I was reluctant to write this piece documenting my process as a writer because I would then reveal that I actually take myself seriously and it is my wish to be taken for a naïf, an innocent abroad, to borrow from Mark Twain. However,my mentor/editor at the Energy Bulletin was intrigued by the way I was using flickr and thought those wishing to dispense important, planet-saving information, would find it interesting to learn how social networking can be used to further the cause.
The Writer’s Studio: flickr
It might seem odd that the most fertile ground for me as a writer is a site for photographs. I joined flickr in order to post pictures to my blog. (I started my first blog so I could write about owning and driving an electric car and pictures were integral.) At the time, flickr was still a Canadian start-up populated by liberal minded artists, inventors, cooks, gardeners and oddly enough cyclists.
Most important for me, flickr was friendly. Those who joined tended to be older (in their 30s and 40s) and were showing pictures from their actual lives which often included their own creations and their own face so the tone tended to be supportive and inquisitive, rather than snarky and critical as was the case in the world of bloggers where writers were often faceless and commentators anonymous.
The social networking features of flickr were all about linking you with people interested in the same pictorial subject. By tagging your photos with descriptive category words, others who were interested in looking at pictures of bicycles, for instance, could find your picture. You could also join a group with a common theme such as “things I carried on my bicycle”. And with the caption option you could tell a story about why you were carrying this on your bicycle and what you rigged up to make it possible.
It was a flickr ethic to share information for non-commercial purposes. Tips and resources were freely offered. This attracted a lively community of DIY hobbyists looking for the fellowship offered by this informal peer review. I was able to compare techniques for using solar ovens, learn about blacksmithing and glean ideas from thrift shop fashions, DIY electronics and permaculture. And because of flickr I am much more likely to finish a project just so I can show it off.
This practical and highly visual blogging form began to have an influence on my writing. Captioning a photo demanded that I explain things appearing in the photo that I thought unimportant to my narrative. It kept me honest and unveiled any tendency to romanticize my experience by anchoring me to the visible evidence. The process used a different part of my brain. And because the picture and the bare bones of the story was already being looked at by my flickr community, I spent a longer time absorbing the face value of actual events and objects before allowing my intellectual analysis to kick in. From comments I received and the number of hits a photo got, I could get an idea of the level of interest in a topic and how the story was being processed by my readers. Guided by these comments, questions and sometimes misunderstandings, I would develop the story further if I chose to.
One flickr contact, who happened to be a librarian, came to my aid in the role of research assistant, posting helpful links to explain or identify what my picture had captured. Thus I learned how knives were forged by hand and the name of a sculptor of public art I had photographed. The same contact also directed me to a new museum while I was traveling (and posting pictures en route). Thus relationships with my regular flickr contacts are quite influential to my life. My relationships with real life friends, who participated with me on flickr, were intellectually deepened.
And because non-profits sought out my photos of solar ovens, mud houses, herb drying racks and compost bins, my work ended up being published in printed work aiming to inform readers of sustainable living practices thus furthering my message.
A Virtual Library
I also used flickr for something it was never intended to do and that was to post book reviews (mostly non-fiction books pertaining to my journey to understanding sustainability or lack thereof). I took pictures of the books I read against the background of my red desk, titled it with the book title and jotted down all the pertinent things I had learned that added to my body of knowledge as well as my opinions on the author’s presentation. My virtual library served me well for fact checking and referencing when writing my pieces. It laid to rest my vague memory when trying to recall something I’d read somewhere. I felt less of a need to keep the actual books once I had given it this treatment, plus the information was more firmly integrated into my mind.
Curiously enough a picture of a shelf worn book with library markings seemed to have an appeal all of its own for some of my flickr contacts, plus many wanted to read what I had to say about a book given our shared interests in bicycles and what all. Interesting discussions ensued, adding to my understanding of the topic and how this information was being received by others. This in turn affected how I used the material in my essays.
I added to this set I called Brain Food, notes on documentaries I had watched and notes from talks I attended with pictures of the speaker. Where once I would write essays about these events, I now tended to leave most of those reports in their truncated note form on flickr. This seemed to give them a broader appeal. These notes and reviews became one of the most popular features of my flickr photostream, both within my flickr community and from outside searches.
In fact a short summation I wrote to go with a picture of books I had borrowed from the library on fashion design and the history of fashion has enjoyed over 4,000 views and been bookmarked by 39 people just within flickr. This gave me pause. It seems that the insights I had gleaned from the books in terms of consumerism, planned obsolescence, economics, cheap labor, and the allure of fashion as a tool of cultural change had somehow struck a chord with readers.
