Earlier this year, American writer Dani Shapiro published a piece at LitHub about balancing social media and writing. She recounts how she sent out a newsletter about a new show she’d created on Facebook – and then received an email not intended for her that said “Is she for fucking real?”
Like most writers, Shapiro is somewhat ambivalent towards having an “audience” or a “platform.” She quotes Kurt Vonnegut, saying:
““Any creation which has any wholeness and harmoniousness…was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind.” Social media takes that audience of one and blows it up into hundreds or thousands of hearts and likes and comments that rain down like confetti. A writer, if she so wishes, can take her literary temperature dozens of times each day.”
Shapiro notes the contradictions inherent in writing versus “selling,” and that it’s hard to write if we’re caught up in selling:
“Writers, it’s safe to say, wish to be read. They wish to be heard. But they don’t necessarily wish to be seen…Increasingly, our focus is pulled to whatever grabs it, rather than where we place it. And so, within this cacophony, a writer has to sort out the quiet from the noise, art from entertainment, solitude from clamor.”
While Shapiro may not be wholly enamored of too much public exposure, someone like Susan Sontag had no problems with it.
“She was outspoken, combative—a public figure—and she looked to be having a good time. This was not the American picture of braininess (we favor the professorial) but the Parisian model, and a number of American intellectuals had a problem with that.”
The big difference, however, was what “being public” meant in Sontag’s time (mainly the 1970s and 80s). It meant being in newspapers or literary journals. Places where you might benefit from the exposure.
But these days there are an endless number of social media platforms you can join: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and probably more I don’t know about because I’m too old.
And the tone of public discourse on these platforms relative to the newspapers Sontag would have been in is entirely different. As one of my colleagues noted,
“Social media is designed in ways that support certain kinds of bragging and really doesn’t support meaningful connection.”
Writers who want to publish books are often asked by agents and editors what their “platform” is like – i.e., how many followers do you have across how many social media channels and how engaged are they. As another of my writing colleagues said,
“that was the reason I decided to drop the whole book idea. I just want to write and be myself on social media, without the pressure of having to grow a following or push a book.”
The danger with building a platform is that you spend more time curating it than doing the real work of writing. You still have to have a lively and interesting life filled with good people and fun activities to be a writer – you can’t just become a book selling machine.
As Miya Tokumitsu writes:
“In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt emphasizes that “a life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.”
Exactly. We need a personal, private life that remains a deep well from which we draw on to do our work, whether that’s writing, science communication, art, etc.
Given the tendency for social media to feed a culture of bragging, it’s important to find a way to publicly celebrate your achievements without bragging, as I think the majority of audiences get tired of it. A good example is this tweet:
Oh, this is easy! @AlongsideWild for sure. He has completely changed my, and lots of others, thinking on snakes and conservation in general. He creates a ton of content that is educational without being an insufferable jackass.
— Paula Claunch (@AKAJaneRandom) April 17, 2018
Notice the key line: “He’s…educational without being an insufferable jackass.” I follow @AlongsideWild as well, and completely concur.
I don’t care how many words you’ve written, how many followers you have, or how many famous people you’ve met. I just want to know that you’re happy with where you’re at and have some cool ideas and life activities to share. As another writing colleague said,
“I try to follow people I both admire and can learn from. [Some people] clearly didn’t fit the bill.”
I am also suspicious of how much people who brag really know. What is their basic understanding of their key topic, and are they blowing their own horn to distract people from asking tough questions about the extent of their knowledge?
In a discussion (online!) with my writing colleagues, we agreed that we need to remain whole, authentic people. That we should do good, honest work, and publish and publicize that work, without losing our minds, our relationships, or our ability to enjoy an interesting non-writing life. That doesn’t mean ruling out social media altogether. It just means using it wisely.
We need to avoid what Richard Powers describes as,
“the cacophony of so much public discourse, which does not teach us to see the world differently, but drives us further and further into lonely enclaves of endlessly harmful self-interest, where our desires drown out everything but the murmurs and shouts we could mistake for our own.”
And as Jennifer Romolini writes, we need to disengage ourselves from the instant gratification of social media.
“Ground yourself so you don’t crave constant validation, so that every accomplishment or positive reinforcement, every negative comment or rejection, doesn’t redefine who you are. Call your grandma. Do something kind. Think about someone else for a while.”
This topic makes me think of the woman who recently took second place in the recent Boston Marathon. Her response to winning was quite low key,
“Best case scenario going in, I thought I would maybe win enough money to cover the trip out here,” she said. “I had no anticipations of winning $75,000.” “She was very casual about it, not in your face bragging,” [said a running store manager]. “She was just excited about going out and running.”
Yes. Be excited about your writing, or your science communication. Don’t define your personal worth by how many likes or follows you get from doing these things. And keep on doing what you’re doing – you might accidentally grow a platform, and then who knows how far you can go.
Featured photo by me: Waterfowl Lake, Banff National Park, April 2016.