There are a number of hardened memes each independent author must confront at some point in the publishing process. One of these is the platform meme, which says you have to be willing to create your own audience. As regular readers know, I equate an author’s platform with their celebrity.
A related publishing meme dictates that you can’t successfully leverage your platform and celebrity unless you actively engage your audience. No matter how clever your marketing is, it’s not enough to say, “Here I am!” — you also need to say, “How are you?” and “What do you think?”
There are two reasons why this engagement is deemed important. First, you must differentiate yourself from the torrent of information available to (and being broadcast at) consumers, because consumers have become experts at tuning out. Second, engagement builds the strongest possible relationship you can have with the consumer, short of asking them to move in with you. While your engagement will mean nothing to the majority of consumers, to those who are interested it may mean the difference between passing interest and brand-grade commitment.
It’s not all good news, of course. To the extent that the internet facilitates such engagement it also drives the need. While it’s literally true that the internet requires a person to opt in, as a social matter it’s assumed that everyone will do so — and this is particularly true for people who aspire to build any kind of brand awareness. Because celebrity is simply brand awareness for a person, and because celebrity brands now have the potential for direct human interaction, there is both an additional level of opportunity and obligation in engaging celebrity-interested consumers.
For these reasons, celebrity in the modern sense compels maintenance of an online presence, along with the regular care and feeding of content to people who embrace and engage that presence. It’s understood that A-list celebs can’t respond to everyone, and that there are legitimate privacy and security issues that need to be taken into account by anyone who uses the internet. However, up-and-coming celebs of any stripe — and here I include any writer other than already-established brand names like King, Brown and Rowling — are expected to make themselves available.
What’s left unsaid in all this — and what needs to be consciously considered — is who you intend to be when you embrace your inner celebrity and develop your platform. In the general public the current trend is that one’s online persona should be a relentlessly hip, socially-aware version of one’s self, which is then regularly expressed without regard to the personal or psychological boundaries normally respected in face-to-face communications. Random observations, stray thoughts, and (perhaps especially) crude, rude, or sexually-provocative comments are highly valued in the transient world of online communications, while more substantive expressions of identity or actual ideas tend to be looked down on as boring and dated.
But being part of the crowd is not necessarily the right choice for someone aspiring to celebrity, let alone the right voice for any platform or product. Maybe you would be better positioned as down-to-earth, or as more of a Luddite, skeptic and crank. Too, there’s the important question of how closely you want to match who you are with the marketing of yourself. Do you want your public-facing persona to be in perfect lockstep with your writing and personal views? Or do you want there to be some distance between you as author and the works you create? Do you feel any obligation to tell the truth about yourself and your life experience, or do you consider every aspect of your celebrity platform to be a selling opportunity?
The question here is not about full disclosure of you as a human being, but rather what persona will most effectively communicate your celebrity/platform message while maintaining whatever degree of personal integrity you deem important to you as a person. As an aside, it’s critical that you not delude yourself into thinking that your online persona is you in any real sense. No matter how honest you may strive to be in your blogging, social-network posting or long-form writing, you are always, always editing your message. You can strive to be honest and open and fair, but you will always have issues or topics you self-censor. And you should.
The conventional wisdom lately has been to emphasize the value of authenticity, but I’m not sold on that idea. First, I’m not convinced that fans and followers really want to know the real person behind the image they fall in love with. Second, I’m concerned that authenticity has become a synonym for genuine imitation leather. Meaning it’s the appearance of authenticity that matters — the ability to fake it — and not authenticity itself that’s key to the celebrity-fan relationship.
To see all of this with a bit more clarity, consider the following three illustrative examples.
Example 1: Me
In my blogging I try to be professional, honest and open about the issues this blog covers. That includes being authoritative about things I think I know, but also giving insight into my own thinking process as I wrestle with new information and new ideas. There are also a lot of things I don’t talk about here, like my family and other relationships that are important to me, or my general likes and dislikes, etc.
Too, what you read here is not a particularly complete expression of who I am as a person. I made a decision early on not to swear on this blog for two reasons. First, it’s not germane to the topics at hand, or particularly useful in illuminating those topics. Second, I didn’t want kids or parent being concerned about my language as opposed to my ideas (or lack of same). Do I swear in my private life? Maybe. But either way that’s really the point. I made a conscious decision about how much of me I’m going to project into my platform commentary on this site, and that aspect of me didn’t make the cut. (Unless I don’t ever actually swear.)
