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On September 1, 2013, Etisalat announced the Call to Entry for a flash fiction prize. While some believe that they meant to do something nice for smaller writers who do not qualify for the “mother” Prize for Literature which was announced earlier, in June, other more cynical observers alleged that the prize for flash fiction was simply a crutch for the prize for literature-helping with promoting and popularizing it, provoking interest and stimulating conversations around the Prize. 

Whatever their reason(s), it was a good move and anything that helps along the cause of literature with money, prestige, exposure etc, is a good thing. £1000 worth of goodness. A smart tablet device worth of goodness. A published e-book, promoted online worth of goodness. All those for the winner. And £500, and a tablet for two runners up.  What is not to like?

Here’s what.

 From an ‘insider’ point of view.

I entered for the prize. A friend told me about it, and I was excited. I had never written flash fiction in my life—I talk too much to be able to contain words within a 150-300 word limit. But just the same way I know I can build a space ship if I tried, I knew I could.  And I did. I sat down and wrote a piece that spilled over the 300 word limit by about 26 words. Then I started trimming. I had help. Another’ friend’ who also entered for the prize sat with me, removed words he thought were unnecessary, went over my entry with a fine-tooth comb, and declared me cocked, locked and ready to fire (how does that go?).

I sent off the entry and received confirmation from Etisalat. . . “Please give us 72 hours for your entry to be approved and appear on the site.” This made me happy, the idea that entries needed to be “approved.” It meant that there would be an initial sieving through for perhaps defaults like exceeding the 300 word limit, like stories that did not qualify as flash fiction (some people think flash fiction are excerpts from larger works), like stories that just should not make it into a literary competition and cause a deluge, making reading through the entries impossible. I assumed that Etisalat would cut down the entries to, maybe a hundred. Even that is a stretch.

At six entries per page, and a total of eighty pages, Etisalat received an approximate, if not definite four hundred and eighty entries. And put them all up!

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I had some concerns.

The idea of voting for four hundred and eighty stories greatly increased the probability that some really brilliant stories would fall through the cracks because they didn’t have enough “followership,” while some that were barely readable would get to the judges. If you doubt this, let me tell you my experience.

I’m hanging with some guys, techies, who live and breathe IT. I tell them about my competition and you can maybe guess the next thing that goes down? They want to rig it for me. So, I’m listening to them talk about it. They are throwing the challenge at each other, talking about stuff I don’t understand like “logging in from different IP addresses and using proxies” and whatnot. Generally, they convinced me that they can schedule fifty votes to drop for me every hour. Then they decided that fifty would be suspicious, maybe twenty. And slow down at night, hell, they can even arrange for it to be random. They were excited, chattering, crazy about the idea. And no, I wasn’t going to pay them. But I realized it can be done.

Then a “twitter overlord” wants me to pay for retweets. So I’m like, “for real?” Money for votes. Alright.

This therefore means that the judges might actually have to award the prize to “the best of the worst,” because they have been boxed into awarding the prize to whatever twenty entries can claw their way up and get to their table. By any means possible!

Some people are arguing that voting has been around for a long time. But let’s think about it. Even the talent shows we see on TV, first, there are auditions where the judges get to weed out the ones that are not so good. Imagine if this did not happen and voting was open right from the very beginning. Can you imagine the kind of people who would get to the finals, who the judges would then have to work with?

On the first of October, voting officially began. And as I watched my twitter timeline, let’s just say I was greatly disturbed—writers asking, near begging people to vote for them.  

If I still entertained any delusions that this was a competition, Etisalat successfully squelched it when they sent me a mail. The mail bore a unique link to my voting page/story. What this meant was that instead of asking people to go to the Etisalat homepage and wade their way through all four hundred and eighty entries, until they found me hidden on page twenty-three, at least giving them a change to read through several stories, this link eliminated that possibility. Instead, it delivered each entry as a single entity—go straight to my story, don’t look left or right, vote, take off as fast as you can. And oh, don’t forget to share.

Let’s talk about reality TV shows again. We get to see all the competitors perform. That’s how I voted for Timi Dakolo in the Idol show without knowing him. In this case, first because of the sheer volume of entries, and the fact that people vote through a link that takes them to a particular entry, you don’t get to see beyond the entry you are voting for, unless you make a deliberate effort to do so.

