Social Media and Writers, a Match Made in Purgatory
Is social media necessary for writers?
I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet, before cell phones, when after school I’d come home to an empty house, nuke myself a turkey dog in the microwave, then bike over to a friend’s house for the afternoon to skateboard or play video games on his Commodore 64. I had to be home before dinner, but other than that, my parents had no idea where the hell I was.
Nowadays, I have family members who share their locations with each other via an app. When I asked my sister about my nephew’s whereabouts, she simply checked her phone and said (to my shock), “Oh, he’s just at his girlfriend’s house.” (I skillfully avoided letting my parents know I had a significant other, a feat impossible today.)
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My sister was similarly able to, using the same app, time the impending arrival of my brother-in-law to the minute. Never mind the Big Brother overtones of this surveillance, the days of just wandering, disconnected and free, are gone.
In 2003, when I started Sybil’s Garage magazine with a bunch of writer friends, I asked if Cory Doctorow could mention it on his blog, Boing Boing, which at the time was one of the most popular SF/F blogs. Cory replied with (I’m paraphrasing), “You need to have more than just a boring web page. You need something people can interact with, like a blog, and other interesting things.” That’s when I first started writing blog posts. (You can find an archive of them here.) Around the same time, a site called LiveJournal became popular. It was a blog too, but you didn’t need to have your own website. Anyone could sign up. And it was free. I crossposted most of my blog posts from my website at sensesfive.com to LiveJournal, or as the hip kids called it, LJ.
The ‘00s were an exciting time. Small presses sprung up like flowers as the cost of publishing software and production plummeted. Zines like Sybil’s Garage, and Electric Velocipede, and Say, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet where where new writers cut their teeth. Blogs became long-form discussions between authors and readers, and the comment sections, on a hot post, was something that got everyone discussing on and offline for weeks. The word kerfuffle grew in popularity.
Then something changed around 2008. Everyone moved to Facebook. I remember being ambivalent about it at first. I already had a LiveJournal and a blog, but everyone seemed to be on the Face, so I relented and joined.
It didn’t take long before I noticed a disturbing trend. People posted to LiveJournal less often. Blogs slowed and died. Instead, everyone posted to Facebook. This was okay, in theory. People only needed to visit one site to see what their writer friends were up to, not twenty or fifty. If I followed all the same people on Facebook, I should get all the same information, right?
What I didn’t anticipate is that Facebook was now the arbiter of whose posts I saw, and so one day I said to myself, Self, you know, I haven’t heard from Jane Writer in a while. Turns out, Jane Writer was still posting on Facebook as regularly as she had posted on LiveJournal and her blog, but some hidden algorithm at Facebook decided her posts weren’t worth seeing. So I began to wonder what else was being hidden from me.
A couple years later, in 2010, I joined Twitter. I resisted it for a long time. Facebook at least had the ability to write long-form posts. Twitter was limited to 120 characters (now 240). Twitter reminded me of those scrolling tickers, or chyrons, you see on the bottom of news programs, short excerpts that were ledes for a larger story. Except, most of the time, there was no “larger story” on Twitter.
Marshall McLuhan said “The medium is the message,” and on Twitter that proved to be very true. People were trained to tailor their messages to the limited form, searching for pithy, gut-punching statements that got you to engage, because engagement means more likes and more retweets and even more engagement. Scrolling on Twitter felt to me like sitting at the pointy end of a streaming firehose and trying to take just a sip of water. I hated it from the start.
As I write this, Twitter is undergoing a Phoenix phase. (Let’s see if she’ll be reborn, or go down in flames.) And Facebook seems to have been relegated to greying GenX’ers and not-retiring-anytime-soon Boomers. Instagram is still a thing, and there’s also Reddit, which I browse from time to time, and the elephant in the room: TikTok.
Recently, I heard that teenagers and folks in their 20s use TikTok as their primary source of information. “How do I do laundry?” Ask TikTok. “How does the U.S. Government work?” Ask TikTok. You mean they don’t Google it anymore? I remarked to my wife, horrified. (She shrugged.) Meanwhile, my wife’s father once apparently said, when she asked for a computer for school, “What do you need a computer for? We have an encyclopedia in the basement!”
