Aerial Performance: Other People’s Audiences

Posted filed under Experience.
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Porter Anderson is an influential American journalist and blogger who focusses on the publishing industry, otherwise known to Porter and his readers as ‘the industry! the industry!’  In this piece Porter explains how he has developed his online presence through writing for other people’s audiences, on other people’s platforms, using Twitter as the string that holds it all together.

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18 May 2013 iStock_000019199707XSmall photog Bowie15 starterThe many parts we each play on the Internet’s stage, once were simply the stuff that memes are made on.

Cyberia, our colleague Douglas Rushkoff intoned.

Cyberspace is the term popularized by William Gibson, that “consensual hallucination…lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind.”

The Matrix became the Wachowskis’ answer. But in coining WorldWideWeb,  Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau already had spoken for it.

And now?

Ah, well, now. Now, there is Platform.

Here is a term for which I can offer you no one or two authorial instigators. As publishing’s newest pageant wagon, Platform trundles, populist but unpopular, over the cobblestoned commedia of our toes and our prose as horses rear in the streets and small children scream for their overweight parents.

The Platform is followed by a long and winding callithump, a parade of priests, cowled and howling over their candles and finger cymbals. They’re fighting for air, these “teachers” and “trainers” and “coaches” and “mentors” and, Krishna forgive us, “gurus” in the One True Way of author platforming.

And no, it doesn’t exist only online, of course. You might still find yourself reading aloud to a group of people who’ve never heard of you at a neighborhood bookstore.  Bit of a race to see which will go first, the bookstore or the neighborhood.

More likely than not, your time en-Platformerie is Tron-like. Don’t forget to charge up your clothing. Ideal engagement with one’s presumed readers is thought to happen best on the Internet because one likes to think there are too many of them for the parlor.

If Platforming is about connecting with your potential audience—that community you’re meant to serve, according to the most churchly of the Platformists—then the center of your off-world universe is your Web site. So say these uninvited advisors, who want you to pay them for courses and seminars and tutorials in planking up one’s perfect Platform. You must blog there, they say, and you must draw your disciples to you: woo and wow your audience, and it will follow you anywhere. So they say.

Me? I collect other people’s audiences. For aerial performance.

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Other People’s Money opened at the Minetta Lane, a prominent off-Broadway house in Manhattan in 1989.  It would go on to have a 1991 film treatment with Danny DeVito, getting shorter by the frame.

Curiously, there was a play of the same title mounted almost a century earlier in New York, an 1895 farce written by Edward Owings Towne. Although on any given Monday it can feel as if I covered that 19th century production personally, I actually was still relatively new to my career in journalistic arts criticism in 1989 when I reviewed the latter-day Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner.

In journalistic criticism, your earlier exposures to good work tend to stick with you. Later, rounds of 200+ productions a year will run together, but the early ones—and the best ones—come back to you.

I think of Other People’s Money nowadays each time I tell somebody about my “other people’s audiences” mode of a brand-building on the Ether. I’ve used it for close to two years. But I can recommend it only with the singularity of my own situation. I’m peddling nothing here.

In the American publishing community based in New York, a phrase was coined two years ago by a technologist named Brett Sandusky. “Anecdata” is what he called anecdotes being cited as revelatory data by traditional-publishing insiders facing digital disruption.

I’m eager to avoid pushing anecdata. I cannot tell you that my experience will work for you. But it may be worth your consideration.

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The going wisdom about Platform designates the author’s Web site as the hub—the center of all activity to which the author wants to draw all even marginally interested parties. Come-hither as much of the world as you can, say the author-marketing sages, and keep them coming back.

I, instead, use my site as a switching station. When someone arrives at PorterAnderson.com, they find links to my latest writings at other sites. And then I show them the door.

On Mondays, for example, there’s Ether for Authors at PublishingPerspectives.com.  On Thursdays, it’s Writing on the Ether at JaneFriedman.com.  On the fourth Saturday of the month, it’s WriterUnboxed.com—I’ve been talking to the organizers of that site about branding that series, the Porter Provocateur pieces. I’m hoping to add more such regular venues later this year. During the London Book Fair, for example, I was glad to find myself producing London on the Ether for The Bookseller.

At PorterAnderson.com, you’ll find nothing longer-form than an excerpt from a column and a link: I’m shoving you right back off to go to the site kind enough to host that column, and read it there. Give them the Web traffic, that’s part of my intent, part of my gratitude.

There’s an About page at my site, of course. There’s also a list of upcoming conferences, since a large part of my work involves live coverage of conference events. There’s a Contact page, and so on. But my site isn’t the home of my live blog presence as it is for most people. Instead, my real hub is floating on those digital gases. That’s the aerial part.

18 May 2013 Illustration of Porter Anderson's other people's audiences platform

  • I spend most of my online time on Twitter, the main, gassy wagon of my Platform. From there, I point out my and others’ writings on the Ether.

  • I’m gently tethered to several spots in the town of publishing, places at which I regularly write.

  • And my roamings are mapped, or indexed, if you will, by my own site’s quiet, palmy listings of those writings.

At my own site, Web traffic—how many hits, how many unique users—isn’t the big concern for me that it is for many others. I’m delighted for you to visit, sure. But what I hope you’ll do at my site is find a headline or image that interests you and jet off to see that article where it lives—on someone else’s site, entertaining someone else’s audience, giving them the traffic. If you like what you find, I hope you’ll “follow” me on Twitter at @Porter_Anderson so I can whisper sweet nothings into your data-stream more frequently.

