Social media, artificial intimacy, voyeurism

I’ve been doing some naval gazing around my social media strategies over the past month or so, ever since my largest platform, Twitter, went through some major upheavals that may eventually result in the company going under. Creatives of all stripes are caught firmly in the grip of social media and web strategies to try to make sales and promote their works. Authors are no exception to this, but we face a lot of challenges, not least of which a movement towards a visual creative medium — Twitter was the last widely adopted platform to favor words over images and video outside of longform blogging, and so that’s why a lot of novelists, academics, and other similar folks spent most of our energy there. Even with new platforms emerging, such as Mastodon, the pressure to make visual content is very intense. And what are you going to make visual content about, if you’re not a visual artist? Well, it’s going to be about you.

I’ve felt very unquiet about this trend for a while, but Twitter user maya cade really summed things up for me in her threaded response to a TikTok video. To quote:

users are now workers in an assumed reality show feigning for the moment of vitality and the life changing promise of internet stardom…using the internet, generally, requires some level of self delusion to constantly perform; to constantly update & share. tiktok reframes this performance by promising its undercompensated workers if they create content they can move classes, create trends, move the world, et al

@mayascade, Twitter post December 6, 2022

In short, even if your art form is not performance-based, the pressure is on to become a performer in order to propel your art onto a perceived global stage. The gatekeepers of that stage are faceless algorithms which cannot be swayed by users directly — we can act within the algorithms, gamify them, but not change them. Overwhelmingly the internet, and social media in particular, wants you to produce free content in order to be welcome to the table. And the content that “sells” the best can all too often be peeks inside an author’s life, intimate details and moments which also become seeds for very real threats outside of one’s art. A creator is exposed to the public well before they have any ability to secure themselves from the public — if they ever do.

There is an unseen cost to content creation, and it is double-edged. The first cut is the constant wracking of the brain for new content, which takes away from the creation of new art. I make the distinction here with an oft-iterated example: scrolling through Instagram interacting with others and posting a photo and caption may feel like work, but that is time when I am not writing stories that I can sell. The human brain can only do so much in a day, and creation takes energy. Social media sometimes provides inspiration, and certainly provides connection, but it should not be mistaken for an actual step towards a published novel, for example.

But I think perhaps more importantly, we have to acknowledge the emotional work of social media, especially for women, queer folks, and people of color. I have become much more aggressive at muting and blocking over the past two years in part because everyone has been so chronically online. As I recently pointed out on Mastodon, one of the issues with internet interactions is that you can’t just walk away from them without those features — if a conversation is not productive, it’s very hard to leave it. Marginalized people in general spend a lot more time and emotional energy batting away bad-faith attacks on their person, and that can very much drain your ability to create. I have more than once been paralyzed in writing not because I didn’t know what came next, but because I didn’t know how that next would be perceived, and could not get the vast, faceless crowd of social media’s peanut gallery out of my brain long enough to create. The old adage of “don’t read the reviews” becomes difficult to follow when people actively work to put those reviews, well-thought-out or otherwise, in front of your face. In the face of this swinging sword, I’m sometimes amazed that any writer is making anything new.

Yet, there is a pressure, and idea that if you can just make that viral post, that perfect golden content, you will justify all of your previous time. Social media is a bit like gambling in that way. If I clocked how much time I spent writing new fictional words each week against how much time I spend on social media, or blogging, or otherwise creating content for my web platform, I think that I would be unpleasantly surprised at the distribution over the last few years. It’s inarguable that I need a platform, but the pressure to keep running after the next thing in the hopes of finding a perfect reader is constantly there. And it’s silly — I can do everything to reach new readers, but if I am not making new stories, what’s the point? I’m making content for a billionaire in California, and not building my own business at all. Not to mention that people who come to my Instagram or TikTok to hear about my personal life, my opinions on publishing antics, or whatever else I might post, are not necessarily even going to read my stuff. They may not be readers at all.

I don’t think I have any answers in this post, except that going forward I’m going to try to spend more of my time on this blog and on my newsletter, both of which I somewhat nominally control. If the past couple of years have taught me anything, it’s that it is important to conserve my energy for the things that really matter to me and bring joy.

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