The High Cost of Social Media for Sensitive Authors

High Cost of Social Media

(Let me preface this post with the following: I am not a doctor. Neither am I an expert in social media, or much of anything else for that matter. I am an author who uses social media for marketing. I’m also a sensitive person who suffers from anxiety and depression. (There, I said it.) With this post my intent is not to diagnose anyone or offer any sort of cure-all for anyone other than myself. All I want to do is put this topic out there because I don’t think people discuss the high cost of social media for sensitive authors often enough. Do with it what you will.)

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about social media for introverted writers. That was more of a “how to” piece. How can introverted writers, for whom the very idea of drawing attention to themselves is abhorrent, use social media for marketing? To this day, it remains my most popular post. Many, many writers are introverts and social media is scary and difficult for more than a few of us.

Many writers are also very sensitive people. We’re more sensitive to the things people say about us or our work. Hurt cuts deeply. The negativity and uncertainty in the world upsets us more than it does others. We feel other people’s pain and internalize it. Bad stuff doesn’t simply wash over us as it does for other people. It sticks. It drags us in, even though we wish for the strength to look away.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the train wrecks of life and for them to affect our overall mood and well-being. It’s not uncommon for people, especially sensitive people, to become depressed after spending time on social media. Everything is either hurtful, terrifying, or so perfect that there’s no way we can measure up. Almost everything on social media is designed to provoke a reaction, and for sensitive people those reactions are often negative.

This is not a recipe for good mental health. Social media is not great for sensitive people. (Neither is the internet as a whole, but that’s a much larger issue.) Unfortunately, if you’re a writer/author in this day and age, you’re pretty much screwed because you are expected to be on it, mental health be damned.

I wanted to become a writer because it was basically the only job my introverted self could handle. (Obviously I enjoy the work, but I won’t deny that my introverted-ness pushed me in this direction. It was either writing or… Well, nothing. Not too many other jobs limit your contact with the outside world. Possibly computer coding or eccentric math genius, but my skills do not run in those directions.) I could lie and say I had some huge artistic drive to create, but mostly it was because other people scare the shit out of me.

Anyway, before I decided to seek publication, I wasn’t on social media. At all. And I liked it that way. Everything I’d ever seen about Facebook and Twitter told me to stay far, far away. Too much drama, hate, and negativity. Too many people trying to be heard in an overcrowded room, all of them shouting  louder and more pointlessly than the last. Way too much exposure to news and events that were sure to bring me down. Knowing that I trend toward depression and anxiety and that things wound and stay with me more than they should, I stayed away and kept my information flow firmly in my own control.

Things were good. And then… I got published. I had no choice but to get on social media because my publisher demanded it. (And they aren’t wrong. I’m not debating whether or not social media is necessary for authors. It is. In a world where discoverability is next to impossible under the best of circumstances, you have no choice but to put yourself out there.) I did not go willingly. While I’ve sort of made my peace with it these days, my sensitivity requires me to be vigilant about my time and exposure to the medium.

Social media, as necessary as it may be, carries a high cost for sensitive authors.

No matter how hard you try, you will be exposed to things that bring you down, magnify your anxiety, or otherwise damage your mental health.

  • People will say bad things about your work. It may not even be in a trolling or hating sense, but even constructive criticism can be taken the wrong way. (That’s the trouble with electronic communication where you can’t also read the body language of the person with whom you’re interacting.) You will feel like crap.
  • News and world events you don’t want to see will appear in your feed. You will feel like crap.
  • Other authors will post their oh-so-glorious success stories and you will feel inferior. You will feel like crap.
  • You will feel like you need to be constantly “on” and that you are expected to engage on a very personal level. When you realize you aren’t able or willing to do that,  you will feel like crap.
  • Your publisher will monitor your follower count and evaluate your posts for “engagement.” Should you fail to impress, they may drop you. This will really make you feel like crap.
  • You will monitor your followers and your likes. Every unfollow will bug you and the lack of likes will make you feel like crap. Then you will spend time trying to figure out why people don’t like you and come up with all sorts of horrible theories. And the realization that you are simply too small to matter will really make you feel like crap.
  • It will become a rabbit hole of distractions which will take you away from your work. You will lament the wasted time and… wait for it… feel like crap.
  • The time it requires will take time away from your productive work, which will make you even more anxious. And… You’ll feel like crap.
  • At some point you will realize that all of this is for naught because sites like Facebook keep changing their algorithms so no one ever sees the stuff you post, anyway. When you contemplate all the time you wasted on something that no one ever saw, you will feel like crap.
  • The entire thing will drag at your emotional well-being and affect not only your ability to work, but also your ability to deal with life in a healthy way. It will make you feel like crap.

