (someone’s justification to me for, both, the Ferguson riots and the tendency of people to scream at each other on social media). I can imagine some claiming righteous indignation at the notion that righteous indignation may not, actually, be all that effective… or righteous. I’ve lost “friends” and readers because I’ve chosen to climb out of the mosh pit and put my attention elsewhere. All of which is fine. We each gotta do what we gotta do. But if I’m going to spend the precious time of my life doing something, it better be of true value, of considerable use, and I’ve come to believe that consistently focusing on, verbalizing about, and angsting over the worst of life is counterproductive. At least for me. And likely for you, too. Noise is not always power. Sometimes, as Francis Bacon said, “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”

So what do we do instead, those of us who care about what’s happening, who want to see the world and the people in it become better, more evolved, less hateful? It’s a fair question. Because the ubiquity and ease with which we receive horrifying news has created a painful conundrum for compassionate people. It’s caused us to hear and know about some of the most egregious acts humans can commit upon one another, while having very little real, true power to do much about it. Once we’ve signed our petitions, written the letters we might, marched when and where we can, joined whatever groups make sense, or decided where we’ll put our charitable giving, there is a limit to our power to intervene in matters beyond our control. So what do we do?

We embody and exemplify what we want the world to be. We become the best versions of ourselves. We make every single thing we do, think, intend, create, touch, say in this world a moment, a creation, of grace and enlightenment. As parents, we do our best to exude love and exemplify honor, raising smart, loving, compassionate, tolerant children. As artists, we seek to inspire, reflect, provoke thought, and share meaning, passion and joy. As family members and friends, we allow others to have their own experiences without judgment and interference, being there and getting involved as invited, as is compassionate, and when we can. As members of our communities, our towns, our countries, our human race, we embody ethics and ideals that hold to the highest standards of human behavior, and we apply that ancient—yet completely perfect—Golden Rule: do unto others as we’d have them do unto us. We live good lives, think good thoughts, intend good things and, even while making note of the many tragedies around us, keep our attention focused on positive forward motion in the lives we each are living.

As for me, when I pondered what I wanted to write about, as I was asked to do, I made the decision to write about what inspires and interests me, click-bait be damned. I consider it part of my job to stay optimistic and uplifted, even in the midst of madness, because I can. Because I’ve discovered life gets better when I do that. And my energy, my thoughts, and my creativity, are best used toward that goal: making life better. Activism comes in a great many varieties… that’s one of mine. I hope you’ll turn off the news and find your own.

Feel free to let me know in the comments your own thoughts on these matters.

Photos by Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Who Do We Have To _____ To Get a Little Respect Around Here?

Self-pub meme

The cheers of indie authors who’ve FINALLY found outlets for their books — whether Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu, indie bookstores; wherever — can be heard far and wide from every corner of the globe. It’s been loudly exclaimed by everyone in the know that it’s the dawn of a new day for writers everywhere. After years of dismissal and disrespect from traditional publishers and their gatekeepers across every element of the literary landscape — from query letter browbeating, ice-cold rejections, overly possessive editors, and blasé publishers with no marketing budgets — independent authors have now taken control of their destinies and ventured forth, filters, limitations and grumpy gatekeepers be damned.

Good, right?

Yes, in some ways. In others, we indies are still very much the ugly stepsisters to our more vaunted and valued legacy colleagues. Don’t think so? Just today I clicked on the website of a “recommended book blogger” (whose name I will leave out for the sake of decorum) who seemed hell-bent on insulting those self-published writers who’d had the audacity to contact him for reviews. His FAQ page not only went out of its way to discuss how unreadable he found most self-pubbed books, but his hissing condescension about “amateurish” writers incapable of even understanding the word “no” led to a sneering pronouncement that he didn’t want to read, hear about, or otherwise experience the books of said authors and, therefore, please don’t waste his time by contacting him.

Sheesh. The fumes of disdain emanating from his page practically choked me.

And he’s not the only one. Media sources abound with snitty-toned announcements that they DO NOT TAKE SUBMISSIONS FROM SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHORS (caps are theirs). Review sites that cover legacy authors free-of-charge gouge self-pubbers in the hundreds of dollars. Feature writers who ooze admiration for the latest debut novelist from the Big 5 have actually figured out how to roll their eyes on Twitter over the pathetic shenanigans of indie writers trying to get their attention.

