• Jane O'Reilly

Writers should quit social media

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

There, I said it.

Social media is not for writers.

That covers all writers, unpublished and published. Famous and not yet famous. Dead or alive.

There was a time a few years ago when getting on twitter and building a following was seen as the most important thing you could do to boost your career. Unpublished writers were told they had to start building their audience even before they were published, that it was as important (if not more so) than the book, that your online presence was the first thing publishers looked at and if you didn't have one, they wouldn't sign you. I don't know how true this is, but I do know that there were plenty of aspiring authors buying into the idea that it was the twitter following not the book that counted.

It might be true if you are a YouTuber with a million followers and a ghostwriter to do the actual book writing part, but for the average person with a thousand followers, it really isn't.

I have to admit that in those early days, I did find social media to be useful. I connected with other writers. I found out about publishers and writing events. But what I gained was not worth the effort I put in. Social media does not give you a good return on your investment. It's not designed to.

If social media use translated into book sales, I would have the sales of JK Rowling. But I don't. We're told that it's not the tweets about our books that count, but the ones that don't. The ones that foster human connection, build relationships, let you reach your people. Well, I wrote thousands of those, and royalty statements don't lie. Just before I quit I discovered that there were people on my timeline who I interacted with regularly, who cheered on every bit of book news, who had never bought or read any of my books. Not even the ones that were 99p. Their support on social media, much as it was well-intentioned and gave me a nice feeling when I saw it, had no real meaning.

I was just shouting into the void.

When I stopped posting on twitter just after Christmas 2018, two people messaged to ask me if I was OK. Two. Out of two and a half thousand followers. If I'd ever needed confirmation that I was making zero impact, that was it. When I deleted the account completely a few weeks after that, one person contacted me to ask why. Two and a half thousand followers, hours of engagement, barely any books sold, and when I stopped, no-one even noticed. Makes you think, doesn't it?

And yet we keep doing it. For years. It's not entirely our fault. The addictive nature of social media was built into the business model. These platforms were designed specifically to make them almost impossible to turn off for any significant length of time. That's not to say that's it's not possible, because it is, but everything is against you when you decide you've had enough. But making that decision is worth it.

There are increasing numbers of studies which show that social media has measurable negative effects on creativity, productivity, attention span, sleep patterns and mental health. Two minutes on google will tell you all you need to know about that (if you're interested, I recommend the work of Tristan Harris and Cal Newport, who are both excellent on this topic). It sucks at your attention like a leech, draining it from you, feasting on the creative magic that is the very thing you need in order to write fiction. It empties the well faster than you can fill it. It fills your head with the inane, pointless garbage that passes for discourse online.

In order to write a really great story, you have to climb inside and live there. You have to inhabit it. Given that you also have to inhabit the real world in order to eat and not get charged with child neglect, you're already forced to split your time and attention. In my experience, trying to live in your fictional world plus the real world becomes almost impossible if you're living in a virtual world as well. There simply isn't enough of you to go round. You can't get into that place where you're really in the story and it starts to become real and make sense. That's when you get what is known as flow; you're working at a higher level of cognitive functioning and magic happens.

Social media stops that. Online arguments remain in your head long after you've logged out, clogging up the nerve pathways in your brain like a fatberg in a sewer. You want to focus on your book, but your brain is still fixated on something cruel or bizarre that a stranger said. And that brings me to the final problem with social media, which is that it makes people both mean and stupid. The goal of all social media platforms is to gain and hold our attention so that they can sell it to advertisers. And they're good at it. They're very, very good at it. That's the reason why a free to use site like Facebook is worth so much money - because their advertising works. Why does it work so well? Because they mine every single post, photo, like and share for information about us, and then they use that information to figure out who is most likely to buy a particular pair of trainers or brand of nappies or political ideology so that advertisers don't waste time and money showing tampon adverts to thirty-year-old men or penis extension cars to fifteen-year-old girls.

Getting our information is easy. We give it to social media sites for free, millions and millions of pieces of it every day. The real challenge comes with keeping us on the site, because the longer we're there, the more adverts they can show us. This is called the attention economy. Our attention is the product that Facebook is selling.

The thing about human brains is that we pay more attention to negative stuff. We're constantly looking for the fight. It's what has kept us alive for thousands of years, when we needed to be alert to things in our environment that might kill us, like poisonous snakes or other humans with bad intent. Want to get someone's attention? Scare them or make them angry, or ideally both. It works every time.

Look familiar?

This is built into the design as well. The like button and comments sections weren't added out of kindness. We share outrage to get likes and retweets and validation. We argue to get likes and retweets and validation. We're all being led down this rabbit hole, not just writers. But social media has a grip on the publishing world that is nothing short of unhealthy.

Last year I saw a hugely successful American novelist get trashed on twitter after another author arrogantly suggested that she had stolen her book title (she hadn't). Someone else received so much spite over a book title that he deleted his account. A book title. It's not like he was drowning puppies. A highly successful female author was sent hundreds of rape threats because of something she tweeted. Those threats were left on her timeline for everyone to see. Abuse as entertainment. It's the modern equivalent of being locked in the stocks and pelted with rotten fruit or in some cases, a public flogging, with the crowd refusing to leave until there is blood.

Tweets aren't harmful, not really. Literal violence isn't real violence. A word is not a fist. Words don't break the skin and draw blood, no matter how good you are at using them. Online threats aren't real-world threats. The problem is that our brains can't tell the difference. The more outrageous the abuse, the higher the reward in terms of likes and shares. Social media has given us flat earthers, anti-vaxxers and so much misogyny that it makes me feel ill.

But we can choose to walk away. We can take back our focus and our attention. We can stop rubbernecking the car crash that is twitter. We can push back against fake news and outrage by starving it of attention.

We can stop writing tweets and write something that actually matters.

#socialmedia #writing #twitter #fiction #books #publishing #onlin

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