ExperimentI was a shameless self-promoter for a week and no one called me on my fake book
Hope&Fears challenged one writer to shill for herself on social media and in real life. Here's what happened when she became a good little neoliberal.
Nora N. Khan
Nora N. Khan explores issues in literature, cybernetics, games and electronic music through fiction, essays and reviews. She has most recently published in Rhizome, DIS Magazine, Conjunctions, Kill Screen, and AVANT. She also tweets. Nora was processed through Harvard University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Today, more than ever, your success as a writer, or really, a creative of any stripe, is directly aligned with how timely, visible and consumable your output is. Are your thoughts and expressions perfectly packaged? Do you have a memorable avatar to pair with your musings? Is your humor hitting the mark? How tight is your social media game? Do you know the right people? Do the right people know you? Our professional personas and personal identities have slowly, surely become tangled up with how effectively we can put our immaterial labor out to ride in the internet bullpen.
Hopes&Fears challenged me to be a shameless self-promoter—a nasty little neoliberal shill of personal brandhood—for one week. To make this believable, I was to promote a fake book by setting up a fake website, sharing it through fake Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and in general, being exactly the kind of person I tend to mute, block or unfollow. The point was to channel every interaction, both online and off, through a dubious "what's in it for me?" attitude.
Here's what I went into the experiment believing: the art of self-promotion is all about being able to do it without coming off as overly obsessive or pushy. The successful personal brand hinges on appearing "natural," "organic" or "effortless." And, here's what really happened over the course of my shamelessly self-promotional week.
Day one involves a series of ugly realizations: first, I have to come up with a fake book project to promote. It has be plausible enough, but also slightly irritating. It also needs to have some element of hollowness or tone-deafness, so I could get some push-back. I write all the time, and over the last four or five years, have written more and more about the cross-pollination of art and technology, with some speculations on the future thrown in. The book title I come up with: Future Perfect.
I settle on three themes for my new fake book:
A feminist odyssey exploring the theoretical contours of late capitalism
Speculative strategy on how to emerge semi-intact from our brutal present as a futurist thinker
A manifesto for creating outer-world aesthetics, taking after the radical work of Chitra Ganesh
In short: a bunch of total bullshit. A feminist odyssey? A speculative strategy? Outer-world aesthetics? Who is this self-important knob? The pretension lends the project some theoretical legitimacy while also making it kind of insufferable. Yeah. Right. Shut up already, I think to myself. These themes would do well for my purposes.
I don't write about feminism explicitly—though I tweet about radical women a ton—so I figured the people who were most familiar with my work would catch this anomaly. I don't really write about race, either, so I assumed the "future brown aesthetic" nod would be called out too. At the very least, if no one said anything, it would reveal a thing or two about what people expect a South Asian woman writer to write about. I'd finally get a chance to find out who knew me and who didn't.
In the process, I realize just how tied up I am in people's perceptions of me, and how much of it is rooted in experience, both my own and that of my friends. I have a visceral fear of being boxed in by bias: of my inner life being reduced by someone else's lack of imagination when it comes to how I look, that is, what external, cultural and social markers I inhabit. Before this, I hadn't really thought about just how much this fear has shaped my life and choices. How many of the subjects I choose to cover about are a deliberate "fuck you" to hypothetical assumptions about who I am, what I'm interested in, and what I should or shouldn't write about? I thought fondly back to a writing teacher I had who told me, in an anecdote that would become infamous at our program, to ditch the surrealist science fiction and "write about your culture."
But, anyway, back to (my simulation of) reality. I knew I would need some sick visuals to pull this off, so I enlist Sam Rolfes, an artist and Hopes&Fears contributor who makes beautiful, gooey, abstract work for music and fashion heavyweights, to design me a cover image. I tell him about the "project" and how unsettled it's making me already. He replies that it's good to get outside of your comfort zone because that's how you're supposed to "grow."
I set up a website and a Twitter account. I also make a Facebook page. Then, I spend some time thinking about what I should post. I settle on sending out some mildly aggressive tweets like this one and this one, using sensitive, politicized hashtags to do my personal bidding. First impressions are everything.
On the second day, I start to feel the anger and disgust for myself set in. The night before, I had invited almost 600 people from my list of 700 Facebook friends to "like" the page for Future Perfect. Clicking "Send to all" was the most horrific online act I had ever committed. Yolo!
