While it may feel like social media has been around forever, living on the Internet is still a relatively new concept. A lot of us are fumbling around on these platforms, unsure of what we're doing. We keep trying because as human beings, we're hardwired to want to connect with each other.
For artists—painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers, performers, designers, etc.—being on social media does have many benefits, such as finding niche communities, an audience not limited to borders, and having searchable platforms to showcase your work. Many talents have even been discovered online and gone on to fame and fortune.
So should creative types be leaning more into social media to get their big breaks? It depends on your industry and what kind of work you're producing. There are serious risks for spending a lot of time on social media if you want to stay an artist.
Here are three big reasons why you need to protect your artistic gifts when using social media.
1. Losing the Gift of Boredom
The obvious downside to using social media is the time suck. Hours will pass like minutes as you scroll, watch, read, like, comment, and repeat. Your attention is valuable, and billionaire tech nerds with their almighty algorithms will do everything in their power to steal it, along with your data, to sell to advertisers.
The biggest risk for artists hooked on social media or other smartphone apps is losing the gift of boredom. Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant, shares in her TED Talk what she learned from neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists: when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the "default mode." When our body goes on autopilot, that's when our brain gets really busy. