Un-customers, and the internet village mob
As a creative businessperson, you will inevitably face this question: how willing are you to allow complaints and harangues to change the way you do what you do?
Because you will get complaints. It’s inevitable. People will either complain about your product, or they will complain about your presentation, or they will complain about you as a human being. This has been true for as long as artists have been selling their work, but it’s especially true in the internet age — where every single person has a (potentially massive) megaphone at her disposal.
In other words: do you dare make anyone mad at you?
I think the first question to ask is: is the person doing the complaining, even a customer? Are they actively buying you, or have they actively bought you in the past? Someone who is actively buying you, and who might walk away, is a voice that probably should be taken seriously. That could be a genuine customer relations matter, and in cases of genuine customer relations, I think it’s always a good idea to be good-humored, generous with your sentiment, apologetic in your approach, and take things on the chin.
The voice that probably shouldn’t be taken seriously, is the un-customer: the guy who never bought you to begin with, and is liable to never buy you in the future — either because of taste, or because of politics, or some other damned thing — and who only came to your blog or your Twitter or your e-mail in-box in order to poke a stick in your eye. Such un-customers are common. Everybody has them. Doesn’t matter how big or small your creative business is. The un-customer is just in it to mess with you.
But what if the un-customer threatens to spread the word?
That’s a somewhat different issue. Before the advent of the internet, un-customers didn’t have a lot of influence, nor much ability to negatively impact you. Now? Depending on who your un-customer is, (s)he might have a small army of social media followers, ready and willing to launch a bad press campaign — if the un-customer decides to make a stink. Numerous creative artists are rightfully terrified of this possibility: that some stranger on the internet will get angry, and decide to ruin that creative artist in the public sphere. It’s a possibility that haunts the dreams of many. As columnist Cathy Young noted recently, the village mob has made a comeback. Only, this time, it’s the global internet village. And the mob is an anonymous animal that can come from anywhere, at any time, for any reason.
It’s enough to make any artist pack up forever and leave the public sphere!
But you don’t have to let them win. Here’s why.
First, you have to decide what your principles are. The nexus between art and business has always been a hot crossroads. Artistic businesspersons feeling the heat, is as old as the hills and twice as dusty. If you don’t understand your own principles, or what you’re willing to fight for — despite the global internet village mob, despite the un-customers — you’re probably going to get mowed down.
Make sure you can answer Sean Connery’s question, from The Untouchables, “What are you prepared to do?” Are you willing to keep creating and selling your art, despite the un-customer? Despite the threat of the village internet mob? How hot does the fire have to get before you cave? Or are you your own person, able to withstand the flames, and chart your own course? If you don’t fully understand yourself — what you really believe and think, as an artistic businessperson — it’s not a bad idea to sit down and write or type out some kind of personal artistic businessperson mission statement. Beyond merely making money. What are you for? What is your work about for you? Be bold. Fill it with declarations of independence. Frame it or make it your desktop wallpaper. So that every time you sit down to work, or check e-mail, or look at Facebook, you can see your own words talking back to you. So that you don’t forget yourself when the internet mob and the un-customers come trick-or-treating to your digital door.
Second, un-customers and social media mobs don’t realize that at the same time they are broadcasting to a friendly audience — the choir — they are also broadcasting to the rest of the world, including your extant customers, and people liable to be sympathetic to you for any number of reasons. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad press. If Person A tries to make a stink against you for the sake of Audience A, this travels across the World Wide Web to reach Audience B, and Audience B might consider anything negative said about you by Person A, to actually be a positive, as much or even moreso — in the inverse — than Audience A. So, if you’ve got an un-customer threatening to influence the potential audience against you — especially if it’s over something political, or involves an issue that has more than one side, or more than one perspective — realize that this person is going to be doing simultaneous free advertising for you, among the folks who think the un-customers views or opinions are wrong.