I want to fall off the face of the planet. No wonder I suck at this. I don't have the dark heart of truly ruthless ambition.
I publish a Facebook post, which describes the book, the title, and the themes. I say it's coming soon, and tell people to stay tuned for news and updates. I teasingly imply that I'm not at liberty to share more. Then, I pick the most stunning .gif from a folder of Sam's work that he let me look through. It's of a sort of headless woman in robes with cherry blossoms flowing past her. Damn, I think. This book would be pretty sick if it actually existed.
The more I watch the fake post take off, the more I begin to believe in the fake book. The more people that like and comment and and share, the more my heart sinks. I wish the book was real. I write a note and put it on my desktop: "Actually write Future Perfect, if only as a short essay to start." (By the end of the week, I have 53 likes, most of them from that second day.)
Oh God, I think. Why do these people just believe what I put out there, no questions asked? Not a single person suspected anything, or if they did, no one said anything. What does the accumulation of my original content, posts, shares, retweets and memes even amount to? What is it all to another passive voyeur, but some vague gesture at what my sense of humor and outlook on life? I thought the work was supposed to be enough, but it's not. People need to know who you are, but that can only happen if other people vouch for you. Today's heavily networked, commodified creative production would make so many writers of the past turn in their graves.
I don't like to impose myself on others. I especially dislike pushing my work. For the longest time, my self-promotion "strategy" has been to email links of my pieces to my closest friends. If there were no social media platforms on which to interact with an established network of people I barely know and rarely see, I'd have no vehicle at all.
On the third day, I tweet about the book from my personal Twitter, where I already let out a steady stream of incensed thoughts and conduct elaborate trolls, with the occasional emo detour into self-loathing. About 19 people like it, which seems like a decent number for a person who's not famous at all describing a project that doesn't actually exist. That I could attribute it to my many excellent followers who trust most of what I say only makes the whole undertaking more sordid. Harassing them with a series of self-promotional statuses feels unethical, more so than doing it to my Facebook friends. I consider canceling the experiment, but I can't. The first spade is already in the ground. Bury the brand. Dirty it up.
That these followers are strangers to me, and only know me through my digital output, means our bond of trust is more precious. Yet here I am, willfully testing it. I still have no clue what I'm doing, so I figure I need to gather more data and run a competitive analysis. I scroll through the feeds of the Big Dogs, observing how they masterfully weave their personal lives in with hilarious wit and relentless output. I look at the writers with books and the ones without books, and find the latter to be some of the most vocal and active on social media. Sometimes, their personal brands even get them book deals.
This made me think of the six or so years of work I had spent on my actual website, how I'd built it from scratch and how it steadily gathered a modest amount of interest. Now, I worry that I'll alienate people by seeming disingenuous when I pride myself on being direct and real. I dislike that I worry about this, about the very material impact of digital consumption. I resent how much of my identity is bound up in being a writer. Thinking in this alien way about my own output has led me to an impasse—and an epiphany!
My neoliberal core is starting to show. I thought I had tried in earnest and made significant sacrifices to be able to move in the direction I'm interested in heading. I hoped that the effort would open doors naturally. In many ways, it has; I'm finally at a point in my career where I have the choice to only take on projects I want to. But perhaps this involves a bit of denial: thinking of one's professional advancement as fluid and expansive is more palatable than the alternative; no one really wants to think of themselves as purely self-interested.
As I look over the early chronology of my published pieces, I see how I had at times written myself into a corner. Leaping out and moving forward had often been a matter of aggressively seeking out new contacts and venues—striking unlikely collaborations on a whim in the hopes of landing a grappling hook. It had worked, for the most part. Maybe I'd been a shamelss self-promoter all along, masquerading in the outerwear of a "sincere" and "authentic" alt-thinker. By the end of the day, I wasn't looking in the mirror very much at all.
Skin in the game
It's the fourth day, and the first thing I do when I wake up is check my Facebook stats. The likes aren't climbing quickly enough. I wonder if I'd made the page too gauzy for busy people and old classmates to make sense of.
Then, I check Twitter. So far, I have ten followers, all of them friends who had always been good supporters of my work. I receive a few excited DMs and emails about the book, people saying it's going to be fire. I respond only with "thanks," to be extra shitty. I gain ten more followers. Some of them retweet my initial posts. This is moving way too slowly. I have to produce a steady stream of content to keep the interest level up. The very thought exhausts me.
