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How Social Networking Nearly Ruined My Perfectly Mediocre Writing Career

By Dave Fox

In 2000, I was 33 years old and seeing a bright future ahead. In a matter of months, I would graduate from sixth grade. My teacher, realizing I was a gifted student, said to me one day, “David Eric Fox, you should make something of yourself. You are smarter than these other sixth graders. You should stop snorting catnip and launch a website.”

“Ha!” I laughed. “What’s a website going to do for me? Probably about the same as the hula hoop and the Rubik’s Cube did, which was nothing! (Well, except for get me arrested a few times.)”

Realizing my teacher was an idiot, I dropped out of sixth grade, once and for all.

My efforts to sell shards of broken mirror glass as earthquake souvenirs were sadly unsuccessful.

A few months later, I found myself working in an office. We were having a meeting one day when a massive earthquake struck. The world began to rock. Not the cool kind of rocking, like that which occurs at a Blue Öyster Cult reunion concert. This was the kind of rocking that makes you realize you are insignificant, powerless against nature, and probably about to get squashed to death. Everything was shaking. A nearby bookcase was swaying, threatening to topple over and crush my skull. I sprang to my feet and went to stand in the doorway, which is where earthquake experts say you should stand when a building is about to collapse on top of you.

“No, Dave!” my supervisor Brooke shouted. “Sit back down, next to this swaying bookcase!” I don’t think Brooke liked me very much.

For reasons I’m not quite sure of, I did as I was told. I waited for the bookcase to topple and transport me into the afterlife. That did not happen, however. Instead, after about 20 seconds, the earth stopped rocking and went back to that indiscernible, spinny thing it normally does.

I felt lucky. And I wasn’t the only one. People in the office started hugging each other, high-fiving each other, thanking various deities they were still alive, and smoking their very first cigarettes. I went home and realized I should have listened to my sixth grade teacher. I needed to embrace this second chance on life.

“I should start a website,” I told myself.

But yeah, whatever. I had just survived an earthquake. I needed to live life, not waste my time with some fly-by-night fad like the Internet. So instead of starting a website, I got drunk. Then I sent a drunken e-mail to my out-of-town friends, informing them I was okay, and also super cool for having just cheated death.

My e-mail went viral.

Don't touch it! It's viral!

“Going viral” is the term Internet marketing experts use to define something that was never intended for public consumption, but gains online notoriety anyway. It is what every aspiring YouTube superstar dreams of. But the thing about so-called “viral marketing” is it isn’t really marketing. You can’t try to go viral. It happens by accident during life’s unscripted, unexpected moments.

Example: Late one night, you’re prancing around your living room in your leopard-skin thong, slashing up your sofa with a hot fireplace poker as you lip-sync the lyrics to “Convoy” by C.W. McCall. You happen to have a couple of friends in the room who happen to have a video camera. You do not notice your friends or their video camera because you have snorted too much catnip. The next day, you are swaggering innocently down the street when you get your ass kicked by a bunch of thugs who have seen the video on YouTube and do not appreciate C.W. McCall the way you do. Congratulations. You have just gone viral.

That’s kind of what happened with my earthquake report. I never intended for strangers to read it, but the next thing I knew, friends were informing me that they had forwarded my e-mail to all of their friends’ orthodontists’ grandmothers, most of whom I did not know.

When it first launched, davethefox.com consisted of two humor columns, eight pages total, and hand-drawn graphics.

That was when I realized I really did need to start a website.

So I launched davethefox.com on April Fool’s Day, 2001. Each month, I wrote a humor column or two. Then, three years later, my upstairs neighbor knocked on my door one evening and said, “Dave, websites are so 2001. What you need is a blog.”

I immediately began removing my clothes.

But my neighbor unfortunately explained that this “blog” thing had nothing to do with naked bodies writhing together in ecstasy on my kitchen floor, and that the word, “blog,” was short for “weblog.” It was an online journal where one could spew random thoughts at random moments, without having to worry about the quality of one’s writing.

That sounded excellent! Not as excellent as writhing naked on my kitchen floor, mind you, but let’s face it: Good writing takes irritatingly long to produce. If lazy, self-indulgent drivel was the new fad, it was a fad I could embrace.

So I started blogging. Random thoughts would blip through my mind, and I would share them with the world. People would read them. Sometimes they would comment. That was a cool thing about blogging. People could post comments.

Some people shared interesting viewpoints different from my own. Some just told me I should “keep up the good work” (whatever that meant). Still others were what Internet marketing experts refer to as “fucking psychos.”

