Lizard Brains, Robots, and Online Engagement

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

Super Bad Advice: Make Them Think You’re An Expert!

You can’t make money being the long tail, but you can make money off the long tail. To understand why I’m outspoken here, read back here.

Recently, I read a bio on a website. It went something like: [Expert Person] shows you how to strengthen your reputation, position yourself as an expert, and sell more widgets of any kind at all! 

This bamboozle has been floating around non-fiction circles for like a decade longer than forever. It purports to offer the strange and ill-defined trophy known as creating social authority. Let’s Wikipedia.

Authority is the legitimate or socially approved use of power. It is the legitimate power which one person or a group holds over another. The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority and is the main means by which authority is distinguished from the more general concept of power. Power can be exerted by the use of force or violence. Authority, by contrast, depends on the acceptance by subordinates of the right of those above them to give them orders or directives.

The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority. What legitimizes social authority? What will cause people to agree to you having social power over them?

The technical answer is something called affinity. Once you know that general idea, you can pick out the false implication in snake-oil marketing promises: That you can pay someone money to gain the power to make people give you money.

This sounds suspiciously like a prosperity gospel. No, really, just pay this preacher money, and your investment will be returned to you tenfold. Look how it worked out for him, he’s rich.

Pay this expert money to make you look like an expert. Look how it worked out for her, she’s an expert and people are paying her money.

It’s very close to the truth, which is that you can buy your way into (some) things if you know how to find the doorway. But there’s a problem.

It’s a bait-and-switch.

These people are asking you to pay the wrong person. The paid media you want is not the owned media they have. They are not the doorway.

People like that are not actually pitching you their expertise. They’re pitching to your affinity for taking shortcuts and not slogging along at drudge work, seemingly wasting your creative genius in obscurity.

Unfortunately, that drudge work is exercising your intelligence effectively.

Can you buy affinity? Not the real thing. The social web has proven that market affinity can be reduced to a keyword-sorting algorithm, once it’s expressed in words. The ability to advertise to potential demographic(s) can then be sold.

But affinity is pre-existent, and there’s no special secret. It just means people who care about the same things you care about, or who view the world the same way.

Social authority easily replaces substance, quality and truthiness.

Social authority plus the right connections absolutely can levitate a product, regardless of its inherent quality. That’s how publishing can produce bestselling hermeneutical horseshit like Love and Respect (link is to a sensible review) from a person who may indeed be a psychology and counselling expert… but has chosen to speak outside that field in order pursue an advertorial agenda that provides bias confirmation to his subculture’s pervasive unhealthy relational paradigm (explanation here).

Counterintuitively, this lack of substance flourishes more easily in higher-trust environments like religious groups, political followings, or social media friend circles.*

Where does this intersect with the writing world?

1) Person A has a non-fiction concept they want to write about (let’s be cynical: express their opinion about), but lacks all varieties of expertise. They decide to build a website and try to drum up a following around their opinions and limited individual experiences.

They find they can even hire someone to teach them how to pester radio, website, and tv/video media personalities, even though nobody cares about their idea (no affinity). They acquire the misconception that being the most annoying human on the planet is the same as bootstrapping, and that persistence and hard work are the key. The only key.

Oh, yay! Another menace is born, and we all refer back to the Dunning-Kruger effect yet again.

Person B has a novel they want to write. They hear that the essential way to “hook readers” is by having a related non-fiction topic to create a free informational product, i.e., online content that will gain a following.

But people seeking information may or may not give a rat’s furry butt about a novel. Fiction delivers emotional experience, not analysis. That means experiential topics which trigger emotion are going to have a better crossover with novels, but the novel still won’t be the main product the audience is actually seeking. That’s not the audience’s primary affinity.

Why are people trying to sell this to writers?

Because they can make money off the long tail.

To get started in your own path, you have to stop letting people make you into less of more. Stop letting yourself be treated as one small unit of desperate wannabe among many, many desperate wannabes, and figure out your own reasonable, realistic course.

Just ask any writer who’s had to sort through a bunch of super bad advice.


*See Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty for a concise layman’s summary of socioeconomics and linguistic registers. One of the features of the casual register is that it doesn’t require or involve factual verification. Facebook, for example, is designed to mediate the casual register.

For other social factors in success, see Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Should I Trust You if You Destroy a Word’s Meaning?

Although it once had some meaning, albeit tainted by overzealous ambitions, “#1 Bestselling Author” is now more of a meaningless fad phrase than the messy, half-assed pseudo-statistical reflection it once was.

When publishers gamed the NYT list, there were books being put out, so it stood for something about the print runs — even if the way they got counted was subject to manipulation through bulk purchases and curious sampling. Ah, the good old glory days, when publishing had quality standards.

But when it’s #1 in some tiny unknown niche, it doesn’t even reflect that.

Behind the Scam: What Does It Take to Be a ‘Best-Selling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes.

And that’s where language goes to die: Into the hands of people who are willing to make it mean anything they unilaterally desire it to, without reference to accurate communication with others.