I tweet about Sam from the Future Perfect account, thinking a little co-branding might work to my advantage. Then, I go on a spree, following tons of writers blindly rather than taking the time to acquaint myself with their work and making the decision based on merit. I had been looking, much of the week, at how other shameless self-promoters push their product, and indiscriminate following seemed to be a good part of it. Authors, editors, big publishing houses, small presses, known journalists, obscure writers: the literary product-pusher canvasses wildly. I get more Twitter followers, mostly bots, I assume. This is a depressing business; the publishing precariat has to blindly forge ahead through a sea of faceless accounts in order to maybe hit gold.
Then, there are those writers who know how to navigate this world. They are amazing. They probably get up at 4:00 or 5:00 every morning to write their books before work and revise them on the weekends while also running marathons. They must have an inhuman amount of energy and drive to make good work and push their brands while also trying to survive. By mid-week, I find myself yearning to be more like them, just a little bit. They aren't fraught with anxiety or self-doubt over whether to promote themselves. They just do it.
As a poet friend pointed out when I described my challenge, there's also a very troubling gendered aspect to self-promotion. Women are far more likely to sit down and shut up when they're rejected once, or told their work needs revision or care. Yet the people I saw who promoted themselves the strongest were often women. This heartened me.
I think of another friend, a novelist, who had escaped a horrible marriage and only started writing later in life. She cobbled together the time to write her first novel between holding down two jobs. She paid for her arduous research trips around the country, staying in motels and eating crackers. She faithfully visited her book groups, all over the country. She created devoted followings in every American state, from Wyoming to Texas to Florida. She even made inroads overseas. A total badass. She wasn't afraid to say, "My work is good. You should read it." She understood that being a successful writer is about connecting with your readership. The self-promoters I saw, the ones who did it well anyway, were getting what they wanted and deserved. What every writer pines for, to some degree, is an audience.
After my day job, I create a tinyletter account; it has some links to my biography and recent publications. I send a mass email to dozens of random addresses I've amassed over the last ten years. One person signs up, and it's probably because I'd signed up for his the week before. No one else seems interested in the idea of a newsletter.
On the fifth day, I head to a reading. Once there, I post a photo of the crowd on Instagram. I crib some hashtags from the most cheerful and robotic accounts I've come across: #literary #booklife #authors #reading #amreading #cambridge #lovebooks #lovereading #writers #writerly #writinglife. There are literally dozens and dozens of hashtags the literary and publishing milieu utilizes: a language of marketing for houses and presses and non-profits.
I know a lot of writers and makers who aren't happy with social media's uncanny level of influence. These individuals eschew creating a brand in favor of the quiet tinkering of the creative life. They rail against the internet. They are proud Luddites, or approximations of Luddites. Technology is a curse, they say. It strips you of the solitude and distance you need to write. I google some thinkpieces on the torture of being social. The peace is gone.
A good quote comes to mind, from something Meghan Tifft wrote for The Atlantic:
"What if the community and the kind of participation it involves are actually bad for my writing, diluting my writerly identity, my ego and my id, and my subservience and surrender to the craft? What if I just want to make something? What if all this communing actually hurts the primary means by which I set out to participate and communicate—my writing itself? What do I do then? I mean, why can’t I make art in my clerestory abyss and snub the community without feeling like a snotty little brat? Why can't I?"
By now, I'm grappling with that fact that everyone has some element of personal branding about them. The very nature of social media platform distribution creates a brand of you without your trying. Even the choice to not publish details about yourself or your work brands you through negation. Participation in the heartless information zeitgeist makes idiots of us all. The attempt to occlude your life, or to overshare every unfiltered, absurdist thought you have about it, or curate it endlessly: these are all forms of branding, whether you like it or not.
I spend the rest of the time talking about myself and "my book," as I'd been doing pretty much the whole week. When people attempt to engage me on any other topic, I shut down and walk away. I watch them get excited at first, then bored and frustrated as the conversation inevitably circles back to me. Of course, although I think I'm picking up on some tacit disapproval, I can't prove anything because everyone is being extaordinarily polite.
Spammers and bots
By the end of the sixth day, I've sent out a newsletter update, tweeted from the fake account, and posted another picture of the book "cover" on Instagram, as well as a screenshot of the website's splash page. If this was real, I'd be moving at an okay pace for nearly a week in. I'm almost enjoying it, but I haven't made any interesting connections or gotten much more of a foothold than I had to begin with. Most of my new contacts are spammers and bots. I feel a sense of futility for the whole effort.