Still, my opinions about things such as the free/freemium model, celebrity, self-publishing, or anything else I spout off about, are as unalloyed as I can present them. I don’t ever want a reader to think that I’m shading my opinion (or the truth) in favor of something or someone else, or that I’m attempting to profit by doing so. Credibility on issues central to this site really matters to me — including admitting what I don’t know — and I would hope it matters to my readers.
Example 2: Chuck Wendig
If you’ve never been to Chuck’s site, you’re in for a treat laced with violence and plenty of foul language, and I give him high marks for execution. Chuck swears, Chuck rants, Chuck engages in lusty and lurid asides, and in doing so manages to put forward a truly entertaining characterization of…someone.
See, I don’t know Chuck at all. For all I know — however improbable this might seem — his on-blog persona may actually be a factual expression of who he is in his private life. I tend to think not, but you never really know. But again, that’s not the point.
Chuck’s writing and persona are flawlessly consistent. His web site, his writing style, his persona are all integrated. He never steps out of character — even in his blog comments and even on Twitter. As a reader or fan, if you click with what he’s doing you’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone doing it better.
Is he telling the truth? Well, as far as his posts about writing go, yes, he’s telling the truth. I think he knows how to tell stories, he knows about interactive issues, and no matter how he dresses up his observations, that knowledge comes through. His voice is authoritative, his readers are responsive, and his platform is seamlessly integrated into his persona. You could learn a lot watching Chuck do his thing.
Example 3: Gretchen Rubin
If anything got me thinking about the issue of authenticity it was my own experience following Gretchen Rubin on Twitter. Gretchen is the author of a book called The Happiness Project, and six months ago she was in the process of ramping up her platform for the release of that book. (If you haven’t heard of Gretchen Rubin by now you’ve been living in a cave.)
Being new to the ways of the publishing world, I watched with interest as Gretchen transitioned from writing a blog to extending her platform to launching her book to landing on the New York Times Bestseller list at #1. And she did it all exactly the way it should be done — by being engaged and appearing at events and making herself available online in a variety of ways. (She even responded and apologized to a tongue-in-cheek tweet I wrote, pointing out that she had inadvertently let slip a spoiler about a just-released movie I intended to see.) To the extent that you can never really know anyone (let alone yourself) she seemed serious and committed and, dare I say it, authentic.
Then came that fateful day when the journalistic branch of the New York Times wrote a feature about Gretchen, no doubt motivated by the Times’ own #1 Bestseller ranking. While reading the piece I happened across this graph, which obliterated the carefully-created persona that Gretchen had successfully created in my mind:
In her book, Ms. Rubin’s husband, Jamie, plays the role of the long-suffering good sport. She discloses intimate details such as his hepatitis C, but doesn’t mention that he is a senior partner at BC Partners, a hedge fund. Nor does she mention that her father-in-law, known to readers as the sage, affable “Bob,” is known to the world as Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, who stepped down last year as an adviser to Citigroup.
Wow. I mean: wow…. Seriously? Gretchen Rubin is the daughter-in-law of a guy who’s not only worth a bazillion dollars himself, but who was also one of they key players in, and philosophical backers of, a financial market philosophy that crippled the lives of millions of Americans? And this is somehow not germane to Gretchen’s own ability to testify about happiness?
Obviously there are a lot of issues here, and I recognize that Gretchen has an able defense. The fact that she married into a bazillion dollars, or that her husband and father-in-law may have participated in creating unhappiness on a national scale — including the unhappiness of people who then used her book to seek relief — should not deny her the right to pursue her own spiritual path. If she wasn’t happy before, and now she’s happy, that’s good enough for me as far as her own life journey is concerned.
As far as testifying about happiness, however, I think Gretchen’s family life and financial status fairly calls into question her ability to know what happiness is, or how most people might define it. Because my own life experience tells me that a fair amount of day-to-day unhappiness in the life for the average non-daughter-in-law-of-Bob-Rubin is related to money. I’m sure I’ve read a number of statistics over the years that say the number one issue that couples fight over is money. And of course money makes all kinds of happiness-inducing things possible — like vacations, and food for your children, and jewels, and medical care, and gold bars, and life insurance, and automobile insurance, and a retirement plan.
And yet…after the NYT article came out, I didn’t hear a peep about Gretchen’s status as a happiness guru. I expected there to be some fallout, particularly among the duped believers who had bought into her celebrity, but I detected none. It was as if Gretchen Rubin’s authenticity and celebrity as a happiness guru was completely divorced from the reality of her existence as an extremely fortunate human being. And that has made me take a very hard look at the idea of credibility on the internet, and whether it actually matters.