We’re definitely the “not cool” kids on the playground and this persistent — and, in many cases, undeserved — marginalization makes launching an indie book all the more difficult. When the overriding presumption is that your book is — to put it bluntly — a piece of shit (a presumption with which I personally take umbrage), you’re not only starting from zero in the world of marketing and promotion, you’re climbing from less-than-zero.

Fair? No. But let’s face it; we kinda dug our own hole, we self-published writers. Despite the fact that the industry is changing and evolving on a daily basis, with increasing numbers of options and outlets available, and more and more authors — even some from the traditional world — opting to go the self-published route, the rickety stage set early-on was built largely by anxious amateurs eager to define themselves as “authors” before availing themselves of the various elements of true professionalism. There are still far too many self-pubbed books that are amateurishly written, with poorly edited copy and covers that fairly scream “I’m a self-published writer!!!” And, unfortunately, still too many authors who relegate those necessary tasks as negotiable rather than essential — a professional blunder akin to a restaurateur opening a bistro without a qualified chef, a decent waitstaff, or a well-designed room. The resulting customer and industry response (see above) is the sad and subsequent remnant of that miscalculation.

We are all, every one of us, tarnished to some extent by the mistakes of the early (and prevailing) corner-cutters, but those mistakes are, hopefully, being mitigated by the growing number of independent authors who do approach their work, their books, and their presentation with impeccable and unassailable standards. And that growing number (of which I count myself) deserve to NOT be automatically generalized into a category of “subpar” by media, reviewers, bloggers and the like. Just as many traditionally published books (to once again put it bluntly) suck, yes… so do many self-published books. Conversely, just as many traditionally published books are profound and not-to-be-missed works of literary wonder, so, too, are many self-published books.

That the aforementioned blogger and his snarky cohorts refuse to consider that is evidence of literary shortsightedness. Like geezers who discount useful technology as “newfangled” or antiquarians who bemoan penmanship while ignoring heartfelt emails, they’re missing out. Of a gem. A “stunning debut.” A “keenly executed character study.” A really good book.

Their loss. But the unwillingness of the wider media to explore indie authors with the same open-mindedness — and vetting and reviewing protocols — implemented for those traditionally published, is creating a literary ghettoization. And the resulting deficit is felt not only by the writers being dismissed simply by virtue of being self-published, but by readers who have less access to those authors and their work because of that ignorance.

Just as self-published writers are obligated to evolve and demand of themselves the highest levels of professionalism, so, too, must accompanying media evolve away from their myopia and literary bigotry. If they do not, what is being wasted is far more than their time; also lost is the cultural embrace of much talent and many good books being written by courageously independent authors who deserve at least a look.

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Junkfood Journalism: Why We Get Exactly The Media We Ask For And What To Do About It

There’s nothing new in complaints that journalism has died a slow, inexorable death since the days of great newspapers, intellectually sharp periodicals, and newscasters who brought wisdom and gravitas to their broadcasts. Culture bemoans the passing of those glory days, as media critics and the viewing, reading and listening public denounce most news and media coverage as cesspools of hacks plagiarizing each other, sensationalizing even the most banal of stories, and often getting facts wrong in the rush to get the “get” or beat the deadline.

And all that’s true… well, sometimes and in some cases. Particularly the sensationalizing part. But as someone who’s now been a media writer (how that differs from “journalist” I don’t know but I’ll take the lesser label in a nod to humility) for several years, much has become clear to me about how and why we got to this point. I’d like to take a minute to spell it out, at least from my point of view, and hopefully illuminate whose fault it is.

It’s yours, dear readers; your fault. You are to blame. Oh, I know you had nothing to do with Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post, the fact that The New York Times is struggling to sell ad space or the Chicago Sun Times recently layed off all its full-time photographers. I’m aware you had no vote in choosing the cover of the Rolling Stone or pushing for the demise of Newsweek as an ink & paper magazine. Certainly you aren’t responsible for wrangling advertisers or selling souls to keep staff paid at online media companies. But you are the demand part of the supply/demand equation and it’s because of what you’ve demanded – gauged by what you buy, read or comment on – that has determined the direction of media in our 2.0 world.