Third, nothing can stop someone who is good at entertaining. Nothing. If you can create a wonderful thing that speaks to the hearts of many, all the stink in the world cannot overcome what you do. In fact, if you can entertain and make people appreciate what you do — on the level of raw enjoyment — the more somebody tries to make trouble for you, the more people who enjoy your product are going to launch their own efforts to speak up and speak out on your behalf; or at least on behalf of your work.
Consider the case of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain, which came under fire for political reasons. The plaintiffs seemed to assume that only their “side” mattered, and that only their “side” would have a say. What they didn’t realize is that Chick-Fil-A makes damned good chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, etc., and the nominal extant customer base made sure to show up in force in support of Chick-Fil-A. Moreover, people who’d never really bothered to eat at Chick-Fil-A — but who disliked the political message of the original plaintiffs — also showed up in force, and discovered that Chick-Fil-A makes terrific food. So, what began as un-customers and a small internet village mob, going after a national chain business, ended as a much larger and much more demonstrative counter-effort — by Chick-Fil-A fans, and people opposed to the mob in the first place — ensuring that Chick-Fil-A saw record business.
Now, being an artist and being a food vendor aren’t exactly the same thing, but you get the idea. If you’re good at what you do, and people appreciate it, then there’s almost nothing that can really stop you. Oh, you may have to endure some unkind words and scrutiny — in the wider public sphere. Especially if you’re a small creative businessperson who doesn’t have a large social media footprint, while your un-customers and their cranky allies enjoy a substantial footprint. This kind of “punching down” is endurable. Trust me. And you just might find that what began as a rather atrocious case of negative press, works to your advantage in the long run. Because there is a world of people who will make up their own minds about you, and what it is you create, and they won’t always listen to complainers. Especially if the work you’re doing is quality work — no hype, it’s verifiably good according to your extant customers and fans.
Good stuff will ultimately sell itself, and outlast the efforts of people who want to negatively impact your bottom line.
Fourth, the same power that the internet gives to complainers, also allows you to work beyond the reach of “gatekeepers” who might try to stop your work from reaching the marketplace. Gatekeepers were a significant hurdle in the past, for artistic businesspeople of all descriptions. If you couldn’t get a deal with a record label, you were fighting a titanic uphill battle; as a musician. If you couldn’t get a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, you were also fighting a titanic uphill battle; as a writer who couldn’t “cut it” with the major editors. And so on, and so forth. But the internet has allowed anyone to open a virtual storefront for any reason, selling practically any kind of creative product. Any singer or band who can lay some tracks down in a digital studio, can take that work to Amazon.com or another vendor, and begin selling music. Any writer who can put words to the page, can do the same. With the only caveat being: you’re necessarily competing with everyone else who is doing likewise, so it’s probably tougher than ever to stand out.
But then, it was tough to stand out in the old days, too. Which gets back to my point that if you’re genuinely good at what you do (for all definitions of “good” that include, “This makes people happy and they will buy it, and tell their friends,”) then you can have success. It might not be monster success. But monster success — millions and millions of dollars — is never a guarantee to anybody, at any time. Regardless of venue, or genre, or product, or who might be giving you positive/negative attention on social media.
As Kris Rusch has said, this is the “wild, wild West.” Are you ready to cowboy up?
If the answer is, “Yes,” then you shouldn’t have any career-crashing problems. Complainers come, and complainers go. Quality wins. Productivity wins. Nobody can stop you, but you. The internet may be forever, but nothing anybody says against you on the internet can touch you — if you don’t let it. You simply have to decide who you are, what you think is important, say damn the torpedoes, and set your sails — regardless of the flack. Un-customers were never part of your business income anyway. Dollars that did not exist in the first place, cannot be taken away from you. Bad press does not exist, because there is more than one kind of audience paying attention. The rotten fruit hurled at you today, may become fruit pies delivered to your door tomorrow.
All you have to do is make sure you know who you are, and keep your eyes on the goals that you care about.