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Your Tribe is Really a Cult

It’s been called The Echo Chamber Effect. From Wikipedia:

The echo chamber effect refers to any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an “enclosed” space.

There’s a lot of “enclosed spaces” out there. Especially online. It could be a fan following, a blog, an agent or industry rep site, a guild, or a chat room. These spaces aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just… cloistered. The same people, saying the same things. And why not? Most of us social mediaites inevitably find our way into some sort of online niche;  we become part of, perhaps even oversee, a tribe. (That’s what they call it now — a Tribe.) In fact, conventional wisdom encourages us writers to build a tribe.

The bad thing is when these social media circles, these tribes, produce an echo chamber effect.

I visited a blog recently and, by all appearance, it looked pretty swell. The Followers Box was overflowing, as were the Comments. The posts came with regularity and nary a one was un-Tweeted. But I noticed something odd about this blog, almost kinda creepy. The participants were…

  • All white.
  • All women.
  • All writers.
  • All saying pretty much the same thing.

I’m exaggerating a little bit.  But only about the “all saying the same thing” part. Have you noticed that about some Christian writer’s blogs? There’s lotsa demographic consistency. Anyway, I followed one thread that contained 20 plus comments… and every comment (minus 1) was from a white woman.

I suppose this would not be strange if the site belonged to the Society for the Advancement of White Female Stereotypes. But it wasn’t. In fact, the site had no specificity as to a gender aim at all. Or ethnicity.

  • It was a writer’s site.
  • A Christian writer’s site.

So why the white women phenomenon?

Before you accuse me of misogyny or jealousy, or just plain rabble-rousing, let me hasten to add that other sites / communities reflect a similar disparity. Whether it’s politics, religion, media, sports, or a specific hobby, online communities tend to attract certain demographics.

Nothing wrong with this. In fact, it could be strategic. I mean, if you write biographies of NFL offensive linemen, you probably shouldn’t advertize on the Martha Stewart channel.

The trouble with tribe-building is when it leads to cultism.

Participants in online communities may find their own opinions constantly echoed back to them, which reinforces their individual belief systems. This can create significant barriers to critical discourse within an online medium… and as such, will at times eliminate the effects of positive feedback loops (i.e., the echo chamber effect) to that system, where a lack of perturbation to dimensions of the network, prohibits a sense of equilibrium to the system. (emphasis mine)

So, I guess, “perturbation” is good.

Systems that lack a “perturbation of dimensions” sacrifice equilibrium and erect “barriers to critical discourse.” Okay. Maybe some networks don’t want “critical discourse.” However, that doesn’t strike me as the type of cult, er, network I want to be a part of.

The aforementioned site bothered me not because the author was a bad writer dispensing false information, but because that demographic is ubiquitous in Christian writing circles: Caucasian, stay-at-home-moms-turned-authors.

No wonder us “male Christian horror writers” seem like such oddballs.

Yes, I know there are plenty of female Christian writers who work outside the home. There’s also some who write spec-fic. And there are a few non-white Christian authors out there. My point is only to suggest that when you get too many of the same type of people, in the same place, who believe the same thing, the echo chamber effect is inevitable.

For instance…

Literary agent Chip MacGregor once suggested that blog tours are only minimally effective in author marketing. Why? Using a client as an example, Chip wrote

So [the publisher] sent this author out on a blog tour to be interviewed at 20 or 30 blog sites. She was great, but I don’t think it helped sell any books. It seemed to hit the same 300 people as everybody else…

I know, this is a little stretch. Nevertheless, I think the echo chamber effect was at work. Those “300 people” might have been very vocal, very enthusiastic, very well spoken. But if their opinions and enthusiasm never leave the tribe, they’re just talking to themselves. (Which may be one reason why Christian books often get poorly reviewed outside the Christian community. We’re cocooned.)

Quality, salience, and/or fan enthusiasm is no indication of a product’s relevance or potential breadth.

It must find its way out of the tribe.

In this way, “conversation” can be a deceptive term inside some social media circles. Why? Because oftentimes the ones “talking” are in an “enclosed space.” They Like (Thumbs Up) what’s being said. Their “ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced” by like-minded folk inside the community. The debate is pretty much localized and thus, demographic and ideological “equilibrium” is rendered inconsequential.

If you listen to Rush Limbaugh all the time, objectivity whithers. Or to put it another way, open-mindedness is not encouraged inside cults.

