The thesis of this series is that there is abundant magic in the world that can be learned and even harnessed to support writers, artists, and other creatives in creating more and better work that connects with an increasingly bigger and more committed audience. This magic is fundamentally based on feedback loops.
This post further explores those loops, setting forth some key definitions and offering a first exercise. Just as an apprentice mage in a fantasy world would begin working with some rudimentary expression of the magic she was seeking to master, so we’ll begin our loopwork with some real world practice.
Everything is loops. Without them, the big bang would have been naught but a bit of bad gas. Instead, matter formed, stars burst into being, gravity gravitated, solar systems stabilized, and life bloomed from nothing more than space dust and starlight.
Economists refer to economies of scale and the phenomenon of increasing returns to describe some of the key ways giant companies become giant-er while the majority of small businesses fail within their first few years. These phenomena result from feedback loops.
A massive feedback loop is currently melting the polar ice caps, while others are decimating the world’s oceans and forests and food webs.
Communication networks like the Internet and phones and fax machines grow big or die off thanks to feedback loops.
I could go on, but the point is that loops are everywhere, underlying everything. You might ask what makes them so magical then. My response would be that the loops themselves aren’t magical. They’re simply the invisible processes powering life and being. The magic comes from how we learn to ride them and even guide them.
Fundamental Loop Dynamics
The dynamics of feedback loops are relatively straight-forward. More of something leads either to more (a positive loop) or to less (a negative one). This is not a linear progression–in the sense that you put two units of effort in and get two units of results out. This is exponential.
Two units of effort yields two units of the desired result, and then four, and then eight, and then sixteen, etc. Or, if you’re dealing with a negative loop, then each additional unit of effort produces exponentially decreasing results until no amount of effort or input is sufficient to alter the system. That said, the terms “positive” and “negative,” have little to do with “good” and “bad.”
A positive feedback loop could be a crippling depression. When you’re depressed, you have less desire to go out and make friends or do enjoyable things; you sleep more, exercise less, and eat worse, all of which spins that depression into deeper and deeper loops of increasing misery. “Positive” feedback simply means that it’s self-reinforcing. More of something leads to more of the same at an increasing rate.
On the other hand, let’s say stock prices are dropping, which makes some people nervous so they start selling more stocks (a positive feedback loop). At some point, bargain hunters come along and decide there’s profit to be made in the sell-off so they begin buying and the market stabilizes. In this case, a negative feedback loop saves the day. Hence, negative loops are often called “self-correcting” or “balancing.”
Now, what does all of this have to do with writing and magic?
If you can master a positive feedback loop, it’s my contention that you can use its powers of increasing returns to your benefit, helping you overcome the enormous challenges inherent in a project like writing a novel or growing an audience. That said, these loops aren’t easily mastered. Because of their power and complexity, catching hold of one is a bit like trying to windsurf your way to the top of a tornado. For every one Dorothy, there are a few hundred thousand flattened homes in Tornado Alley.
Note how the green line in the illustration above dawdles along beneath the red one for quite some time before taking off. To my mind, that’s the difference between someone who plays by all the rules and builds a reasonably successful career in some big corporation (the red line) and someone who struggles along as a creative of some kind (a writer or entrepreneur or what-have-you) and then happens to catch hold of a positive feedback loop. But, again, keep in mind that most of the green lines never get to the hockey-stick part. Instead they flatline, smooshed by the tornado, rather than carried away by it.
So this is where the magic comes in.
How do you catch hold of a tornado and ride it (and even guide it) to whatever Oz you’re aiming for?
A Practical Exercise in Loopwork
We’ll be dissecting feedback loops in numerous ways in the coming posts and doing our best to determine how to nurture the best kinds of positive and negative ones in our writing lives (since both have their place). But for starters, let’s get you playing with a relatively simple example: Facebook.
Facebook runs on feedback loops. The more that people like and comment on your posts, the more Facebook will show them to others–who will then have the chance to like them and boost them even further. The outcome feeds back into the system as an input and creates more outcomes of a similar sort.
On the other hand, the more you post uninteresting or purely self-serving things on your wall, the less your more distant friends will ever get to see of what you post and the less opportunity they’ll have to like the really good stuff.
You may be well aware of these dynamics already, but if not–know that every status you post and every moment you spend crawling through your news feed–liking, sharing, commenting on, or ignoring posts–directly affects FB’s feedback loops. Your behavior programs Facebook.
You therefore have a remarkable opportunity to experiment with its loops and learn more of how such things function. If we were in a fantasy novel right now, this would be the moment where you discover you can move tiny pebbles with your mind and head off to the rock quarry to practice.
What posts of yours generate the most engagement? How often do your posts go unnoticed or unliked? What’s the difference between your engaging posts and the unengaging ones?
One great way to accelerate your learning curve is to study the posts that most draw your likes, shares, and comments. Try to ignore posts from your closest friends–who can tell you how peeved they are at the way their cereal tasted this morning and you’ll provide a sympathetic comment–and focus instead on strangers. Who do you know least well in real life who shows up most in your Facebook feed? What kinds of things do they post about? How many likes and comments do they receive from you and others?
You can also pay attention in a more general sense to whether you like or get annoyed by what you see in your feed. Is it full of things that interest and inspire you, or things that anger or annoy you? If it’s the latter, how often are you paying attention to the annoying stuff (perhaps posting an angry comment on a controversial post) versus doing nothing but smiling or chuckling to yourself when you pass by the good stuff?
Any time you click on a photo or a “Continue Reading…” link or a Like button, you’re manipulating the loops of Facebook. Shares and comments are even more powerful–even if you’re writing something as simple as “Great post!” So…while you might not instantly crack the code to become the next George Takei (who recently passed 5 million followers), you can at least make your Facebook time more enjoyable by mastering the art of giving feedback.
In one of the future posts in this series, we’ll revisit this topic of building an audience using social network feedback loops. We’ll take a detailed look at Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm and suggest specific strategies to try, but I wanted you to start with some free practice on your own. Of course, you may already be a master–in which case, I’d love to hear from you. In fact I’d love to hear from anyone, no matter where you are in your study of social networks. Please share any questions or hypotheses or tested strategies you’d like me to address in that future post and I promise to loop back to them and to you. Meanwhile, best of luck in the quarry!
Previously: The Substance of Magic
Up Next: The Invisible Mountain