Regarding my rant against the sellers of fake reviews: If I look at the online presences of artists, I notice the ones that have given up striving for likes and shares and have gone a different route to making money – instead of having a monetized page, they produce and sell music albums, publish books, or they provide a service, using their own websites or smaller, less dominant platforms. I applaud them.
This means that they reduce the extent of the problem from ethics to the means of promotion; from the intention of a product to the promotion of the product. Whether their products will sell becomes an issue of quality, and what they have in their store will be a true reflection of what they are. Not having likes and shares is still an issue but, as with all problems in the world, much depends on how you react to them.
What to do in stead
My advice is the following:
1. Take a hard look at what you are dealing with.
Read up about it. It’s a horrible business but that’s what the world is like these days.
2. Switch off, hide or ignore the likes, shares or rating features on your site, if it can be done.
Facebook executives, towards the end of last year, were grappling with the policies around the like and share functions on the platform.
Once they had done the analyses, the results were damning, proving that younger users in particular feel a lot of stress from the likes and shares on their profiles. But notice that those functions are still active…Therefore, it’s up to you to disengage.
3. Same as the above for sharing, tagging and voting, and CTAs.
The fact is that likes and shares on social media don’t guarantee link clicks – link clicks are, for instance, a CTA (call to action) statement, particularly on Instagram, saying something like “click on the bio link to..”, which is used to redirect the user to another site where a sale can be made. It takes a lot more of engagement, to use that hated word, to get from a like to a sale. For a user to click through to buy something means that they are taking a conscious, dedicated, thoughtful action, not having a fleeting emotional response like an up-vote-obsessed teenager.
4. Avoid falling into the trap yourself: Avoid doing “comment baiting” yourself
Avoid comment baiting altogether, including doing so by reposting “comment baits” from other people. Comment baiting is asking people to comment with specific answers (words, numbers, phrases, or emojis), to a specific question or picture – specific, but usually unrelated to whatever your business is. For instance, questions like: Have you ever owned a picture of a house like the one in this painting? Does this landscape in the Rockies remind you of anything? How many books about Mars aliens have you read? Remember that novel you had to read in 8th grade? What was the name? It’s not about the answer. It’s about spreading the comments.
5. Build your own community of supporters – communicate with them directly.
Ask them to read, listen to or look at your work before you go public. Make it quid pro quo – maybe they get a signed copy, a special edition, or an original drawing for doing some serious reading and thinking, and of course you quote them when you publish the comments on your site(s). You can even acknowledge their help in your book once it is in print.
A good example of this is Tan Twan Eng, author of The Garden of Evening Mists, who, on his Facebook page, responds to anyone who does anything to promote or praise his books.
The variations of support for him are endless; reviews, photos, premieres, talks, special editions on show, spinoffs, etc. He will kindly comment or say thank you, and repost the information as it is. He even republished my review of his book. But he does not repost anything that does not have direct bearing on his writing. He never pushes for likes or shares. For a book published back in 2012, it seems to be remarkably current because of all the interest shown in it.
6. Engage differently with your community supporters with challenging or exclusive information.
Josiah Bancroft is an example of this. Before the series The Books of Babel was completed, Bancroft used to have quite interesting challenges for readers – fan art, quizzes, discussions, etc., on his own website, on the Fantasy Subreddit where he had conversations with fans, and on Goodreads. He is no longer active on those three platforms.
He has in stead moved his engagements with followers to his Patreon page, on which he offers additional writing exclusively for his Patreons, such as a Books of Babel short story called The Merchant of Blue Wool, exclusive information on his creative process, and updates on the progress of his next book, The Hexologists. If, for whatever reason, you are a serious Bancroft supporter, you will pay the monthly fee to get access to the information.
More examples of making money differently
Apart from just avoiding the likes and shares situation altogether, some writers and artists have found alternative platforms and ways with which to make a living.
Some have moved off YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, etc., and are making their way on other, less well-known, smaller platforms that give them more creative freedom and that are less popular with the fake reviewers.