To put a finer point on all this, Gretchen herself prominently touts the Times’ #1 bestseller ranking on the site for her book. I can find no link or reference on that same site, however, to the New York Times’ article which includes information about her familial relationships. Without reading any motive into these facts, it does seem clear to me that Gretchen Rubin as an online persona and publishing celebrity has made a conscious choice to omit that article from her platform.
As noted above, conventional wisdom says it’s not good enough to just get out there and stand in a spotlight, or to otherwise rely only on broadcasting (unidirectional messaging). You have to engage your audience through social media, the thinking goes, and in doing so you must be authentic. Celebrity matters, but it’s the quality of your celebrity — its authenticity — that really makes the difference.
But is that really true? Does anyone’s audience actually care who they really are? While it seems as if the internet facilitates a more personal interaction between creator and consumer, that’s only true relative to the traditional mediation of such conversations. It says nothing about whether authors are being honest or open, nor does it imply that the consumer/reader has a great deal of interest in authorial integrity.
In many cases, the very definition of a relationship in which we admire or subordinate ourselves to someone else includes the premise that we don’t want any bad news, warts or complications to interrupt our idolizing. (See also: Sarah Palin; Bill Clinton; the Catholic Church.) Still, it’s so very tempting to believe that integrity and authenticity matters. Or at least it’s tempting to me personally, because I value that in my own presence on the web. I believe that everyone has the right to keep their personal lives private, and that professionalism is all that’s required in meeting the test of authenticity, but Gretchen Rubin’s omissions about her family life cross a line with me because I believe those relationships are germane to her credibility on the issue of happiness. Is she wrong, or am I?
Gretchen wants to be a guru. Gurus (Seth Godin, Tony Robbins, Robert McKee) are not so much concerned with being right or honest as they are with encouraging people to attain goals they aspire to — and with making a buck off that encouragement. In effect they’re selling hope, not truth. If lying or omitting a bit of information gets a disciple where they want to go, what self-respecting guru would stand in the way of that success? (A cynic might point out that lying to your believers effectively puts those believers in the position of having to choose between reality and the beliefs that may be keeping them psychologically afloat, or dependent. And of course there’s also the fact that nobody really likes admitting they got duped.)
From the point of view of Gretchen’s goals, and her audience’s needs and beliefs, it may actually be the right thing to omit that revelatory Times article from her site. I’m not saying it’s ethically right, because I as a person would never be able to withhold information like that. Then again, I wouldn’t presume to tell someone how they can be happy, because I think happiness is as inherently transitory as any other emotion. (This is not an invitation for anyone to explain to me that happiness comes from inside, that money won’t buy happiness, or that to be truly happy one must be free of material things. I get all that. And yet I still need money to have my broken leg set, and to feed the people I love, and to avoid sleeping on the street.)
Yet even as I wrestle with all these issues, I have to admit that it doesn’t really seem to matter. Celebrity and authenticity seem to be able to comfortably co-exist in a manufactured persona as much as they can (if not more so) in a more accurate one. My own approach is to maintain boundaries and be professional, but to aspire to credibility on the issues that matter to me. Chuck’s approach is to entertain like a banshee while being authoritative on issues he cares about, and I think he nails it. Gretchen’s approach is to craft her persona to her message, and to ignore anything about herself that doesn’t jibe with that message. And it all seems to work.
The only conclusion I have been able to reach is that the critical aspect of anyone’s online persona is internal consistency. You need to make sure that whoever and whatever you’re putting yourself forward as, you keep up the facade. (And they’re all facades to one degree or the other.)
If you want to entertain, entertain. If you want to develop a cult following, go for it. Your approach will necessarily define your audience, and at that point the only real mistake you could make would be betraying that audience. (An email from Gretchen to Uncle Bob, talking about a “happiness sucker being born every minute” would probably hurt her credibility.)
As personally frustrating as this is to say, in the direct connection between writer and reader, you don’t have to tell the truth. Fantasy can be as valid (and lucrative) as honesty, as long as the fantasy is what your followers want to hear. To the extent that this is a bit disappointing to me, it’s also confirmation that the internet as a medium is more plastic than many people imagine it to be.
Relative to a project I’ve had in mind for some time, that’s not simply good news, it’s effectively a green light. So thank you, Gretchen.
— Mark Barrett