Still, I took delivery of my personal link and started my campaign. Here’s what it entailed;

  1. Create a generic blackberry message begging people to vote for me, copy, paste and then add a few personalized words/sentences. Like “Hey Vicky, how is baby?. . . “ followed by generic message. This is important because people don’t treat broadcast messages as important, so each message must be seen to have been addressed to the individual.
  2. Repeat the message on facebook and other social media platforms, but ensure that I send it to their inboxes, I cannot be seen to be begging for votes so I have to do it discreetly.
  3. Most of my friends on social media are also writers who have entered for the competition. For the next one month, they are rivals.
  4. For other writers who did not enter for the prize, quickly secure their votes, and their reassurance that they will not be voting for anyone else.
  5. Count as an enemy from this day forward (or at least for the next one month) anybody who does not support my campaign.
  6. For all the people I have abandoned/ignored, I have the whole month of October to renew friendship before I make my appeal.
  7. Approach my friends who have serious clout—stars with fans, twitter overlords with hundreds of thousands of followers etc.
  8. Contact my friend who owns an advertising agency. Who then asked me to remind him to call a meeting of his IT/social media department and get them to work on it.
  9. Get my friends who own blogs or web pages to write about/review the prize in general, and cite my entry in particular.

Like I said, I had it all figured out.

But I quickly realised something else—no email address was required to vote. Anyone could vote, and on reopening the link, vote again. And again. The possibilities for this are endless.

Here are the possibilities;

  • People can, must hustle for votes including in some instances, paying for retweets. Don’t wait for anyone to read your story on their own and like it enough to vote for it because they think it is great. Not really gonna happen.
  • One can employ a staff whose job description is vote, close, reopen and vote for one month
  • There is a very real chance that the account can be hacked into.

And so I have to ask, what is the point of this, Etisalat? Is it to promote literature? Or to award the most popular and/or unscrupulous writer.

And me, am I willing to submit myself to this? Do I want people to judge my writing, or do I want to prove that I can bully/psyche people to vote for me?

And you who’s reading this, how would you feel about the twenty finalists, and the eventual winners, knowing all that they would have had to do to get there? Because believe me, this is not competitive voting.

Then I went on facebook and saw the conversations going on about the prize, or rather, about writers soliciting for votes, sending messages to people’s inboxes (luckily I had only sent one so far), and generally sounding irritated. I felt shamed. And no, this is not me being “elitist.”

Anyway, by this time, I’d realized I couldn’t go it. First, I could not go through with hustling for votes. Second, even if I won such a competition, at what prize? Not to put the people who entered and will see it through, down, but I knew I was better than that—fighting with other writers, calling in favours, begging, sometimes being ignored—and for what? For writing that I do in my fuckin’ sleep! I kept having this mental image of crabs in a bucket, all trying to climb to the top—or rather my writer friend put the image in my head.

And so I pulled out from the race, sent out apologies/half-hearted explanations to the people who had voted and shared—and they are a lot. I have had to deal with disappointed people who are shocked and maybe even angry, just as I have had to deal with those who thought I got cold feet. I know that if I were ready to ignore my sensibilities, and the disdain of my peers and forge ahead, I would have made it into the top twenty. This isn’t about that.

This is about the fact that Etisalat had something good they were trying to do, but it wasn’t well thought out, and now they have messed it up, too many loopholes, and they are trying to drag writers down with this, turning them into hustlers, beggers, riggers, hackers, etc. What a shame!

Here is what Etisalat should have done;

  1. Vetted the entries properly to eliminate any with “issues.” That would have made it more manageable for them.
  2. Posted all the entries that made it through on their website to provide reading material. This should not be open for voting.
  3. Set up an initial panel that would somehow trim the submissions down to a small number that the voting public can deal with.
  4. Thrown the floor open to voting, for readers’ choice
  5. Required email address of voters to cut down on the number of times any one person can vote
  6. Acknowledged the winning entry based on votes, but still gone ahead to award the prize to the best entry anyway. This is literature.

Here is what Etisalat should not have done;

  1. Accepted and approved 480 entries.
  2. Thrown all these entries at the voting public.
  3. Sent a specialized mail to each entrant, bearing a direct link to their story, so that the competitor just promotes and broadcasts their own story without giving the voters a chance to compare with other entries.
  4. Made it possible to vote several times so long as you reopen the link

Dear Etisalat,

I know this is a first attempt and a test run. Let it not happen again.

And it is not too late. Voting began three days ago, October 1. You can still salvage the situation. Because this right here is a crackbrain idea.

But in everything that happens, we must find some good. I read some really good entries, many of which have been withdrawn from the competition. Also, I have been suffering writers’ block lately and this has given me something to write about – something that actually interests me.

Last thought. Why do we like talking in dollars and pounds? This prize is in pounds. NLNG prize is in dollars. Why? What is wrong with Naira?

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