Writers know we must build followings. We must mine out fertile “circles,” build our tribe, both for our edification and our platform. Amen! The problem is when those circles become cults, little echo chambers that reinforce our opinions, bolster our self-image, and insulate us against critique.

So go ahead, call me a trouble-maker, a malcontent, a heretic. I prefer to think of this as my attempt at “perturbation.”

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{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Deborah September 5, 2011, 7:03 AM

    Spot on. As an Asian American, late 20 something married but not wanting kids yet, masters degree holding, working professional, I have always felt like I was not the target audience for Christian fiction. And it saddens me greatly. With my blog, I do reach outside the typical CF audience but that’s bc I read and embrace general market fiction which many other CF readers will not. I still feel though as if I am ignored and not a factor in the industry though.

    Anyways that’s my my two bits. I hope I didn’t read this in the wrong way…

    • Mike Duran September 5, 2011, 11:48 AM

      Perhaps I am saying that by inference, Deb. The demographics of the CF market DO bother me. I don’t think it’s intended, that publishers intentionally market only to white housewives. Nevertheless, the existing culture has an… homogenizing effect.

      And, hey, congrats on making the short list for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week.

      • Deborah September 5, 2011, 8:57 PM

        Thank you very much! Really honored and sheepish.

    • C.L. Dyck September 6, 2011, 12:48 PM

      As a Canadian, former atheist, surrounded by white-collar/degree holding non-Christian family, oh man, you name it different…yeah.

      My publisher, Chila Woychik at Port Yonder Press, once blogged (http://chilawoychik.com/2011/08/21/what-i-learned-at-a-christian-writers-conference/) that one industry insider she’d conversed with had referred to Christian writing circles as having a “sorority mentality,” which I think is another way of saying what Mike’s saying here.

      “I read and embrace general market fiction, which many other CF readers will not.”

      Thank you for that. I am now going to check out your blog.

  • Lisa September 5, 2011, 7:41 AM

    Let’s see. Writers are supposed to build tribes. Those tribes often look / sound like the writer. So what’s the problem?

    • Mike Duran September 5, 2011, 11:51 AM

      That’s not so much the problem. The problem is when those tribes become echo chambers, insulate us against opposing views, make us less objective, etc.

  • Jill September 5, 2011, 9:04 AM

    Um, yeah, this is pretty much the way my cynical mind has been thinking for some time now. I came at blogging thinking blog articles were open debate forums. Wow, was I ever wrong! I can’t count the times I’ve read “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all,” as if Disney is the arbiter of our collective morality. I’ve also had my comments deleted off several sites (in some cases, I deserved it, but still!).

    And sadly, I fit your stereotype. I’m a white Christian stay-at-home mom, and yet I’m a misfit (which may or may not be due to the classist aspect you left out). Your paradigm may be generally true, but will rarely fit when applied to specific cases due to the complexity of human beings. But that’s the odd part about all this–that most people won’t fit the stereotype at core. Rather, they perpetuate the ideals on image-based forums.

    And, Mike, be careful–you might just fit into a different stereotype. But, gasp, I forgot! Some of us play the slippage game like Ruby Tuesday.

  • Bob Avey September 5, 2011, 9:27 AM

    You bring up some interesting points, Mike. However, the echo chamber effect isn’t confined to Christian circles. Back in the day, when books were books, I held my own pretty well as a writer. However, the kindle revolution has not been so kind to me. Perhaps it’s the online community mentality that I’m up against.

  • Katherine Coble September 5, 2011, 9:30 AM

    Heh. Jill, I wish you’d bring some rugged stuff to my comments! We love debate.

    Honestly, this is the one aspect of my blogging life of which I am proud. A quick glance through my readers yields a pretty good cross section of religions, socioeconomic levels, ethnicity, politics, sexual preference and gender. I blame that on being a community blogger who doesn’t “specialize”. JAPF isn’t a political blog, a religious blog or a writing blog. It’s a bit of all of those things, along with a coping-with-illness blog and the occasional other topic. The advice when blogs were The Next Big Thing was that you should pick a topic and master in it to develop a following. But as you point out, the followings earned by those blogs ended up being all the other bloggers who mastered the same topic.

    Dull. Dull. Dull.

    I’m less strident in my politics, but other than that it’s the same dilletante grab bag it’s always been. And except for the occasional fights between the fundamentalists, the Jews and the Pagans, we all get along great.