Why Survivorship Bias Will Screw You Over

Welcome to the writing world. Attend any conference where writers get to play agent/editor/sales pitch roulette, and you will hear this from someone:

Survivorship Bias
Source: XKCD

Survivorship bias is everywhere. In books, it’s the success stories of those who made it big. Or even just those who did get a traditional contract. Or the craft admonishments of those debuts who wrote their novel according to every formula of their genre. (Experienced hands don’t do this.) Or even the income statistics of authors who, very genuinely and kindly, want people to know that “I did and so can you.”

Without accounting for the ranks of those who put their work out there and never sold a single copy, and those who never even got that far, those statistics are skewed. The advice you’re getting is not from people who are used to success, but who are used to a certain type of success.

Only the “successes” get mentioned. The failures get ignored.

That means the reasons for failure get ignored, and that’s the stuff we should really be troubleshooting.

This also presupposes a particular definition of success, and if your definition doesn’t match, you could end up feeling like a failure before you even get started.

Survivorship bias is the stuff that tells you to have a useless monthly newsletter because certain people have found it fits their audience relationship, and then tell everyone that this is what works. Those people may just be from 2002, kind of like the people who recommend blogging are from 2006. Anyone who can’t make The Success Strategy work is filed under categories like Must Be Doing It Wrong or Doesn’t Really Get It.

And this happens with everything. Like networking stuff. There are, I swear, more than fifty bazillion dawg-awful advice articles about how to market yourself as a public menace, because it worked for some people in some instances, for reasons that happened to override people’s natural reactions to the harassment factor. Or for reasons that may apply to them and not others, like existing social connections.

Never mind that you will quickly, like slap-face quickly, learn that “reminding people about your product” too often or in the wrong way is not appreciated. Being annoying is not representing your work well. Not knowing which channels and presentations are and aren’t appropriate is not charming.

Have I said enough? No, I haven’t. For people who don’t understand good social boundaries and respectful two-way communication, or who don’t respect the etiquette and conventions of various platforms, there will never be enough saying it to make them stop. The only recourse is a rape whistle.

You know the authors I am talking about. You probably also know some of the guilty culprits egging them on. I bet you even read their blogs, you soulless web crawling person.

Success is counterintuitive.

Getting things to work out well is like airplane armor. You have to pay attention to whether your brain is actually being logical, or making false connections from lack of full consideration. Our brains are liars.

Also, like airplanes, applying the armor (or publishing/marketing advice) in the wrong place really can take your plane down. That hardly seems fair to you. So here’s a story.

I have a writing/critique partner in my fiction life , which is pretty much a neglected corner of my writing life overall (I’m an essayist, not a novelist). Whenever he puts out a novel, all of us who love his work go ga-ga over it. People email him and post on his social media.

But he’s rarely there.

Neither are most successful writers. It’s called a virtual assistant, and people hire them because trying to keep up with the speed, frequency and intensity of public contact is a recipe for burnout. A larger writing franchise may find it worth hiring more than one as online channels expand.

Why would you expect yourself to do the work of three people and write?

What I learned from observing my partner early on was that being only slightly available actually increases the allure of contact. If you can just have it, then the value is low. Same with anything. If it’s hard to come by and somebody wants it, like a ruby, then it’s valued high. If it’s hard to come by but nobody wants it, like a bottled fart, then you’re not wasting any energy on being available when you shouldn’t.

You don’t need to try to be everywhere, in front of everybody.

If your business model grows enough to need more channels, then start using more channels. If you don’t really need them, why be out there waving your book cover around to a handful of followers like a drunk dorky kid in an empty room? That’s not a party.

Success is connecting.

Let’s not even talk about the myth of having to pay for promotion or boosting or whatever on social media. If your product is right for the medium, you don’t have to. One of my side projects has never cost its collaborative team a dime. Which is good, because it’s just for fun, to a niche audience. And yet our Facebook fan base is mid-five figures, and we’ve had original content go to a million page views.

The reality is, writers on social media are often boring. I don’t want to be told every week that my friend has a book and here’s the link. I don’t want to be friend requested to rack up someone’s numbers to impress an agent with their “platform.” Or conversed with only when there’s something that needs selling.

Reading is very personally tailored, and books find their way by being in the right place for those who’ll love them. And yes, for instance, BookBub may be one of those places (if your work has already accumulated some audience cred). So could many other channels.

None of this means marketing is useless. It means naively following formulas without understanding their application is useless.

Sounds a lot like why not to hire an editor too soon.

Survivorship bias is why you want to give up.

The most pernicious part is how this tells you that certain genres sell (probably not so much yours). Certain market areas have become oversaturated and are starting to sag (like your favorite thing to write). Certain conventions of composition and structure have been met by every book that’s on the survivors’ list, so every new prospect must meet them too. Certain people work hard and that’s The Reason why they find success.

But whether you’ve put out ten books or zero, your unpublished works aren’t on the survivors’ list.

You don’t know what will happen until you do the thing.

End of story.