Jane Friedman

That Overused Word “Community”—But Why We Still Have to Talk About It

by Richard O York / via Flickr

I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Virginia, where I teach digital media and publishing. Many of my students undertake 10-12 week publishing projects that involve generating content from scratch and trying to get attention for it. The ones who gain traction are inevitably those who feel more comfortable reaching out to people through social media, or trying to spread the word through influencers in their network. (In the case of UVA, everyone talks about “getting Dean Groves” to participate in some way. He must be bombarded with innumerable requests for his time. Sorry, Dean Groves.)

At the end of their project, I ask students to reflect on what they might have done differently, and the responses are almost always identical (even though I tell them exactly what their response will be on the first day of class):

Early on, I recommend they identify people who might take a natural interest in their content or the goals of their project—identifying the online or offline community who cares.

Similarly, writers trying to build a platform are often advised to “engage with the community,” or “be an authentic member of the community,” or “share valuable content with the community.”

This advice is mostly a cliche now—meaningless and empty words. What does it mean to “engage with a community?” Even I have a hard time putting it into concrete terms. It’s probably easier to describe what it looks like when you try to platform build without paying any attention whatsoever to community.

1. Are you blogging in a complete vacuum?

Writers often receive the misguided advice to blog. (I discuss that in-depth here.) Even worse, they’re given no instruction on how important it is to research and understand the community they’re about to enter. That doesn’t mean you need to know and meet every blogger out there (or comment regularly), but you should identify every blogger already well-known for the topic you’ll focus on. If you’re blogging about literary fiction, you better keep an eye on sites like The Millions or Large-Hearted Boy, among dozens of others.

Why is this important? Because your early traffic will likely come from other bloggers or sites in the community, and you should be talking about or sharing their stuff, engaging on Twitter or elsewhere, and offering your own perspective on topics they cover. This helps them become familiar with you long before you might ask them for a favor. (See No. 3 below.)

Bloggers who acknowledge the importance of community often do link round-ups and point to valuable content elsewhere (these sites know when you link to them and send them traffic). Even if your footprint is small, being a thoughtful literary citizen is a first step to becoming a blogger (or online writer) anyone pays attention to.

What was my first community-driven initiative? Best Tweets for Writers, a weekly roundup of the best tweeted links I found, sharing other people’s compelling content. That’s how I began building a meaningful presence through my blog—and also through social media.

2. Are your social media posts bereft of any mention of other people or organizations?

When you just tweet or post your own stuff, you’re missing an opportunity to be noticeable to others in the community. When you show up only to talk about yourself, like at any party or social function you’re missing an opportunity to be helpful or to develop a relationship with a like-minded person.

For some writers, this is simply a lack of knowledge about social media tools; they’re too new to the platform to understand how to “work the room” with effectiveness. For example, you need to use Twitter handles when talking about people’s work if you want them to notice your tweet. Or you need to use hashtags common within the community when offering particular tips. You have to tag people on Facebook to make sure they know a conversation is happening around a topic they’re interested in (or mentioned in). You shouldn’t do these things nefariously, of course, only when merited. (See No. 3.)

3. Are you making an ask without any engagement beforehand?

This happens all the time on social media. Someone uses my handle, or posts on my wall, or otherwise shouts in my ear—in the hopes I might look at their work or share their stuff.

But there’s no prior relationship. I’ve never heard of them in my life.

Sometimes writers think social media “networking” is about bugging people to help them. But if you want to ask a favor, it’s far better to warm up your connection first. Retweet or share their stuff. Comment on their blog. Offer something useful to them. Act like a real person who cares beyond the favor you plan to ask later. That’s the best way to ensure that when you ask for help, your “target” doesn’t feel used.

4. Are you in a big rush?

I receive a lot of consultation requests from people who want to build their platform and “break out big” … within the next three months. Or from people who realize very belatedly that it can take a village to properly launch a book, and are now scrambling to get attention … months after their book has launched with disappointing results.

When gurus talk about building platform, mainly they’re talking about your ability to sell books—because you’re so highly visible. Unless you have some important connections to speed you to success—or the benefit of timing or luck or accidental celebrity—then the most important requirement for building platform successfully is TIME.

If you lack the time or patience to see results, you’ll end up doing all kinds of crazy Hail Marys, or engaging in bad behavior on social media. You’ll look for shortcuts that probably don’t pay off, or you’ll pay too much to reach people who ultimately don’t care about what you do.

But when you’ve understood the value of community long before you need to put it to work? When you’ve spent years in genuine and sustainable conversation with people—at both “real life” events and online? Then you’ve authentically “engaged the community.”