    • Jill September 5, 2011, 1:51 PM

      The problem with your blog, Katherine, is that I often agree with what you say, but just as often, don’t know enough to argue!!

  • Caprice Hokstad September 5, 2011, 10:37 AM

    Okay, I can accept that the echo chamber effect is bad and that a tribe turning into a cult is bad. How do you suggest we avoid it happening? How do we get a better diversity of followers? How does a white SAHM (stay-at-home-mom) attract readers who are non-white employed childless males?

    • Mike Duran September 5, 2011, 12:17 PM

      Caprice, I’m not sure how an author can be intentionally multicultural. I’m also not sure if that’s even the right way to frame it. Sad to say, I think we are all prone, subconsciously or not, to feel more comfortable with people who are like us. But American Christians are a really diverse group. Which begs the question as to why CF is largely represented by the SAHM demographic. The disparity of female to male readers probably comes into play. But, as you can tell, I don’t have solid leads.

      I personally like debate and enjoy skewing sacred cows. This approach may itself cut cross grain with conventional publishing wisdom (“don’t bite the hand that feeds,” etc.), Nevertheless, I wonder that inviting contrary opinions may be the prerequisite for building “a better diversity of followers.” Just some thoughts, Caprice. I’d be interested in hearing yours.

      • Caprice Hokstad September 5, 2011, 2:16 PM

        Thoughts? Okay…

        If you look at my fan base (as in people who have read my fiction and sent me an email or reviewed on Amazon in a positive way) then you will find a large male readership, possibly as much as half. How I reached them? I had a couple of large boxes of books sitting in my dining room, mocking me because I couldn’t sell them. I even did a GIVEAWAY on my website and couldn’t find takers to get them for free.

        So I went to BooksForSoldiers.com, signed up as a volunteer (you have to jump some hoops with a notary public, which I assume has something to do with national security) and then I started sending my books to deployed soldiers in Iraq who requested the fantasy genre, but who didn’t specify what titles they wanted. I think I also sent a couple of copies to female soldiers, but the majority were male. While I can’t say how many may have been another ethinicty than white, I do know without a doubt that NONE of them were stay-at-home moms.

        Some guys kept them. Some guys traded them. Some put them in their unit “library” so anyone could enjoy them.Talk about having a captive audience. Deployed soldiers don’t generally have a lot of entertainment options.

        I was bowled over by the gratitude shown me for doing this. Guys out there risking their lives took the time to say thanks and then after they read, to tell me that they enjoyed it.

        These guys also helped me out when I needed endorsers on my second book and a lot of writer friends and critique partners had other commitments and skipped out on me at the time. Thus, in the self-published version of my second novel, fully one half of the endorsements were written by deployed soldiers who were in Iraq and who read electronic ARCs on their laptops. In a warzone.

        I really don’t know whether this project helped my sales. Giving away about 150 copies of my first book didn’t really create more demand for the second book and while that would have been nice, I didn’t really expect that or do this with the idea that it was “marketing”. I got back much more in intangible benefits than I ever put in and I got rid of clutter in my dining room.

        Even those guys who identified themselves as fans don’t follow my blog. I’m not even sure I had a blog when I started doing BFS. And eventually, I had to stop sending books this way because I no longer had extra copies and couldn’t afford to buy more. I’ve switched to Operation Ebook Drop which sends ebooks instead.

        A couple of the guys I met this way still correspond by email and at least two of them have friended me on Facebook, but for the most part, I don’t think they try to interact beyond being interested in my fiction. But then I don’t really have very many blog followers, period.

  • Glynn September 5, 2011, 10:46 AM

    Who’s leaving comments may be more a statement about who’s more prone to conversation. Most of the commenters at my blog are from Christian women, but the comments tend to be pretty diverse. I’ve discovered, though, that a lot of what I post appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike — poetry, book reviews, occasional stuff about work. It’s clear about what my perspective is — what the blog is about — but the readership isn’t confiend to one or the other. The men who comment tend to share some things in common withe me — demographic things.

    What I have noticed is how comments are a lot like you describe here at the blogs of published writers (and agents), no matter what the genre.

  • Sue Harrison September 5, 2011, 12:45 PM

    As a “white” (color of my skin) woman of European/Native American/Jewish ethnicity who used to write novels published by Doubleday and WilliamMorrow, I’ve found my recent foray into the Christian arena very interesting and sometimes lonely. Maybe that’s why I like what you write, Mike!