At my host sites, I’m much more concerned with attracting goodly numbers of eyeballs, naturally, in gratitude to the folks who have been kind enough to invite me to have a steady presence with them, brave souls. Jane Friedman was the first to do this, in August 2011. Writing on the Ether at her site is the original entry in my expanding “Ether” franchise. Not only “verified” by Twitter but a powerhouse figure online and in publishing with 180,000 followers, Friedman—a digital publishing professor and the Web editor with Virginia Quarterly Review—is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest and an endlessly supportive colleague.

Which brings me to one caveat on how this development in Platform works: I may be lucky enough to have regular access to “other people’s audiences,” but it’s not done by trickery. You should be very clear with your host(s) about this strategy, should you try to build it, yourself. They must know that you’re producing material at other sites. Don’t blindside them. They are your fine enablers and your best friends on this roll through the streets of your own pageant wagon. Write well for them.

This is not guest-blogging in the usual sense of a post here and a post there. The popular and, I think, effective idea of a “blog tour” to promote a new book or other property is closer to this concept, as you appear in several venues. But the distinction here is regular, consistent, and scheduled appearances on a set cluster of pedestals. Plus that über-presence on a social medium to tie things together and keep the patter going.

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One of the many lessons of my years at the networks of CNN, and especially at CNN.com, was just how hard it can be to draw a crowd online.

Our biggest day at CNN.com during my tenure there drew 600 million unique users—not hits, users, twice the population of the United States—in a single 24-hour period. An annual hit count (pages served) at CNN and other large sites can run into the billions. But this was the re-election of George Bush. And our amazing tech team kept CNN.com running even under such an avalanche of interest from a worldwide audience.

Nevertheless, CNN.com went to battle on a daily basis, as do all such major sites, to hold its own against the competition. As fast as they come to you, they can click away from you. Online, getting somebody to “hunker down” is a tall order.

Having seen such a powerful operation work on a dead run every day to maintain its leadership online meant that when I shifted my attention to publishing, I wasn’t inclined to hang up a sign and shout “y’all come see me.” I was entering publishing as a journalist with a critical approach to news of the digital disruption. Luring the crowd to me, to my own site? That wasn’t going to work.

What I needed was a steady presence where readers already congregated, just as I’d had at CNN’s networks, for that matter, and at newspapers and magazines before that.

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Why Twitter as the “flyover” element?

Tech and publishing startup creators are infamous for the silly, cutesy names they give their companies. Twitter to me is a news ticker. Like Reuters, like the Associated Press, it’s a steady stream of information and comment coursing through and between us, sliding by, churning. I’m comfortable with that because for decades in newspapers and network coverage, I’ve depended on just such a “priority wire” chattering at me.

And so my first real home in terms of an online presence was Twitter. It works best with your face as your avatar, your name as your handle, and your genuine background as your bio. You are not your products. The “social” in various social media means you’re interacting as a pleasant, professional version of yourself. Not as some freak talking book cover.

And Twitter is as much a language as a cyber-place. Use its @-handle names, look them up and light them up, so the companies and people you refer to know you’ve mentioned them. Hash its #-topics so people looking for action on one or more terms discover you. In other words, become fluent in Twitter, don’t pretend—you never fool the Parisians with bad French.

On Twitter, you meet both the influential and the aspirational, and in manageable bursts. With dashboards to section out lists of specific groups or topics you want to monitor (a better term than “follow”), you’re able to survey from a high viewpoint any community and profession but especially the industry! the industry! of publishing, which loves Twitter and is fondly tearing its hair there during the digital transition.

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18 May 2013 iStock_000019199707XSmall photog AllenSima starterWhether using “other people’s audiences” or another means of approach, control your Platform, or it will control you. You may be more successful on some days at this than others. Sometimes, your platform wins, your writing time is lost to engagement, your community eats your lunch.

I prefer RescueTime.com and its “FocusTime” selective Internet-blocker for timed sequences of concentration. An effective lashing to the mast. (Here is a referral link for a free trial, if you’re interested.)

But no assist is foolproof and anyone who tells you that he or she is fully in control of the allures of Cyberia, Mr. Rushkoff, is lying to you. Be kind to yourself. Never in history have we had such a world open up at our very fingertips. It is inside our homes and offices, on our phones, guiding our cars, singing us to sleep and keeping us awake.

Platform is demanded of all people of ambition today, not just writers. We must try not to complain too much.

Look up and wave bravely as I float by announcing Important Things from my gondola.

I’m on the lookout for other people’s audiences.

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Main images: iStockphoto- Bowie15 /AllenSima

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a critic, journalist, speaker, producer, and consultant. He specializes in publishing and its digital disruption, both at the author and corporate levels. He is regularly flown in to conferences and trade shows by organizers who hire him to “live tweet” their key events. As a mainstream journalist, Anderson has worked with CNN USA, CNN International, CNN.com, CNN.com Live, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Observer, and other outlets. Anderson holds a BA from William and Mary, an MA from the University of Michigan, and an MFA from Florida State University. He has done special readings at the University of Bath (UK). He is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute. More: PorterAndersonMedia.com