The world has changed. Everything we do is more immediately visible to others than ever before, but much remains the same; the relationships we develop are as important as they always were. This post is a few thoughts on self-promotion, and how to have good relationships as a self-publisher.
Meeting people face to face is ace. They could be colleagues, vendors, or clients; at conferences, coffee shops, or meeting rooms. The hallway and bar tracks at conferences are particularly great. I always come away with a refreshed appreciation for meatspace. However, most of our interactions take place over the Web. On the Web, the lines separating different kinds of relationships are a little blurred. The company trying to get you to buy a product or conference ticket uses the same medium as your friends.
Freelancers and small companies (and co-ops!) can have as much of an impact as big businesses. ‘I publish therefore I am’ could be our new mantra. Hence this post, in a way. Although, I confess I have discussed these thoughts with friends and thought it was about time I kept my promise to publish them.
Publishing primarily means text and images. Text is the most prevalent. However, much more meaning is conveyed non-verbally. ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’
Text can contain non-verbal elements like style — either handwritten or typographic characters — and emoticons, but we don’t control style in Twitter, email, or feeds. Or in any of the main situations where people read what we write (unless it’s our own site). Emoticons are often used in text to indicate tone, pitch, inflection, and emotion like irony, humour, or dismay. They plug gaps in the Latin alphabet’s scope that could be filled with punctuation like the sarcasm mark. By using them, we affirm how important non-verbal communication is.
The other critical non-verbal communication around text is karma. Karma is our reputation, our social capital with our audience of peers, commentators, and customers. It has two distinct parts: Personality, and professional reputation. ‘It’s not what was said, it’s who said what.’
So, after that quick brain dump, let me recap:
- Relationships are everything.
- We publish primarily in text without the nuance of critical non-verbal communication.
- Text has non-verbal elements like style and emoticons, but we can only control the latter.
- Context is also non-verbal communication. Context is karma: Character and professional reputation.
Us Brits are a funny bunch. Traditionally reserved. Hyperbole-shy. At least, in public. We use certain extreme adjectives sparingly for the most part, and usually avoid superlatives if at all possible. We wince a little if we forget and get super-excited. We sometimes prefer ‘spiffing’ accompanied by a wry, ironic smile over an outright ‘awesome’. Both are genuine — one has an extra layer in the inflection cake. However, we take great displeasure in observing blunt marketing messages that try to convince us something is true with massive, lobe-smacking enthusiasm, and some sort of exaggerated adjective-osmosis effect. We poke fun at attempts to be overly cool. We expect a decent level of self-awareness and ring of honesty from people who would sell us stuff. The Web is no exception. In fact, I may go so far as to say that the sensibilities of the Web are fairly closely aligned with British sensibilities. Without, of course, any of our crippling embarrassment. In an age when promoting oneself on the Web is almost required for designers, that’s no bad thing. After all, running smack bang through the middle of the new marketing arts is a large dose of reality; we’re just a bunch of folks telling our story. No manipulation, cool-kid feigned nonchalance, or lobe-smacking enthusiasm required.
Consider what the majority of designers do to promote themselves in this brave new maker-creative culture. People like my friend, Elliot Jay Stocks: making his own magazine, making music, distributing WordPress themes, and writing about his experiences. Yes, it is important for him that he has an audience, and yes, he wants us to buy his stuff, but no, he won’t try to impress or trick us into liking him. It’s our choice. Compare this to traditional advertising that tries to appeal to your demographic with key phrases from your tribe, life-style pitches, and the usual raft of Freudian manipulations. (Sarcasm mark needed here, although I do confess to a soft spot for the more visceral and kitsch Freudian manipulations.)
There is a middle ground between the two though. A dangerous place full of bad surprises: The outfit that seems like a human being. It appears to publish just like you would. They want money in exchange for their amazing stuff they’re super-duper proud of. Then, you find out they’re selling it to you at twice the price it is in the States, or that it crashes every time it closes, or has awful OpenType support. You find out the human being was really a corporate cyborg who sounds like you, but is not of you, and it’s impervious to your appeals to human fairness. Then there are the folks who definitely are human, after all they’re only small, and you know their names. All the non-verbal communication tells you so. Then you peek a little closer — you see the context — and all they seem to do is talk about themselves, or their business. Their interactions are as carefully crafted as the big companies, and they treat their audience as a captive market. Great spirit forefend they share the bandwidth by celebrating anyone else. They sound like one of us, but act like one of them. Their popularity is inversely proportional to their humanity.
Extreme examples, I know. This is me exploring thoughts though, and harsh light helps define the edges. Feel free to sound off if it offends, but mind your non-verbal communication. :)
That brings me to self-promotion versus self-aggrandisement; there’s a big difference between the two. As independent designers and developer-type people, self-promotion is good, necessary, and often mutually beneficial. It’s about goodwill. It connects us to each other and lubricates the Web. We need it. Self-aggrandisement is coarse, obvious, and often an act of denial; the odour of insecurity or arrogance is nauseating. It is to be avoided.
If you consider the difference between a show-off and a celebrant, perhaps it will be clearer what I’m reaching for:
The very best form of self-promotion is celebration. To celebrate is to share the joy of what you do (and critically also celebrate what others do) and invite folks to participate in the party. To show off is a weakness of character — an act that demands acknowledgement and accolade before the actor can feel the tragic joy of thinking themselves affirmed. To celebrate is to share joy. To show-off is to yearn for it.
It’s as tragic as the disdainful, casual arrogance of criticising the output of others less accomplished than oneself. Don’t be lazy now. Critique, if you please. Be bothered to help, or if you can’t hold back, have a little grace by being discreet and respectful. If you’re arrogant enough to think you have the right to treat anyone in the world badly, you grant them the right to reciprocate. Beware.
Celebrants don’t reserve their bandwidth for themselves. They don’t treat their friends like a tricky audience who may throw pennies at you at the end of the performance. They treat them like friends. It’s a pretty simple way of measuring whether what you publish is good: would I do/say/act the same way with my friends? Human scales are always the best scales.
So, this ends. I feel very out of practise at writing. It’s hard after a hiatus. These are a few thoughts that still feel partially-formed in my mind, but I hope there was a tiny snippet or two in there that fired off a few neurons in your brain. Not too many, though, it’s early yet. :)