  • Tracy Krauss September 5, 2011, 1:17 PM

    I’ll ‘echo’ what some others have already said. How do those of us that fit within the ‘white woman’ demographic catapult ourselves out of this cloister? (Does the fact that I work outside the home count?!?) I get exactly what you mean, and it is definitely worrisome. I often see the same people over and over at various sites I frequent and sometimes it does feel like I’m trapped within this small group.
    On the other hand, a certain amount of affirmation never hurts, and building up relationships is obviously beneficial. What I’ve starting doing lately is straying out to non-Christian author sites and trying to make ‘friends’ there. What I’ve noticed, however, is that the majority of these people are still white women …

  • Lynette Sowell September 5, 2011, 2:57 PM

    I hear you, Mike! I write contemporary inspirational romance/mystery and I know who my typical demographic is. I’ve heard to “find my audience and stand in front of them.” So my buddy Bruce is a retired engineer and an avid reader, but he’s not *my* reader. And I’m okay with that.
    What I’ve encountered when doing blog tours is the group “overlap” that I see. We writers (we people!) like to drift to what’s familiar. I find it refreshing to find people outside my typical circle. What I’ve found is that THEY may not be my readers, but they might know someone else who is.
    One thing I’ve done, deliberately, is to write from a melting-pot perspective. My world is not full of Anglo people with Anglo names. We are so wide and varied in our backgrounds, and it’s beautiful. I even had the audacity to write a Hispanic hero and heroine, and I’m not (I’m of French Canadian/Russian/Polish descent). Why did I do that? Because that’s who showed up when I wrote a novella set in San Antonio. I had a Hispanic friend read my book to see if there was anything questionable there. Not that we’re going to please everyone in our writing. If anything, people will either love it or hate it.
    I want my tribe to be fans, but I don’t want them all to be the same. 🙂 I may fit a certain demographic, but I don’t consider myself typical.

    • Mike Duran September 6, 2011, 5:34 AM

      “I may fit a certain demographic, but I don’t consider myself typical.”

      That’s a great line, Lynette. I think having a multi-ethnic approach to our writing is a good start. The downside is that we open ourselves up to charges of attempting to be “multi-ethnic.” We get analyzed for HOW we use characters of other races. Using a person of color as a bad guy gets us charged with stereotyping. Using a person of color as a good guy gets us charged with pandering. It’s a no-win situation.

      • Lynette Sowell September 6, 2011, 6:17 AM

        Exactly….as soon as we look like we’re “trying” then the accusations of pandering could start. I think it needs to happen naturally. I wouldn’t want to say “I always write multi-ethnic characters” because then it’s like I’d have my token ______ character for each book. A brand could then turn into a cookie cutter.

        • Jessica Thomas September 6, 2011, 6:46 AM

          The easiest way to do this, for me anyway, is give my secondary characters non-English/German last names and/or first names. I read a critique somewhere about side character’s tending to be all of the same race/ethnicity and I thought it was a good point. So, especially in scifi, I try to remember not to paint everyone the same color. Since scifi projects into the future, there’s more leeway over how character’s act, which makes the writing less likely enter into the pandering realm. For my latest short story, I chose an Arab name for my main Christian character to twist it up and get myself thinking out of my caucasion box.

          Anyway, good points. We can’t expect to draw a multi-cultural audience if we don’t step outside the boundaries of our own racial and cultural heritage.

  • Patrick Todoroff September 5, 2011, 3:04 PM

    Obviously our work is going to have a target demographic, whether it’s sci fi, horror, romance, mystery… That in mind, are there any specific strategies for writers to balance the legitimate task of building a fan base with the desperate need for them and their work to break out of the echo chamber?

    • Mike Duran September 6, 2011, 5:53 AM

      Patrick, a writers’ target audience will contain built-in barriers, like it or not. Romance writers share similar traits, as do manga, horror, espionage, and westerns. Depending upon the genre, those traits aren’t always limited by race or gender. For instance, sci-fi seems to have multi-ethnic appeal. But, if I’m not mistaken, it IS disproportionately tilted to male readers. All that to say, I think every genre carries its own unique demographics.

      As far as breaking out of our echo chambers, recognizing that every group can become one is a start. The only real suggestion I am affording in this post is that “critical discourse” is important. Networks that eschew contrary opinions or critique tend toward myopia. Which is why I’ve made it my mission to be an emissary of “perturbation.”

      • Patrick Todoroff September 6, 2011, 9:27 AM

        Right-o. Thanks, Mike.

