Monday, July 13, 2015

People, Planks and Platforms

I was in a good conversation with a fellow writer, a gifted musician and pastor.  She and I were talking about books, manuscripts, and social media.

Things drifted to the dreaded "P" word, the word that is the bane of anyone trying to get into nonfiction publishing.

That word, in case it is not seared into your consciousness by the hot fires of failure and rejection:  "Platform."

In this desperate, scrambling, retrenching era for publishing, there ain't nobody willing to lay down resources unless you've got a platform.

A "platform" simply means that people know who you are.  Lots of people.  They also know that you are an expert, a name in your field.  This means that if a publisher prints up your definitive treatise about the mating dances of the long extinct North American Giant Wombat, they can be assured that the tens of thousands of amateur paleowombatologists who look breathlessly to your every new missive on the subject will slurp that book up lickity-splittish.

That's the idea behind platform, and it has a definite logic to it.  Makes total sense, if you're in that industry and want to stay in business.

It's also a self-devouring ouroboros serpent of a concept, because well-regarded books establish platform, but to publish a well-regarded book, you need to first have platform.

This creates another, peculiar dynamic, as authors scramble to hammer together platforms.  This used to be done primarily by attending conferences and meetings and gatherings, and by publishing in smaller venues.  Now, though, in this social media era, it's done by tweeting and Instabooking and Facegramming.

Gather enough followers and friends and regular eyeballs and affirmations, and lo and behold, you have a platform.

This strange dynamic was part of our conversation, because it does peculiar things to online conversations.  Every tweet and post becomes part of the anxious cycle of self-promotion.  Hey!  Here's my latest post!  Follow me!  Here's a link to the one blog post I wrote that went super-viral!  Like it and share it!  Here's a link to my latest self-published book, which you really need to read and like and review!  Five stars or nothing, please!

Hey!  Look at me!  Like me!  Love me!

It becomes tempting, oh so tempting, to start seeing the mediated relationships of online interaction through that lens.  You gather friends, you gather followers, and they can feel like objects.  They're not people that you know, not really.  They're just another plank in your ever-growing platform, crudely nailed together into an indiscriminate mass upon which you can clamber, stand and be noticed.

This is dangerous, in a soul-danger kind of way.  Whenever we view others not as fellow human beings, as creator-beloved-sparks-of-sentience, but as means to our particular ends, we kill a little bit of our own spirit.

Platforms, if we are not careful, can be the end of us.