The point is, times change, and with them our means of communication. Once we used cuneiform tablets and didn’t use the number zero (we thought it was the devil’s number). Now, I can sit at this complex metal and plastic device, punch little raised symbols on a board, and instantly someone can grok my meaning halfway across the world, even if we don’t speak the same language. Any sufficiently advanced technology, Arthur C. Clarke said, is indistinguishable from magic. And if computers aren’t magic, what is?
I have no doubt that in twenty years, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitch, and all the others present social media sites will be obsoleted with something new, and all these young people using their new iMind device will look at all the now forty-something TikTok users who still use physical phones and not brain implants and think-speak to their friend, QuarkGirl2050, “How quaint. She still TikToks.”
As writers, most of us desire others to be able to read our work. And like Cory Doctorow told me almost two decades ago, with all the glut of information fire-hosing at people every day, unless you remind people about the work that you do, they won’t notice you, and likely they will forget or move on.
Social media, then, might be a good way to remind them, But social media is also a sharp double-edged sword:
It’s a tremendous time-suck. Time spent scrolling social media is time away from writing. I've been in the room with several writers with huge (50K+) Twitter followers, and all they seem to do is check their phones. None of them seemed happy while doing it. It was more like an addiction.
Social media is also controlled by opaque entities and algorithms. Hidden manipulators are controlling what you see.Twitter didn't sell for $44 Billion just because it has silly memes. Imagine being able to control what a billion people hear and see. That's why it's so valuable.
Social media also rewards negative human emotions like anger, frustration, and dread. Rage engages. There’s a reason why the temperature on Twitter’s always boiling.
But I also believe that social media is, quite unfortunately, the best medium we have at present to let people know about our work. Until something better comes along, I think we’re stuck with it.
So I use social media in the following ways: I limit my time on social media to less than thirty minutes a day. I try to only post items relevant to my creative life, like recent 3d art I made, or a review of one of my forthcoming short stories, or my novel progress. I don’t use it to learn about “trending”topics or world news, and I avoid engaging in subjects that I know will get me riled up, because I know the medium is hoping I’ll have that reaction, so I will engage more. Engagement is profit for them and toxic for me.
(By the way, I highly recommend the books Deep Work by Cal Newport, and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier, if you are struggling with social media addiction.)
This is also part of the reason why I started this Substack newsletter. It allows me to connect more closely to those with similar interests on a medium not filtered by a sketchy third party. Anyone who subscribes can read my posts. Each recipient is their own filter, not some hidden malicious algorithm or shady corporate interests.
So — do writers need social media? Alas, I think they do.
It’s an unfortunate circumstance of our present reality. But we need to see social media as a tool and not an end in itself. It needs to serve us, rather than us serving it. We should take control of our social media use and only use it in ways that benefit us, and avoiding or dropping it when such use becomes toxic.
This way, when the medium changes, as it most certainly will, we will be more ready to adapt to whatever comes next.
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I know that federated sites like Mastodon have fewer filters, so you are basically seeing everything that you want, but this is a minority of social media sites.
Who decides what news is “trending”? I’m very suspicious of what others want me to pay attention to, especially when money and power is involved.
Yeah, I'm trying a plethora of platforms to see whiere to point what in my writing. Right now it's a time suck. Twitter used to be the place I built a huge part of my audience for fiction AND where I got the highest paid freelancing gigs, but that hasn't been the case for awhile (freelancing; still good to build audience). Basically, I'm trying to learn what each platform does well, so that I can make smarter choices. But it's a lot of extra work up front, and often discouraging. I remember LJ!
I'm fairly new to the area and slowly getting to know the local artist community. I'm careful, since we're still in the pandemic and all. I'm bascially in for the winter. I participated in The World's Largest Poem with Word X Word last summer - 50 poets creating a single poem that the audience walked through as it was performed -- which was pretty amazing, and created another piece for them that I read at an art museum event. They're really good about safety protocols, so it was a calculated risk that paid off. When I lived in NYC, it was much easier to get to events, even around my 8-show-week Broadway schedule, because NYC, things are going on all the time at all hours, but that was far pre-COVID. I just have to accept that, thanks to the plague, it's going to take longer. I do teach and participate in several regional events online.