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I met April Hamilton when I was at the very beginning of my self-publishing life, and she was a source of endless inspiration. She is a tireless force for good and support in the independent writing world, and Publetariat, the site she brought to life over two years ago now, is the best repository of information for self-publishers available anywhere. Her new book, Overshare, takes a fascinating look at our relationship with social media. Told in screenshots, constructed making full use of Creative Commons material, it unravels the consequences of our forays into the social networks we construct and that construct us. In its subject and its presentation it’s absolutely fascinating, and it was a genuine privilege to talk to April.

1. I’m intrigued by the formatting of this as an ebook. You’ve taken what’s essentially a dynamic format – social media – and made it static through screenshots. Was that driven entirely by wanting people to be able to access via an ereader, or are you making wider comments about the elusive nature of the web?
The book was inspired by real-life events. I’d become acquainted with another writer online, and this person was very active with social media. At some point it became obvious this person’s life was unraveling, because the frequency and nature of posts and status updates changed, but the person didn’t seem to realize exactly how much was being unintentionally revealed in this manner. In Overshare, I wanted to recreate the same experience I’d had for readers, but with fictional characters, events and content. Doing so required me to simulate and capture social media sites and posts in the book. Creating realistic imitations of social media websites demanded a heavily illustrated, full color presentation, which would’ve been prohibitively expensive in a print book format.
Secondly, I believe ebook releases are less costly and risky for indie authors, and ebook sales growth has been very dramatic year over year since 2007 so it’s a market authors and publishers are wise to tap. Finally, those who are very enamored of print books, to the point of rejecting e, aren’t likely to be part of my target audience: people who embrace new technologies and are heavy users of social media.
2. The reader of Overshare is required to do a lot of work to get at the narrative. Are you inviting people to construct narrative in their own way, within their own contexts? Are you expecting/hoping the reader will draw any particular conclusions?
My primary goal with Overshare was to duplicate, or at least approximate, the experience I’d had following this online acquaintance’s social media updates. It provided a powerful combination of empathy for this person coupled with new insight into how much the typical person reveals through social media on a regular basis—particularly how much is revealed through non-explicit and unintentional posts and updates. For example, much can be inferred when someone chooses NOT to comment on certain things while being effusive about others, is ‘tagged’ in a photo or post by someone else, is ‘checked in’ at a geographical location by someone else, or suddenly removes content he or she posted previously.
Different people come away from any form of art or literature with different interpretations and conclusions, this is nothing new. But to me, one of the most interesting aspects of this project is knowing that different viewers will come away from the book with different narratives as well. This is experimental lit, in that the viewer of the content is ‘authoring’ the story him- or herself, according to personal preferences, habits, beliefs and background. For example, where some readers may pick up on the rise and fall of “Like” and “Comment” counts as a barometer of the protagonist’s social circle and support network, another may miss that aspect entirely and have a different experience of the book as a result.
As the author, I find it exciting to know the reader is taking an active role in the creation of the story in real time as the content is viewed. However, it’s also challenging to surrender control to this degree. I know many of my intentional touches will be missed by at least some readers and those readers may have a poorer experience of the book as a result. But since my primary goal was to recreate what I’d gone through in following this other person’s social media updates in real life, now that I’ve assembled the content I have to let it go and allow the experience to unfold as it will for the reader.
If there’s one thing I’d like readers to take away from this book, it’s a new appreciation for the demands of privacy and security online. It’s not enough to simply limit certain content’s accessibility, one must also look at the big picture of what the sum total of his or her online presence is revealing to the general public.
3. If you don’t anticipate something, is that a reason to protest when it happens?
I assume you’re making reference to the people whose Creative Commons -licensed photos I’ve used in the book. I’m fairly certain that, while they all posted their photos on sharing sites and licensed them as acceptable for commercial (money-making) and remix use, none of them anticipated this type of use. Do they have a right to protest after the fact? Certainly. They also have a right to change their photos’ licensing terms at any time. However, they cannot retroactively change the licensing terms.
Also, in the American legal system ignorance of the law is never an acceptable defense, and no one could argue that the rights holders were in any way misled or coerced into licensing their images for commercial and remix use at the time they chose to do so. Given that the rights holders had to take specific steps to apply those licensing terms, and were directed to read the full text of the license they intended to grant before granting it, I’ve done nothing wrong nor illegal in exercising the rights granted under those licenses.
Consider this: if I release a short story under a CC license that allows for commercial and remix use, then find someone has rewritten parts of it, adapted it into a film and made millions of dollars as a result, would I be entitled to bring a legal claim for monetary damages or intellectual property theft against the writer or producers of the film? Absolutely not, because I specifically granted them the rights they’ve exercised when I applied the CC licensing.
4. Do you think the way people live is changing to accommodate the way it’s shared? In other words, how would you sum up the balance between the active, life-shaping elements of socila media and the passive, life-capturing events.
I think this is definitely true. How often do we hear someone say, “I’m Facebooking this!” People who are active with social media know their online ‘friends’ have certain expectations of seeing one another’s lives documented online, and that virtually any social event they attend will likely end up in this online documentation. I think it’s pretty well established that people behave differently before a camera than they do otherwise, and it seems cameras are everywhere now that people are shooting pictures and video specifically for the purpose of being able to post it online.
But I think most users don’t fully appreciate the pitfalls of this online documentation of lives. While social media allows users to carefully construct a multimedia autobiography online, it also allows other users to tamper with that careful construction as well, whether on purpose or unintentionally. Then there’s the issue that’s been around ever since cameras became a consumer product: purposely documenting life events tends to interfere with actually living them.
5. Creative Commons. Why does it matter to us as artists? Is the creative commons movement a force for good or a force for bad?
CC licensing empowers authors and artists as never before, both in terms of offering their content for public consumption and re-use, and in terms of exercising the CC licenses of others. Overshare, in its current form, would not have been possible without the CC-licensed images I’ve used. Without CC licensing I would have had to either pay licensing fees for stock photos or pay a photographer and models to create the ‘candid’ photos I needed. Either option would’ve been too expensive to make the book a worthwhile endeavor, and neither would’ve lent the necessary realism.
As Tom Anderson, the man whose images I used to represent my protagonist Michael Ayres in Overshare commented via email about my use of his images in the book:
You’re quite right to say that that this is not a kind of use i had ever anticipated! Still, that is precisely the point of open licenses like Creative Commons. An aphorism of Rufus Pollock’s springs to mind:
The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else.
CC licensing leads to innovation, and new forms of art and creativity. I see that as a very good thing.
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11 Responses to Overshare

