I learned a hard truth when my books were traditionally published, and here it is: Social media stifles creativity. It can absolutely suck the creativity right out of you, leaving you a husk of your former self. Worse, it can also suck the fun out of the very thing you used to love. You can come to hate your passion. At its absolute worst, social media can kill a career and leave you wondering WTF happened to your life.
People ask me all the time why I haven’t released a new book in a few years. It’s a complex problem and one I’ve had trouble addressing. There were (and are) some issues at the business level, but the majority of my problem(s) are more personal in nature. Obviously, there was/is Covid. Stress, lockdowns, and toxic news/politics are not conducive for sustained creative effort. Health issues and family issues play a part, too.
But all of that takes a backseat to the one thing that I now know destroyed me as a writer: Social media (and to some extent the internet as a whole). It took me a while to figure that out, and it’s taking even longer to get my brain back on track. I’ll get there, but it’s not an overnight process to go from what I’ve become to who I used to be.
So how did I get here? Here’s the abbreviated version. Before traditional publication, I worked on my fiction for at least four hours every day. Freelancing took up the rest of my workday. My free time activity of choice was reading. I wasn’t a big internet user back then. I’d go on if I needed something and then get off. My use was easily moderated simply because there was so much else to do that was more fun.
And then I got published.
Suddenly I had to have a “platform.” My publisher strongly believed that I needed to be everywhere all at once. Twitter! Instagram! Facebook! YouTube! GoodReads! Pinterest! (Thank the gods that this was pre-TikTok or my brain might have exploded by now.) And if I wasn’t on there promoting my work, I needed to be networking. Meet other authors! Engage with your readers! Post the inanities of your life so people will find you “authentic.” The message was that success could only be obtained via being in all of these places and constantly posting engaging content (whatever the hell that was).
And I tried, I really did. But, see, I didn’t realize that I was making a deal with the devil who would steal my artistic soul. The first problem showed up as a personality clash. I am an introvert and while I’m not ashamed of it, I am aware that it makes “putting myself out there” difficult. I am aware that I’m sensitive and easily hurt. Social media simply isn’t designed for people like me. (The word “social” in the title should have been a clue that I was in trouble.)
Every time I tried to “engage” I was operating against my best self. I am not at my best when flogging my own wares or trying to engage with people I don’t even know through an anonymous medium. I am not good at small talk or random chatter. And I am really not good at dealing with trolls. It all felt fake. At best any interaction was superficial. At worst it was toxic and hurtful.
But the real problems showed up when social media became a crutch. If you’d asked me several years ago if I had an addictive personality, I would have said no. I don’t drink, do drugs, smoke, or have any other real addictions. I don’t even watch that much TV. But social media operates on some level that my brain enjoys, even if it is a perverse enjoyment most of the time. (It’s like watching a car crash. You know you should look away, but somehow you just can’t.) Apparently my brain loves the dopamine hits that social media doles out by (malicious) design.
Ultimately I couldn’t look away. “Promoting my work” and networking consumed more and more of my days. Actual work became a distant memory. I was desperately trying to manufacture something that would boost my book sales and make my publisher happy. I was frantically racing around trying to create content and drive readers toward my books. And still it all felt fake. And hopeless and demoralizing. Had I ever read a book I’d seen on social media? Followed an author that I liked (and not because I wanted to network)? Nope. This isn’t really how people come to appreciate an author’s work and yet I was trying to force something to happen that was never going to happen.
The more I failed at it, the more time I spent on social media. I told myself I was “studying” it, trying to figure out how to crack the code and succeed. One “like” could make me think that, maybe, this time I was getting somewhere. But no. I was never getting anywhere. I was spinning my wheels and wasting time. Days turned into weeks, then months, then years. I was chasing this elusive path to success when I should have been writing. I’d fallen into a terrible bargain: Social media was supposed to save me and launch my career, but it took me away from the thing I loved. It stole my time, my creativity, my productivity, and my sanity.
