Online engagement is a different thing for different types of writing. To get to the bottom of this, let’s first look at the three main audiences of the internet:

  • Robots.
  • Humans.
  • Viral resharers.

Writing for each is different. And it involves different purposes. Anytime someone tells you there are Things You Must Do That Will Absolutely Work, remember the mythic thinking of survivorship bias.

Online engagement with robots:

Robots are not smart. AIs can now learn, and even learn contextually (sort of), but they don’t have the plasticity, semantic flexibility, and associativeness of the human brain. Here, the Venn overlap is that robots exist to funnel strangers — people not part of your community — to information they’re searching for.

Copy written to tell robots where to funnel the humans tends to read fairly flat, sometimes repetitive, and without much implication.

Online engagement with humans:

Humans are smart in ways that robots can’t be, and dumb in ways that robots are smart. We’re excellent at implied meanings and associating across contexts, but not very good at indexing things in our minds. Ever sat down and wondered, “Where did I see that article I was just reading the other day?”

Social media is constantly trying to solve human search by getting robots to catalogue the content of our posts and pins, and tailoring what we see down to our main interests. If our human interests were simple, SEO keywording would be enough.

Online engagement with lizard brains:

Viral resharers are not smart. They are emotionally reactive. The Venn overlap here is that in the physical world, they pose as thinking humans. They’re sort of bodysnatchers. It could be me. It could be you.

Whichever of us it is, they’re driven by their lizard brains. Cute kitteh! Gross injury, hur hur, my friends will freak out! HAHAHA FUNNY JOKE.

Advice on building one type of online engagement may not work for other types. It may even conflict. Let’s figure out how to tune the crap filters for different scenarios.

Iffy advice #1:

Keyword the crap out of everything.

Would you like free shed plans, free shed plans, free shed plans?

In my opening paragraph, I used the terms “online” and “internet” interchangeably. That’s because human minds are more engaged by variety and surprise. If I were keywording for robots, particularly if I wanted them to funnel me people searching for “secrets of online engagement” or “free shed plans,” I should have used that full phrase a bunch more times.

If I were running a blog designed to serve ads to as many eyeballs as possible, I’d want the GooBing robots to send me as many eyeballs as possible. But is that the meaning of “online engagement”?

Iffy advice #2:

Keep it short, people don’t stick around.

What? You mean online engagement isn’t really engagement?

Short attention (or bounce rate) is only true of strangers who are seeking repair how-to’s and recipes. Consider your own behavior. You’re looking for concise, clear and simple when you want to be able to go do something else. Like build a shed.

The same is true if you’re looking for writing advice, for instance. You either want reference materials to glance back at when needed (which is why the latter link is currently pinned on this site’s Facebook page), or quick tips so you can go do something else. Like procrastinate more.

You are actively engaged in doing something else.

What about when you’re engaged with the internet instead?

My friend Shamus Young, who’s stuck with a single blog in the same amount of time I’ve been through four or five, compiled his own findings on his site’s content here. Those at The Outline tend to agree: Attention is not extinct, and reality still matters.

I concur. My previous blog specialized in creative nonfiction essays and social commentary, usually 800-1500 words. The conversations in the comments were possibly its best feature, just as they’re a strong feature at Shamus’s Twenty-Sided Tale. It’s a totally different type of information-sharing than virality or search optimization.

Long-form blogging has a strong continuity with the old days of the neighborhood coffee shop and its conversations and relationships. The post functions somewhat like the news on the TV, or the latest tall tale from that guy who’s always got some interesting twist on things. Then everybody says their piece about it.

And sometimes it rises to greater prominence by hitting on a highly popular, reshareable topic, such as Shamus’s campy parody DM of the Rings, which successfully crosses a handful of related geek fandoms.

That’s primarily human online engagement. The robotic traffic funnels are not the primary feature. The lizard brain reactions are not the primary feature. A more whole person is engaged.

Oh, yes. That takes way more. It takes more depth and quality of content. It means de-prioritizing some of the design purposes of the online machine in order to embrace more of the human. And so, as Shamus began taking his site seriously as a job, his word output rose, and his posting frequency fell.

Is it any wonder that novelists and book authors in general tend to find this task much more Herculean than, say, DIY and lifestyle bloggers? How do we embrace and express more of the human?

Iffy advice #3:

Make it visual.

In viral posting, this is true. Social media is very tailored to at-a-glance images. It wants reactive clicks before our brains engage. That’s how ad clicks lead to spontaneous surfing of retail websites. Ooohhh, shiny. That’s why so many of those tear-jerking, hilarious, beautiful videos turn out to be brand ads. They want your lizard brain.

If you write anything less lizardy and more thinky, be prepared to have a longer slog to gain visibility and community engagement. Maybe social media isn’t actually the primary tool for getting started. Maybe featured images on blog posts are totally not as effective as emotionally reactive graphical punchlines.

Social media helps some, because humans are dumb at remembering where they left things. A Facebook group, personal timeline or (sometimes but less often) page can help people remember where they left your website, and to check out the new thing. But it’s not the cornerstone of community-building.

Building a social media community works much better when it starts with emotionally reactive, visual posts like jokes, sarcasm, heartstring wrenching, or political soundbites. From there, the commenters develop their own conversations. Some of those conversations are very, very stupid, because lizards are not good at using their words.

Translating that kind of content across formats to something more substantive like a blog takes some thought and observation of the community.

Online engagement is many kinds of thing, not A Thing.

If you want a thoughtful community, such as the kinds of people who read books and then think about them, the standards of clickbait writing and SEO aren’t necessarily good predictors of what to do online. It’s more likely the community will arise around the books, not the website or social media channels.

The exception is the ubiquitous category of saccharine inspirational/self-help, which is stupid easy to launch via lizard tactical. Lizards are keen on wallowing and will return to it repeatedly.

For the human brains, once your community starts to come together, online tools may serve various purposes that can be discovered by listening. If they come, they will tell you how to build it.

If you want virality, you should know why you want it instead of just flailing for it. Does it have anything at all to do with your writing goals? Or does it just seem like something you have to achieve in order to build your reputation? If the latter, screw that bull hockey entirely.

If you want to write a how-to site that allows you to promote related products and receive sponsorship, that’s another animal than being a novelist. It can work well for non-fiction writers.

Writers are also many kinds of thing, not A Thing.

It pays to filter for where your sources of advice are coming from. It also pays to think about how you can adapt some of these practices to fit your purposes. Just don’t let all the opinions out there engage your lizard brain.

online engagement lizard brain

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