  1. alisonwells says:

    Wow, this sounds absolutely fascinating and right up my street (I have a background in both Communication Studies and Psychology). It’s such an area of change that is happening right now. I think people of our generation are singularly well placed to observe the phenomena of social media and sharing. We come from an era before all this to now while my children have been born with it, my eleven year old son talks for hours on Skype to people he only knows through online games. (As a parent there’s all sorts of conundrums around that). Your focus, April, on the sharing and how it affects how the person is perceived, thus shaping future interactions etc is great. Also having your reader interpret your ebook story, just as we interpret the story of people from what they present is a masterstroke. I’ve seen those occasions where people have shared, interacted and then attempted to clear their trail and where ‘truth’ depends on the twitter feed you see. Serendipitously I have just received a Kindle, so I’ll definitely be checking this out!

  2. Thanks, Alison! I hope you enjoy the book, and hope you’ll let me know your impressions of this experiment in new lit after you’ve “read” it. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and Dan has my email if you’d like to write me. =’)

  3. arikeoke says:

    Ah this sounds good – I wish I had a Kindle!

    • arikeoke – you don’t actually need a Kindle, you can view the book in any of the free Kindle Reader apps Amazon makes available for PC, Mac and mobile devices in the Kindle store. In fact, I recommend that the book be viewed on either a Kindle Fire or one of the Reader Apps because it’s presented in full color, and the regular Kindle only renders in black and white. I think there’s a link to a page where the Reader Apps can be downloaded right on my book’s product page (link provided in the post, above).

  4. danholloway says:

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful interview, April

    Alison, I think you’re right about how well placed we are to observe how relationships are shifting – and doing so we can then, as writers, analyse and comment

  5. Looks fascinating. And also up my alley!

    I have recently read A Lover’s Discourse by Barthes and it is amazingly perceptive on how people express their feelings either by communicating, or quite often, not.

  6. danholloway says:

    QRG, it’s exactly the kind of metafiction you’d love 🙂

  7. I’m late to the party here but so glad I stopped by and saw this – it sounds fascinating and I’m skipping over to get it! Thanks, Dan and April – terrific interview.

  8. Wanted to add – over on Facebook, there’s some talk of readers using the commenting function to add their own “Likes” and comments to the protagonist’s status updates and blog posts, effectively inserting themselves as characters in the book for any other readers who opt to turn on and view comments. I could’ve gone all transmedia with this, really creating online accounts for my protagonist and keeping his story going in real time, but it would’ve demanded much more time and attention that I have to give right now.

    Transmedia is one of those things that sounds great in theory, but in practice demands a LOT of time and work. I’m sure it can be worthwhile for a media juggernaut like LOST was, or like Pottermore is shaping up to be, but for we mere mortals who don’t have a TV show or movie to tie in, I have my doubts about commercial viability. It can still make for a very interesting art form, but it’s so demanding that I fear undertaking a transmedia project wouldn’t allow me the time or energy for *any* other creative endeavors.

  9. Pingback: Link Love for Writers on Friday « Hunter's Writing

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