Ultimately I gave up. I gave up everything. I gave up the pointless social media and the writing. It all felt stupid. If I couldn’t make social media work and drive engagement, then how was I ever going to succeed in publishing? I wasn’t. And I no longer had any desire to even try. So I quit. I quit the one thing that has always brought me joy and peace: Writing.
Let me tell you what happens when you give up the thing you love. It isn’t pretty. You go into some dark and ugly places. You feel like a failure and depression becomes your new best friend. The world shrinks to a point where you just try to get out of bed in the morning. Throw in a pandemic and political unrest and you have a recipe for spending months in your PJ’s staring at the wall (or really bad TV). It isn’t as simple as deciding to write again, either. There’s a whole pile of baggage to unpack and lost momentum to recover. It feels like too much to even try to get back the thing you loved.
So that’s where I’ve been the past few years. Trying to clear the toxicity out of my system. Trying to find a path back to the intelligent, creative, productive person I used to be. Thinking about whether writing is worth it if I can’t find a path to commercial success.
I don’t yet have all the answers. I’m working out a host of things and just trying to put a little writing back in my days. (You can tell the blog is becoming more active, so that’s a positive.) I’m writing stories again. What I’ll do with them, I’m not certain. Right now I’m leaning toward just posting them here and letting the chips fall where they may. I certainly don’t see myself trying to flog them on social media, or fight Amazon’s algorithm any more. I’m tired.
So that’s the story. But here are a few things I learned about exactly how social media kills your creativity.
- It makes you lean toward stuff that gets likes, rather than wholly original work. You aren’t rewarded for being creative, imaginative, or talented. Rewards (in the form of likes) are often doled out for work that appeals to the lowest common denominator.
- You must find a niche and never leave that niche. Once you are positioned on social media, people expect you to stay in that lane. If you leave it to try something new, they get upset. That’s true for both fans and publishers.
- It makes you scared to try anything new or potentially controversial. Cancel culture will come for you and it won’t be pretty. Why risk it?
- Trends and fads become more important than stretching yourself. You do “better” on social media when you cash in on trends. People don’t know what to do with stuff that doesn’t fit into an established frame.
- The things you do to drive engagement take away from your creative time. All that time you spend crafting images and cute taglines takes away from your writing time and limits the amount of “flow.” You likely don’t have enough to begin with, and losing more to stupid tasks isn’t ideal.
- False success (measuring by followers instead of how good a thing actually is) makes people complacent. When you get a lot of likes or followers, it’s easy to be complacent and think you’ve arrived. Even if the thing that got you all that attention is crap and you know it. When all that matters is like and followers, quality goes out the window.
- Being on social media leads you to think you’re doing more art than you are when you try to frame it all as networking or research. It’s too easy to claim you’re working when you’re on social media. But LOL’ing, and hash-tagging isn’t work. It’s procrastinating.
- Doing what everyone else does is “necessary” to beat the algorithms. If you want to compete on Amazon or against any other algorithm, you’ll only do it by doing what everyone else is doing. Using the same (overused) keywords and hashtags. Participating in the same groups or following the same influencers. Liking the same content. Posting the same content. You have to game the system and it’s time consuming and soul crushing.
- Begging will become your life. For me, the worst part of all was the begging. Or at least it felt like begging. Begging for reviews, blog spots, or podcasts. Pleading with people to just let me in, even a little bit, only to be met with slammed doors or indifference. It’s not that the work isn’t good, it’s that these people have so much else going on, they have to say no to 90% of people who ask for a bit of coverage. After a while, it becomes hard not to take it personally and it affects productivity and creativity.
I’m sure social media works for some people, and that some people can even maintain a healthy creative life alongside it. I am not one of those people. For me, everything about it is painful, soul-crushing, and miserable. It’s taken me a while to admit that, and to decide that I’d rather keep my life as it was pre-publication than visit that black hole ever again.
(Image courtesy of geralt)