And what you’ve demanded – the majority of you, anyway – are stories about celebrity weight gain, idiotic politicians, ever-more evil criminals, persistent racists, inexhaustible homophobes, wildly divergent religious nuts and… well, you know what you’ve demanded. And being slavishly devoted to the Almighty Demand that attracts the Almighty Advertisers which results in the Almighty Dollar, media sources in the 2.0 world are more than happy to supply that demand. Well… maybe not happy, but they’re doing it.

And the reason the media knows what you want? For rags like the Weekly World News, it’s how many rags you buy. For online journalism? By the sheer click of your keyboard to open a story. That one little seemingly benign click is a dead giveaway to the bean-counters of online media. And newspapers, media sites, magazines and political blogs are all paying rapt attention to just what you click on because the click is currency.

Back in pre-Internet days, a newspaper’s fortunes were determined by two elements: subscribers and advertisers. The more subscribers, the more attraction to advertisers; the more advertisers, the more money to pay reporters to provide that deeper, pithier coverage oldsters remember. It was a symbiotic and tenuous relationship that drove many a newspaper publisher crazy, but the value of the subscriber was not to be minimized.

However, in those pre-Internet days, publishers didn’t necessarily know what subscribers actually read on any given day. Yes, there were “Letters to the Editor” to reflect some response, but only few of those could be printed and, human nature being what it is, only the most outspoken took the time to actually write; clearly no scientific gauge of interest. Publishers and editors were inspired to be meaningful (Pulitzers were always nice), and burdened to pick the most important – but also the most attention-getting – stories for “above the fold.” If they got it wrong, fewer newspapers sold, dampening subscriber and advertiser interest, trickling down to economic tension. It was a business model built on the fragile anticipation of how best to present news and anticipate readership.

Then along came the Internet… and, as with so many other industries, everything changed, witnessed by the demise of countless fine newspapers and periodicals that had once been chroniclers of our life and times. While a few ink and paper sources remain, what we’ve got now is a glut of Internet media that represents the online versions of the New York Times, the Washington Post or any of the other extant big-city newspapers; the online arms of radio and TV stations; political, news and cultural media sites; bloggers – known and unknown – and every kind of site related to media you can possibly imagine. AND ALL ARE COMPETING FOR YOUR CLICKS.

Because, just as as subscriptions used to telegraph reader interest and loyalty, now it’s clicks. Every media site – large or small, The Huffington Post to Addicting Info to that blogger your friend turned you onto –  is competing for clicks. The click that happens when an online reader opens an article. They don’t have to read it, they don’t have to comment on it; all they’ve got to do is click it open and their “vote” has been registered. Those clicks tell advertisers that readers have gone to the page where their ads are placed, which encourages them to keep paying for that ad space. Those clicks tells Google, or whichever ad algorithm is being used, that readers have clicked on the page where they’ve sold space, which activates a mechanism for them to pay money to that media site for its clicks. The click tells a site which stories, which writers, are most popular, and those writers (and, yes, their less popular counterparts) get paid per click.

The click, therefore, is the trigger of success; the all-important gauge of reader interest.

And how do you get those clicks? You have to grab the reader’s attention with everything in your arsenal: sensationalized stories, attention-getting headlines, fear-mongering editorials, compelling photographs, provocative quotes; you focus on the most buzz-worthy aspect of any piece of news and pick stories that translate as urgent, salacious, can’t-look-away must-reads. Those are the stories that get the most clicks… hence, those are the stories that glut every news site online (and off). When even the higher profile sites like The Huffington Post, Salon and The Daily Beast run stories about orgasms, excrement, misbehaving celebrities, and who’s got side-boob problems, you know we’re all beholden to the mighty click. When headlines are purposely broad, base, and dripping with sensationalism (often times unrelated to the actual story they’re titling), you know we’re all beholden to the click. When publishers push trivial but prurient pieces over more meaningful but less exotic fare, we are all, very much, beholden to the click.