Now, to some extent, I’m exaggerating above. There are surely some positives for social media. You can make helpful connections with readers, other writers, publishers, and agents. You can find out about interesting opportunities. It may even increase the visibility of your other work. But any of this can only be true if you can engage with social media in ways that do not make you feel like crap.

And for sensitive people, that is nearly impossible. 

This is what I want publishers to know: Forcing writers onto social media may be doing them a disservice. Yes, marketing needs to be done. You’ll get no disagreement from me. But publishers need to help shoulder that burden for their writers, not simply throw them off a cliff with instructions to, “Just get on social media and rack up the followers.” Sure, some writers will love it and do very well at it. They will embrace the good and let the bad roll right off. But those of us who are sensitive will founder. We’ll do our best for you, but at the cost of our own mental health.

And that’s the question I have to ask. If you send a writer out into social media land and she founders, what has been gained? If that writer becomes so depressed or anxious that they can no longer write, or their writing becomes more sporadic, what was gained? Nothing. You may have just killed a great talent. Social media’s cost might not only impact the writer. It may also impact the publisher.

Is there an answer?

I honestly don’t know. As a society we’ve become so dependent on social media that I don’t think there’s a way back. Publishers love the fact that it’s inexpensive and the supposed equalizing and disruptive qualities mean that they can push much of the marketing onto writers. No matter the cost to mental health, writers have to be there. You can take some of my suggestions from my “how to” post mentioned above and it might make it easier. Then again, it might not. No matter how much you try to block out the bad and curate a healthy feed, the negative stuff will always be there, waiting to grab you.

For most, getting off completely is the only answer but it’s also the only path you cannot take. If you pull the plug on all of your social media, you might as well say, “Thank you, but I’d rather not be published,” because no publisher will want you if you aren’t “out there.” The fact that you did it to save your sanity won’t matter.

The only solution I can see is twofold: First, you must write books that people want to read. Eventually, word of mouth will get around if your work is good enough. It will be slow, but you will build a following. Second, I think you have to blog. You need to have a website where people can find you and your work and get to know a bit about you.

The beauty of a blog/website is that you control it. You engage on your terms, without all the other crap that comes with social media. There are no negative news outbursts, no insults, and you can control the commenters to keep out the trolls and haters. Yes, it takes time to produce content, but it’s not nearly the invisible time-sink that social media can become. If your work is good, people will handle your social media for you. Put share buttons on your posts/pages and people will post them on social media without you ever having to venture there to do it yourself. Again, it will be slow, but with enough time and quality content, you will catch on eventually. Plus, blogging is good writing practice, unlike tweets and Facebook posts which are usually strings of word vomit or silly memes. (Believe me, I know.)

The only other piece of advice I can offer is this: If you must be on social media, control it as much as possible. Curate your feeds as much as you can to keep out the negatives. Get on and get off. Don’t linger, don’t click on the trends or the news, and don’t waste time. If you see something that starts to make you feel bad or inferior, click away. Don’t read any further. (Easier said than done, I know.)

Finally, you can try talking to your publisher. Explain that social media doesn’t play well with your brain. If you’re very lucky they will understand and help you carry the burden. If not, well, you’ll have to muddle through as best you can.

For me, personally, I’m starting to experiment with ideas that do not require social media. Things that can be presented on my blog, or (gasp) out in the real world. I figure it this way: If everyone is on social media, then I’m going to have a hard time being heard, anyway, because it’s so overcrowded. But doing things differently and away from the train wreck that is social media… That may not only garner more notice, it may save my mental health.

(Photo courtesy of freeGraphicToday)

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