Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sociability, Social Media and Social Contracts

by Michael W. Sherer, thriller author

There’s little doubt that despite all our faults, jealousies, fanaticism and foibles, we humans are social creatures. When we live and work together, we are capable of amazing inventiveness and accomplishments. But at what point does sociability stop serving a purpose and start becoming an annoyance, or worse, a danger to ourselves and even our way of life? When does it go beyond the boundaries of the unwritten social contracts that provide order to a chaotic world?

For me, the rise of the Internet and social media has brought these questions to the forefront of my thoughts on an almost daily basis. Just as the various social media platforms have sorted themselves out in the past few years, users have gravitated to one or several depending on their comfort level and reason for using social media in the first place.

Authors, I think, have found social media both advantageous and liberating on one hand, and aggravating on another. Authors make up an interesting breed. We work in isolation, but tend to be very sociable people. Before the Internet and social media, conferences and book tours comprised an author’s outlet for his or her social side. Readers and fans seemed content with that.

But in the digital age, we are on and available 24/7. We’re connected to each other by text, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube and other channels. Our thoughts, impulses, follies and achievements—from major life moments to mundane daily activities—are captured and broadcast to the world with the click of a mouse. And, like hitting “Reply All” when we meant to send a private message, sometimes we put things out there without thinking first.

Authors, since we are communicators, have eagerly taken to digital media as a way of building networks of readers and fans, extending networks of friends and resources of knowledge and expressing themselves in ways they can’t through their novels. But some early adopters of digital media have pulled back from many of these platforms, concentrating on those that either afford them the greatest degree of comfort or the most visibility. I think that’s a good thing.

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: the problem with social media is that it’s a little like telephone party lines (which I remember), and even more like CB radio (a fad in the 70s)—a whole lot of people are talking at the same time, but only a few people are listening. So it’s difficult to pick up a conversation and contribute in a meaningful way.

To its credit, social media involves the written word, so it’s possible to track the history of a conversation and find out the side roads and digressions it’s taken over the course of a day or two. That wasn’t possible with CB radio. But, like CB, the Internet is largely anonymous, and it’s too easy for people to “speak” before they think, resulting in a lot of vitriol and nastiness.

Worse, society has grown more casual in the several decades between the two technologies, less bound by the unspoken social contracts I grew up with. Manners and courtesy are no longer common. With CB radio, users politely asked if they could break into a conversation, and waited until they received an invite. Today, we type whatever comes to mind and hit “send.”

Why do we do it? Why do we feel compelled to share so much, not only with our friends and family, but with a world of complete strangers? When my mother died last fall, a family member posted the news before my wife and I had a chance to call and tell all our kids that their grandmother had passed away. They learned about it on Facebook.

Isn’t it time we all took a step back and really thought about the ways in which we communicate and with whom we communicate? Doesn’t it make more sense to pick up the phone and talk with the people whose friendship we truly value and save the inanities that pass for great literature on Twitter for our once-a-year holiday cards to acquaintances? Do you, readers and fans, really need to have Instagram documentation of what I had for breakfast?

There are days when I want to completely unplug from social media. Is social media worth my 15 minutes of fame? How much is too much? How much is too little? What’s my obligation to you, my readers and fans, and what do I keep to myself?

No matter what I decide, could we all remember to say “please” and “thank you” a little more often? Please?

Michael W. Sherer is the author of Night Tide, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, Night Blind, was nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series.

He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit him at or you can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.


  1. I love social media because it lets me connect to friends and readers everywhere. I want to be available to my readers. Yet as my readership grows, I have to accept that I simply can't maintain relationships with everyone who wants to interact with me. There aren't enough hours in the day, even if I don't carve out time to write. But writing books is what most readers want most from me, so I've been cutting back on social media to focus more on writing. And to regain my ability to focus! Which social media tends to erode.

  2. Okay, I'll play... THANK YOU, Michael for this passionate post.

    For me Social Media provides three separate connections... family, friends and readers, and I love connecting with all of them. Facebook is kind of like my virtual water cooler. What works the best for me (if only I would employ it) is to schedule the time during the day. And frankly, I consider it an important piece of marketing.

    1. Peg, I know FB and other social media work as marketing strategies for many authors. I'm of the mind that it's a marketing tool insofar as it raises one's visibility (slightly), but I don't think it helps sell books. That's just me.

  3. Michael, I agree with your post in its entirety. I've been having the same thoughts since the end of summer last year and have deliberately cut back on social media. It became a chore, a "I'm a writer, I HAVE to post on social media everyday. Look ma, other writers are doing it!" It took SO MUCH time from my writing.

    I remember reading an article last year from an author who advocated scheduling tweets every 15 mins. That meant about 96 tweets a day. I tried putting up a tweet every 30 mins (via Hootsuite scheduling) for a short while. I don't think I lasted three days!

    When I looked at the Twitter feeds of some authors I know, I get dizzy. So many tweets. So much white noise. That's what social media made me feel like until I said enough. Too much white noise. It gave me a headache and I gained no benefit from it.

    I now feel I had to go through that experience to learn how to do it better. I had to suffer "social media burnout" and take a break from it to realise what I was doing wrong. Many bloggers I know are taking a break from their popular blogs because of similar burnout.

    These days, I check Facebook about once or twice a day. The vast majority of my family are abroad and it's one way I keep in touch with them; we're all spread across different time zones, from Canada to the Indian Ocean. I have a lot of followers and contacts on Pinterest, so get about 5-10 Pinterest pins a day; I always visit their profile and pin one of theirs as well (takes about 10 mins). The rest of the stuff, I now do once a week via feedly. I spend about 2-3 hours catching up on articles from blogs I follow (like this one!); sometimes it's 4 hours, depending on how many articles I comment on. I then schedule the interesting posts that I want to share with my followers over the coming week, usually about 4-6 a day.

    Engaging brain before fingers is a definite must in this day and age of 'blink-of-an-eye" worldwide communication. The internet is forever (well, until the machines take over anyway ;) ) and there are many, many people out there who regretted things they posted about 5 seconds after they posted it.

    Modern communication is so anonymous and there are things people post that they would never dare say face-to-face to a person. Some people just enjoy being nasty and the internet provides them with the means to do it on an international scale. I try to steer clear of blogs that have those kind of comments. I don't have time for people like that; life's too short.

    I really do sympathise with you about what happened with regards to your mother. I think it's a sign of our times when people will post such tragic, life-changing news and not think twice about it. Someone I know did that recently with her mum's death. Maybe it was a way for her to grieve and express her emotions. I know I could never do something like that. In my mind, it would demean the memory of my loved one.

    Yes, unplugging is good. We are human beings, flesh and bone and spirit, not machines linked to a Borg collective.



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