The Illusion of Reciprocity

Something I love about the internet is that it allows people to connect, in a real way, with artists and thinkers and authors and companies that they believe in. This is the age of the “OMG MICK JAGGER TOTALLY RETWEETED ME*” and of crowdsourcing and of Amanda Palmer finding places to stay, advertising gigs, and musical instruments by reaching out directly to her fans online. When a relationship with someone “more x” than you (where “x” is “successful, rich, etc”) online is at its best, you feel like you’re genuinely getting to know this person you admire, and that this person is hearing your voice too. Managed well, these people actually are connecting with you, actually are reading your tweets and Facebook posts and are reading the articles you send them. Ideally, it’s a dialogue. That’s what the democracy of the Internet allows us.

However, there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to online engagement as a successful _________ (fill in the blank). Unless what you’re famous for is being on Twitter and blogging, at some point you have to go do that thing you’re famous for, or that thing that made you money, or whatever it was that got you these fans in the first place. Getting ideas from and conversing with other people is all well and good, but at some point you have to go do whatever it is you do with your life.

What I’m saying is that it behooves us to remember that the people we desperately hope we’re connecting with have lots of cool stuff to do, and that if they don’t respond to us, we should try not to get too disappointed or take it personally. How can it be personal? To them, we’re 140 characters on a screen.

That being said, there’s a real feeling–an illusion, if you will–NOT A TRICK, MICHAEL, AN ILLUSION–that when we reach out to someone we feel that we know well, someone whose words or music or ideas have become a daily presence in our lives through the magic of the Internet, that we know this person. That we are friends or at least acquaintances with this person, that this person has some kind of obligation even if it’s just to avoid being rude to respond to us. We’re the fans! They talk about how much they love us all the time! We know they check this email address!

The Internet allows the craziest pipe dreams of connection to take firm root. I remember when I was in college and came to Chicago for my dad’s godson’s wedding. At the rehearsal dinner, I snuck away to a corner and started reading my new favorite book: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. The groom-to-be came up to me to ask what I was reading, and when I showed him, he casually mentioned that he knew Neil, that he’d interviewed him years before as a journalist and that they’d become friends and still kept in touch sometimes.

My brain promptly exploded and I began imagining the precise moment when (not “if”) I would manage to invite Neil to dinner with me and Rob and we would become friends and he would come to see my shows when he was in town and someday he would leave me his last finished manuscript in his will.

I went home and I pulled up Neil’s blog on my trusty laptop and I submitted a short blurb about having just come from Rob’s wedding, and having found out that he and Rob know each other and wanting to let him know in case he didn’t that Rob was getting married and sends his love and by the way I go to school in Minnesota hint hint hint. I was hoping he would mention the note explicitly in a blog post, and give a line or two wishing Rob well. I also was hoping I’d get an email back with more private wishes for Rob, and that it would blossom into a correspondence.

Neither of these things happened. Obviously.

Neil Gaiman is someone who has a personal assistant. Neil Gaiman is someone whose fans squirm sometimes at the amount that he blogs because they want him to be writing. He’s someone who’s booked through 2034. Maybe his assistant read my blurb and said to him at one point, “Oh, someone named Rob that you know is getting married,” and he said, “Oh, wonderful.” But then he had to go back to doing one of the billion things he has to do as Neil Gaiman.

That was a fairly low-level, adorably naive fan scenario. I hadn’t found his direct inbox, and it was slightly before Twitter. These days, it’s not so hard to find more immediate ways of communicating to the people you like. If my expectation was lifelong mentee coming from a comment submitted to a blog, imagine the expectations that might grow from people able to Direct Message and personally email the people they admire?

Anyway, in sum: if you’ve heard about something or someone, chances are that other people have too.  If you’re reaching out to someone you’ve never met who you look up to, chances are that other people are too. And for every one person they do respond directly to, there’s however many people they have to ignore–not in order to be rude, but just because of time constraints.

And in second sum, no, my favorite podcast did NOT mention my new Tumblr specifically in this week’s episode even though I emailed them asking them to do so.




*I of course had to go look up Mick Jagger’s official Twitter handle. It is, unsurprisingly (or surprisingly? Do you think he had to buy it from an early adopter?) @MickJagger. Just so you know.

No, he has never re-tweeted me.


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