• Jane O'Reilly

Writers should quit social media


There, I said it.

Social media is not for writers.

That covers all writers, unpublished and published.

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 Unpublished writers were being told they had to start building their audience even before they were published, that it was as important (if not more so) than the book,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. That might be true if you are a youtuber with a million followers and a ghost writer 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 benefit from social media. I connected with other writers. I found out about publishers and writing events. But what I gained was not proportional to what I put in. Social media does not give you a good return on your investment. It's not designed to - the only thing that Mark Zuckerberg wants you to do is keep looking (so that he can sell your attention to advertisers so they can sell you crap you don't want which you'll buy despite the fact that you don't really want it because an algorithm is constantly mining your posts and likes and shares in order to figure out how to manipulate you into thinking that you do, and that covers everything from shoes to political candidates).

So while social media does sell some stuff, it doesn't sell books if you're just tweeting about them from your own account. If it did I would have the sales of JK Rowling. I had people on my timeline that I had been twitter friends with for years who cheered on every bit of book news, but admitted that they'd never bought or read any of my books. Not even the ones that are 99p. So they're weren't reviewing them on Amazon, or sharing them on book blogs, or telling their friends about them. They weren't requesting them in libraries and bookshops. Their support on social media, much as it was well intentioned and gave me a nice feeling when I saw it, didn't put money in the bank. When I stopped posting on twitter just after Christmas, 2 people messaged to ask me if I was OK. 2. Out of 2500 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 emailed to ask why. Deleting my instagram had zero impact at all.

Another thing that social media does is destroy your ability to write a book in the first place. There are increasing numbers of studies which show that it has measurable negative effects on creativity, productivity, attention span, sleep patterns and mental health. 2 minutes on google will tell you all you need to know about that (if you are 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. 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 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, which is when you get a thing called flow. That's when you're working at a higher level of cognitive functioning, and that's when the magic happens. Twitter remains in your head long after you've logged out, like a fatberg in a sewer, clogging up the nerve pathways in your brain with, well. If you use twitter you probably don't need me to spell it out.

And that brings me to the final problem with social media, which is that it makes people 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. If they can also persuade us to give them some data which they can mine so that they can sell advertisers the attention of the people most likely to buy their stuff, even better. This is called the attention economy. And the thing about human brains is that we pay more attention to negative stuff. I can only assume that this has something to do with making us focus on threats in our environment in order to maximise our chances of survival (it's a long time since I did my psychology degree, so I'm pretty rusty, but I'm fairly sure lower level brain functions haven't changed that much). We're constantly looking for the fight. As a result, the most valuable commodity on social media, the thing that really keeps us looking and clicking and scrolling for longer than we intended to is outrage.

Look familiar?

We've all done it. Admit it, sometimes it's a guilty pleasure. The thing is, social media is so manipulative that it pushes us to do it. 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 particularly for writers, who work alone and are often quite isolated, it's very unhealthy. Last year I saw Nora Roberts get trashed on twitter after a YA author suggested that Nora had stolen her book title (she hadn't). A couple of weeks ago, YA author John Boyne received so much spite over a book title that he deleted his account. It's the equivalent to being locked in the stocks and pelted with rotten fruit. Abuse as entertainment to keep us clicking and scrolling because it's so outrageous that we can't look away. Social media has given us flat earthers, anti-vaxxers and so much misogyny that it makes me feel quite ill as half-truths and insults are the currencies used to buy our attention.

I don't like it.

We need to take back our focus and our attention. We need to push back against fake news and outrage, and in order to do that, we need to give people something else. We need to give them amazing stories that will show the truth of the human condition, that will inspire empathy and understanding.

We need to stop writing tweets and write something better.

#socialmedia #writing #twitter #fiction #books #publishing #online

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