Why do things that you know you'll hate? I think regular confrontation with your contempt is an important practice. Loathing a person, attitude or act always reveals more about you than the thing in question. I define myself in part by what I refuse to do, where I refuse to go, and who I refuse to interact with on the grounds of aesthetic or moral revulsion. But I've learned that doing things you usually avoid offers some new window into the human experience. Writers are supposed to be radically open-minded, going where they are out of place, uncomfortable, and on the periphery.
What I suspect I really should be doing as I tweet, post and fiddle with the website—is writing. I should self-immolate in the purifying crucible of my work, and leave the branding to the pros. Ugh. There's no way I'll ever be good at this game.
It's the final day of the keeping up the charade, so I check my metrics. I've reached about 50 people through the Facebook page, amassed a few dozen followers on Twitter, and gotten 200 or so unique visitors to the site. I'm curious about these people who lurk, but don't like or share or comment. Interesting! I wonder if I shouldn't abandon my #NoNewFriends motto.
Later, I go to dinner with a group of writerly types. I bring a friend, who I've clued in and who they don't know. He introduces himself as my agent, and says he's "in town" to discuss the details of "the book" with me. The other two friends are unfazed: that they accept it with such ease makes me worry about how many people are floating around this city with "agents" and "interns" and "managers."
I also worry about why no one has called me on my shit, which makes me question what my friends even think I'm doing with my time! It's funny because if I'd been writing this book for real they conceivably should've expressed some level of confusion or surprise, but most just go along with it.
I don't feel bad about the deception. It's the final nail in the coffin. I find I am far more comfortable a week later, having seen the positive impact of self-pushing for women from difficult backgrounds who are looking to start fresh. I see that self-promotion is just a tool for bettering one's life, especially if you're naturally talented but don't come from a place of privilege. Where did being shy get anyone? The #1 rule to remember is that the world owes you absolutely nothing.
Over dinner, I wonder, can we reject the imperative to make brands out of ourselves by creating spaces, like this, that can't be monetized? By cultivating real-life relationships? By refusing to package ourselves in tidily marketable ways? I try to envision the next-level professional: a person who can both acknowledge that our relationship to the market is a kind of violence predicated on the abuse and reduction of the human spirit and be able to game the system by operating on several planes of existence at once.
I once heard someone describe themselves as a "ruthless careerist." It was mercenary and bizarre, shattering whatever illusions I had about their character. Collectively, we resent and punish people like this who advance their careers too wantonly by revealing their basest instinct of using people they could care less about or outright dislike for the vague promise of extracting a recommendation down the line.
And so: the thirst has to be obfuscated by an affected carelessness or confusion or cheerfulness that broadcasts cosmic blessing. Success should appear like it came to you, not the other way around. You're never supposed to admit that you actively sought out your connections and opportunities, or acknowledge that you've tracked someone else's career moves. That means unveiling the very mechanism of ambition. The shameless self-promoter does just this: acknowledges what he does not yet have, and hopes to have, and in doing so, makes us all conscious of our own insecure positions.
What people don't say: when someone is a name, there's hard work behind it. No matter how unplanned or underhanded it may seem, their bylines and connections didn't materialize out of the ether. Instead, they seeded information about themselves in cautious and calculated ways along strategic networks. They commodified themselves unabashedly, making art out of life and selling it to advance a material reality because, really, what other option is out there?
By the end of the week, I was tapped out. This was an incredibly difficult challenge to stay on board with. I cannot, in good faith, say that I enjoyed every part of it. But if nothing else, I finally realized what it was that bothered me about shameless self-promotion. It's not that it says something inherent about the character of the self-promoter, but that, deep down, I believe someone else should be doing my promoting for me. This grotesque attitude is the secret intersection of education, luck and privilege, but it's one you shed really quickly when you finally get out in the world. The universe is not a meritocracy. Your talent alone won't carry you, nor will your degrees, fellowships or awards. This is especially true in creative fields, where there's always someone younger, richer, hungrier perfectly poised take your place. The market play is ensuring your material safety. The spiritual play is cultivating an inner life, and it's untouchable. You aren't just the sum of your digital labor. Fuck my personal brand. And fuck yours, too.