        I will say writing-wise, I’ve made a deliberate effort to submit my novel to non-Christian review sites, not so much out of any evangelistic impulse, but because it has to stand on its own merits in the Open Marketplace and learn to take a punch. End of the day however, I’d really like to exercise and exhibit solutions to issues like this rather than simply be aware of them.

        On a personal note, I left a church I’d been a part of for 22 years over several things, including this echo-chamber dynamic. Very difficult but absolutely necessary.

        Oh, and you get my vote for Perturbation Emissary of the Year.

  • Jessica Thomas September 5, 2011, 4:25 PM

    Perhaps I’m being a butthead but generating a blog audience is hard enough on its own. My Google Analytics look great on days when I’m spammed. I’m just sayin’. I need to find me some white stay at home mom’s.

  • Sue Harrison September 5, 2011, 4:53 PM

    By the way, Mike, I meant that as a compliment. You do a great job of “bridging the gap” and appealing to both CBA and ABA readers.

  • Jay September 5, 2011, 5:33 PM

    I like what you say here, Mike. The problem isn’t with the superficialities of the tribe (like race, gender, hairstyle, underwear preference), but more of a functional or behavior conventionalities. The product of writer circles, the written word, is not depended on superficial traits but more on the behaviorial– in this case, the recycling of the elements and ideas for writing.

    So basically this comment adds nothing to the conversation except to echo and summarize your main point. Darn. =/

  • TC Avey September 6, 2011, 8:02 AM

    I concur. Recently I started a blog. It focuses primarily on politics and religion. I know that can get “tribe-like”, so I TRY to offer various view points on politics and encourage conversation. While I am a Christian conservative, I want people from both sides of the political arena to feel free to express their beliefs and ideas, that way both sides can possibly learn from the other. I do not have a huge following as of yet, but I am confident it will pick up. I realize that a certain type of person will be drawn to reading about this topic but I am trying to be diverse in order to appeal to more than just conservatives. Though I must admit you can tell what side of the political spectrum I am from!

  • marquita herald September 6, 2011, 1:34 PM

    Okay, you’re a trouble-maker and a malcontent – but I also think you’re right and your message is especially pertinent to me this morning. Writer’s aren’t the only one’s building “tribes” these days. A popular form of tribe is the blogger syndication tribe where groups of bloggers comment on each others sites. Nice in the beginning (if you manage to find a group of active, dedicated bloggers), but eventually you get to what you referred to as the “echo chamber” and I realized over the weekend that’s exactly where I am and it’s time to break out of my little comfort zone and move on … thanks for the inspiration and validation!

  • Nikole Hahn September 6, 2011, 2:01 PM

    Okay…you made me think about my followers. I have to admit I don’t know except by their name if they are female. Some of them I can tell their race, but sometimes not because they may not leave a comment or may not have a picture of themselves up on the blog. I hope my blog isn’t the type that waits to hear affirmation. My objective is to stimulate conversation and I think one time did I get someone disagree with me and we had a great discussion. I know on Twitter I have discussions, but my blog asks the difficult questions (or tries to). I think blog tours can be effective if you don’t use canned interviews. I hate interviews personally. I prefer guest blogs. But I participate in some blog tours where canned interviews are used. Good thoughts (or is that affirming? I could say something grouchy and be a malcontent…except you brought up a topic I had never thought about).

    • Nikole Hahn September 6, 2011, 2:03 PM

      I meant, “Some I can tell their race, but sometimes they may not leave a comment or may not even have a picture on their blog of themselves. So I can’t tell my demographic sometimes.

  • Nikole Hahn September 6, 2011, 2:05 PM

    If you have any suggestions how to expand my demographics, I’m open to hearing it.

  • Nikole Hahn September 6, 2011, 2:11 PM

    Here’s a good example of a tribe/cult: Vehement Self-Publishers. I review self-published and traditional published works, but there are followers of vehement self-publishers who have followers who agree with the viewpoints and are built up as if they are Robin Hood and his followers versus King John (traditional publishing in their view). My apologies to self-published authors whom I have found great respect and whom have gotten picked up by traditional publishing houses or who are targeting a specific audiences, but this is a good example of what Mike is talking about. It’s an observed attitude.

  • Tim George September 8, 2011, 11:22 AM

    Human nature never changes. There are few people like you and to some extent me that are eclectic by nature. But for the most part people tend to congregate with those who think and see the world the same way.

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