It’s interesting how people react when you start publishing things online. Some people assume you are an authority on whatever you choose to write about, whether you are or not. They come to you for help, or they try to knock you down because they do not like authority. I blogged about my horrific customer service experience with Dell Computers, and lots of people wrote to me for legal advice concerning their own problems with Dell. And we all know sixth grade dropouts are not qualified to give legal advice. I blogged about the sadness of the digital bugle, invented because the military didn’t have enough real buglers to play “Taps” at all of the Iraq war funerals, and people called me “fat.” When I wrote a quick entry about akvavit, the firewater of Scandinavia, one guy e-mailed and asked if he could order some from me and have me ship it to his client in South Africa. Oh, and it had to be Kosher.

Eventually, blogging went the way of the Rubik’s Cube. A new phenomenon was born: “Web 2.0.”

By 2007, I had immersed myself in a hip new website known as MySpace. MySpace was a place where I could pimp out my books, my lectures, my classes. People I had never met were sending requests to become my “friends.” I started to do the same with people I didn’t know — Blue Öyster Cult, for example. I became “friends” with hundreds of strangers. I hoped one or two of them might buy my books.

Then came 2008, which was when my Internet life really started to spiral out of control. Friends of mine — not MySpace “friends,” but real friends who I had tangible, in-person relationships with — were chastising me. “What the hell is wrong with you?” they would ask. “Don’t you get it that MySpace is totally 2007? Facebook is where it’s at!”

Facebook is kind of cool, kind of habit-forming, kind of a total waste of time. It was one of the first big websites in a new phenomenon known as “microblogging,” which means posting quick, pithy updates about what you’re doing, and exerting even less effort than you would on a normal blog. Now that we have Facebook, we barely need to talk to each other anymore. Last week, my Norwegian sister, from the family I lived with as an exchange student many years ago, had a baby. Guess where I found out about it.

A lot of the stuff people post on Facebook is stuff nobody else cares about. Also, for reasons I do not understand, we Facebookers write about ourselves in the third person. Here is what some of my Facebook posts might look like on an average day:

8:52 a.m.: Dave Fox is eating a muffin.

9:36 a.m.: Dave Fox is clipping his toenails.

9:51 a.m.: Dave Fox is typing what he’s doing right now so he doesn’t have to do any real work.

10:12 a.m.: Dave Fox is snorting the crumbs of the muffin he ate earlier.

10: 57 a.m.: Dave Fox is wishing he had not quit snorting catnip. Muffin crumbs just don’t do the trick.

The more time I spent on Facebook, the more my brain threatened to implode. The problem was, I had never shut down any of my earlier online endeavors. My website, my blog, my MySpace page were all dangling out there like neglected children. I wanted to love and nourish them all, but there wasn’t enough time.

I had quit writing anything of substance.

I hired a writing coach to help me get back on track. “You need to develop a platform,” she told me. “That’s what publishers want to see these days.”

“What do you mean by a ‘platform?'” I asked.

“Do you have a blog?”

“Yes.”

“Are you on MySpace?”

“Yes.”

“Facebook?”

“Yes.”

“What about Twitter?”

That was where I drew the line. I refused to have anything to do with a website called “Twitter.”

“You have to be on Twitter too. You have to ‘tweet.’ Publishers want that.”
I did not want to “tweet.” But after several hours of banging my head on the floor, and wishing another big earthquake would come along and crush the entire Internet once and for all, I gave in and set up a Twitter account.

Twitter is extreme microblogging. You get 140 characters per post, maximum. You can “tweet” from anywhere in the world via cell phone text message, and it shows up on your Twitter page in a matter of seconds.

“Stuck in a massive, Italian-style traffic jam in rural Sweden.,” I tweeted one morning while guiding a tour in Scandinavia. “Sparkly day in the western Norwegian fjords!” I wrote on another. And from my hotel in the Mekong Delta one evening, I announced, “Was the guest of honor today at a rural Vietnamese home-cooked lunch. (The guest of honor gets to eat the chicken penis.)”

Twitter was exciting. Every time I tweeted, more strangers showed up — new “followers,” as Twitter calls them, which is far more ego-gratifying than “friends.” I had followers! It was like I was the new guru of a successful religious cult!

Which was nice and all, until I realized… I had stopped writing. I hadn’t written a decent blog post in weeks. I hadn’t written a polished humor column in more than a year. And maybe publishers would be more likely to publish my third book if I had a so-called “platform,” but they would be even more likely to publish my third book if I had a so-called “third book.” The only way I was going to get my writing back on track was to start writing again — articles of substance, with more than 140 characters.

I didn’t want to abandon my “friends,” my “followers,” my “fucking psychos,” but in order to gain some writer’s momentum, I needed to return to simpler times and bring back my old web column format.

I knew what I had to do to get started.

I went to the pet store and bought a big bag of catnip.

Published on Saturday, August 1, 2009

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