It was not my most polished writing and, at less than 700 words, not an in depth or carefully thought out piece. I was surprised that someone searching under the word “fashion” would bother reading such an exploration. I realized then that, given the right lead-in, it was possible to introduce an audience to my pet issues in a manner they could absorb. This meant that almost any topic could be a vehicle. Was no one else doing this?
The Blog: Opening Night
Where flickr was my back room studio, not searchable under my real name, my blog was the most public of venues that easily pinpointed exactly who I was because it bore my name (a name that was currently unique in the world). Thus, in contrast to the casual style of most bloggers, this was the venue where I published my most polished, most developed work of some length, sometimes drawing the not so gentle criticism of anonymous commentators.
Electric cars, in particular, seemed to bring passionate naysayers. Thai politics were also, more understandably, a volatile subject. To brace myself for this exposure I send out my essay in e-mail form, as a dress rehearsal, hoping someone will catch my most flagrant blunders before I go live. (This direct offering to my friends and colleagues is so unnerving, anything a stranger can say pales, but luckily the handful of comments my gentle beta testers do send are filled with love and encouragement.)
I learned to dodge the ire generated by hot topics by writing from a more personal perspective. It would seem counterintuitive to become more open when undergoing personal attacks, but taking the “objective” view of traditional journalism was anathema to me, so clearly did this approach give the upper hand to the very status quo I was trying to sidestep. Nor did I have the chutzpah to position myself as a leader of a movement urging like-minded followers to adopt my set of best practices. I did not want to create an alternate reality when I myself might want to escape from it.
But I did not run completely from controversy. When I felt that it was necessary to take a stand on a hot topic, I picked my battles and prepared to fight. The art of responding to a comment is to understand what it is that motivates the commentator to attack your particular stand. Are they attached to a certain ideology? Are they biased against a special interest group, class status, gender or an idea itself? Is their language pompous, deluded, condescending, arrogant, academic or all of the above? If so, I allude to the position they are projecting in a professorial manner, careful not to add fuel to the argument by further defending my position (unless to clarify). No one has, as yet, tried to come back from this approach. Sometimes they just wanted a place to post their own parallel spiel.
Facebook: The Neighborhood Bar
When Facebook came on the scene offering an amusement arcade of options in the social networking genre, it took me a while to figure out how I could use it to further my journey. The space offered on Facebook to write a few lines of text invited the same sort of inane chattering that habitual cell phone users had inflicted on public space, but the ability of viewers to click the “like” button or make a comment effectively trained participants to post more interesting content in the hope of eliciting this positive feedback. The links to youtube, news articles, photos, recommended websites, and whatever else caught the interest of my network increased my exposure to content I would not normally see. This gave me an idea of what my friends were interested in and the cultural landscape of my network.
Facebook showed thumbnails of my photos on flickr and my blog posts were also visible thus allowing my contacts to see all the content I was posting and easily pass it along if they wanted to, thus increasing my impact as an artist and a writer.
I came to see that the synergistic, cross-pollination offered by Facebook made it a powerful communications portal that has yet to be fully appreciated. Conversations with like-minded contacts raised the level of exposure of not so like-minded contacts to issues they cared about. I discovered who my allies were among people I had met, but hadn’t had a chance to get to know.
News travels on Facebook with such speed that several contacts have mentioned it is more reliable than CNN and, as with my experience with the rioting in Thailand, offered a better opportunity to figure out what was going on. And as more and more people gathered on it, more joined so as not to be out of the loop.
My Thai friends entered Facebook en masse and immediately took to the extended family, open conversation style, unhampered by the performance anxiety and lack of privacy that gave Westerners pause (especially the Brits). I was not used to having to face all the different sectors of my social life from gay friends, to business colleagues, to family in Thailand, ex-lovers, high-school buddies and all that long forgotten past. I had to give up compartmentalization in favor of lessening the isolation that has for so long been a feature of modern life (especially when self-employed).
I still retreat to flickr to try out fresh material (or if I really need privacy I take out my fountain pen and the welcome silence of my journal). The strangers who became friends through our online interaction have become such a valuable component of my life it is odd that I cannot think of any other means by which we would have met. It is a phenomenon of our time. Meanwhile, through my writing, people I saw very little in real life came to know me much more deeply, enhancing the time we did spend together. (Oddly enough all the content I was providing also made me viable in the eyes of potential clients, especially green minded ones thus I was, after a fashion, participating in the new online marketing strategies.)
As a writer it is important to my process to know who my readers are, what they respond to and how they can be engaged. The compendium of flickr, Blogger and Facebook allowed me to both know and be known. In this era of untrustworthy mega news media, people seem to prefer to receive their information passed along from warm hand to warm hand (to borrow a concept from Buddhism)—from sources they can get to know and trust. Being the village blogger has its appeal in this sense.