For writers, the formula is truly a deal with the devil. You need to make a living, you want to pick pieces that have the potential for high readership; you hope to “go viral” with something that catches fire, but you have your credibility as a writer to consider as well. So you throw in a few of the more didactic, literary, meaningful pieces to keep your journalistic cred intact, but it’s understood those are for prestige, not clicks… ’cause they ain’t gonna get any! If you get too squeamish about the smut, and turn down too many of the extreme, salacious, horrifying, incendiary stories, the other writers will take them and walk away with the “click load” of the day. And the writers with no compunction about journalistic cred? They rush to cover the latest shooting, the most grisly deaths, the biggest idiots doing the most idiotic things, and they cash out… while your Nelson Mandela piece, the moving article on roadside memorials, or that thoroughly researched post on the Arctic thud at the bottom of the list. Regardless of the urge to cover those stories, you know they won’t garner anywhere near the clicks as one about a baby being raped to death by a her mother’s sociopathic boyfriend. Like I said; it’s a deal with the devil.

A few colleagues shared some thoughts on the dilemma we online writers face. One, a male writer with a big following in liberal politics, said he occasionally has to write something literary and academic because the survival of his soul demands it… but he’s clear his bread and butter is in snark and sensationalism. Another spoke of her queasiness at making such big numbers on the aforementioned raped baby story when she’d rather be covering something more uplifting. Some writers get discouraged when their well-analyzed pieces on important issues tank while shallower, less researched ‘snap pieces” bring in the big numbers. See… it’s all about you readers.

Frankly, it’s the TMZ formula: prurience, gossip, snark; anything with the word “butt” – they cover those stories repetitively and persistently because readers click on them in such big numbers the demand is clear. And every media site is clamoring for numbers like TMZ.

Case in point: after a couple of years of doing this, I got into a discussion with an editor friend of mine who insisted that “good news stories” did well, “happy” pieces can catch fire, and inspirational themes could capture solid readership. I’m sure they can, I retorted… every once in a blue moon. In truer fact, I countered, the bulk of readers could care less about ‘good news.’ No matter how much they complain about sensationalism and salaciousness, they are, in fact, more likely to click on stories covering the spectrum of ‘evil-doing’ in politics, entertainment, religion, crime, and general life than pieces about heroes, winners and do-gooders. Proof?

It was the end of the year; the typical retrospectives were in order and I was set to write a “best and worst people of 2012” piece for Addicting Info. In a flash of brilliance, I realized this could be the perfect test for my theory: instead of combining the lists in one piece, I wrote two: The 10 Best People of 2012 and The 10 Worst People of 2012. Both were published at the same time, both started at top position on the site’s home page; both had compelling photographs appropriate for their theme; both were promoted equally. And in just the first days in which I was able to check the stats, the Worst article received almost 40,000 clicks; the Best… you already guessed it… less than 3000. While clearly not scientific, it made the point.

We get sensationalized, salacious, bad news journalism as a steady diet because that’s what readers demand by virtue of what they’re clicking. Or buying. Or reading. 

So my advice for those of you who want something better? DON’T CLICK ON THAT STORY ABOUT LINDSAY LOHAN. Don’t pick up that ridiculous tabloid about Hillary’s ‘alien baby.’ Don’t fall for the purposely ensnaring headlines, particularly ones about someone’s sexual habits, weight gain, bad cosmetic surgery, failing movie, stupid political comments, insane acts of self-sabotage, or latest bad affair. Pick and choose your real life crime dramas, presume the Westboro Baptist Church and Rush Limbaugh have been amply covered, and don’t be afraid to not read every single story about Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter. DO click on pieces about companies implementing health coverage for their employees, the lunacy of Confederate history month, anti-women myths that need debunking, the Herzog PSA about texting and driving and non-profit groups that shouldn’t get tax-exempt status. Enjoy good snark, witty commentary, sharp satire and inspirational think pieces. And get over the misconception that thoughtful, meaningful stories are too ponderous for online reading. Yes, the depth might be different but the word counts tend to be the same. And let’s make this very clear: the more you succumb to junkfood journalism, the more it will be fed to you. It’s that simple. They’re counting your clicks.

The future of journalism is in your hands… click wisely.

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.