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“The only game in town”

Long before I got my Commodore 64, I had a cardboard computer simulator called CARDIAC. This was part of a gifted class in elementary school that included a trip to the UCLA computer lab. Like any computer, CARDIAC came with games. One of them was single-pile nim. This is a mathematical game with a specified set of outcomes. You can program CARDIAC so it always picks the right outcomes and always wins. This is no fun, as anyone who played a video game with an unbeatable final boss can attest. The creators of CARDIAC knew it and included this story in their user manual:

You may have felt a little like the gambler who was hailed by a friend on his way to the local casino.

“Where are you headed?” asked the friend.

“Oh, I figure to try my luck at the Silver Dollar Casino.”

“You danged fool, don’t you know the game is crooked?”

“Sure I do…but what can I do? It’s the only game in town!”

Fast-forward 51 years when we’ve replaced cardboard computer simulators with real computers that can fit in our hand. Today, we have Facebook, Instagram, and a quandary: Can we still trust social media services we depend on to promote our writing and collaborate with other writers?

Before the events of the past few days, which included damning testimony from a Facebook employee and an hours-long outage of Facebook and related services, we’ve had a sense that the services we depend on demanded of us a lot of personal data. For years, we’ve held our noses as we waded through the ugliest of racist diatribes, conspiracy theories, and disinformation. Those of us who have children wonder about the pernicious effects of influencers and the unstoppable flow of bullying, body shaming, and destructive information.

And yet, we’ve found Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites invaluable for promoting our books, staging author events, and building connections with authors and readers. This has become especially important during the pandemic when in-person events were unfeasible. And we’ve found virtual events enabled us to reach more people than what we can do in-person.

We know the game is crooked, but it’s the only game in town. So what do we do?

Going back to the CARDIAC, the user manual follows up the story about the forlorn gambler with a different version of the single-pile nim game that increases the difficulty for the computer. It makes it more likely the computer will choose a losing move and let the human player win. This makes the game more fair and more appealing.

How do we make social media companies more fair? Let’s remember there are two things these companies fear. The first is government regulation, which should worry all of us because we’ve seen how repressive governments shut down social media to stifle dissent. But their biggest fear is losing to emerging competitors. Just as Facebook sank MySpace, some new service can come along that sinks Facebook.

As writers, we need to diversify our social media presence. We shouldn’t depend on one service, but spread our media reach to a variety of platforms. Not only does this broaden our potential audience, we don’t get shut out if a service goes down. And if a social media company acts in a way we find irresponsible, we can pull back our promotion efforts on that platform and focus on the others. These companies depend on our engagement to make money. If we disengage from them, they lose business. Money talks, and we can make these social media companies listen.

As much as we depend on social media, we have the right to expect better from the companies we do business with. And if they don’t play fair or do what’s right, we can take our business to companies that do. Spreading out your social media presence to a variety of platforms enables you to broaden your audience and maintain your presence even if one of those companies falters.

Finally, as a technical writer, I salute pioneers who wrote the CARDIAC user manual, David Hagelbarger and Saul Fingerman.

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