In a strange way, that has led to a surge of creative outputs that might otherwise not have been produced. Here are some of the ones that I have enjoyed:
TourBunny by Antonio Mitag and Ágnes Jávorszky
Mitag and Jávorszky have published three collections of TourBunny cartoons, of which the most recent, The Adventures of TourBunny, Vol. 3, came out in 2019. TourBunny online is now no more, but they have other cartoon strips that have even sharper social commentary, and even more minimalistic drawings.
After many comic books and books about his art, Jamies Hewlett, the man behind the digital band, Gorillaz, got his first art monograph, Inside the Mind of Jamie Hewlett, in 2018, in a very glamorous print by Taschen. The multi-lingual, craftily wrapped edition came out in July 2020. I have bought the book and it is luscious. (Review to follow.)
Berke Breathed and Bloom County
After being on and off and on and off Facebook and other places for some time, since he is, I think, naturally opposed to all things fake and mercenary, Berke Breathed, author and illustrator of the famous Bloom County, Outland and Opus comic strips, announced on Feb. 15, 2022: “Dear Bloomers, it’s official: a Bloom County animated series is in the works. https://variety.com/…/bloom-county-animated-fox…/amp/“. Hallelujah!
The lovely New Zealander Matt Owens, whose Instagram page, SwoopandMowgli, is probably the most wholesome thing on the Internet, became a natural hit when he wrote about rescuing a lost magpie chick that he named Swoop, that ended up living around him and his taciturn black cat, Mowgli. It might have something to do with the fact that he is a working firefighter but also just drop-dead handsome. He is a real-life Disney prince(ss), with wild birds and other critters frequently coming to perch on him. He doesn’t have to buy likes, shares or comment, or ask for them. His posts are just naturally popular. In February 2022, he published a delightful children’s book, called The Story of Swoop, which is already a best-seller. The book is published by Scholastic in New Zealand, and at this time it’s not on Amazon or anywhere else.
The firearms and historical weapons guru, Ian McCollum, has over two million subscribers on YouTube, and his videos are factual, historical, technical and non-political. Despite this, McCollum has encountered some difficulties with YouTube deleting his videos about historic firearms.
He has also diversified into publishing. He wrote an excellent reference work, Chassepot to FAMAS: French Military Rifles, 1866 – 2016. He funded the publication through Kickstarter, and then Headstamp Publishing published it. Headstamp Publishing is actually a company formed by McCollum and others. I reckon since the subject is so specialized, he knew he would not get a mainstream publisher, hence he founded it with N.R. Jenzen-Jones (Director, Armament Research Services), and James Rupley (the Co-Founder and Creative Director of the popular Vickers Guide book series). And believe me, their books are beauties – superb objects in every detail. (I got a signed copy for my S.O.)
And ultimately: Put down that phone and step away from the Internet
Julian Barnes went for an extreme opt-out. Completely dispensing with getting involved, the very much lauded author has not been the writer of his own websites and social media contents for many years. He has a webmaster, Ryan Roberts, who writes his website content, all in formal third person. He can do that because he is established and successful.
Leaving the enquiries and analyses from the public to others, in 2002, Barnes donated his literary documents to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, US. This endowment gets written about as though he and the repository are merely historical footnotes. It’s a pity. He is now seventy-six years old, but definitely not dead. I hate to say this, but though Barnes’ novels are witty, daring, complicated and sometimes wicked, his social media profiles are anything but. But then, he does not need any social media promotions.
Avoiding the vampires takes lateral thinking
So, there are lots of ways to avoid the Likes Vampires. There are lots of classy options for engage with your supporters and get decent promotions. There are other platforms out there – smaller, way less lucrative, sure, but also way less exploitative. Alternative platforms are popping up like an anti-social-media wave, putting contents before popularity or revenue.
But, humans being humans and the world being what it is, I have no doubt that even those startups will eventually become like the very things they despise. So this is not a situation where you can sit back and say, OK, all my ducks are in a row. The Internet changes fast and you should keep a watchful eye and remain cautious.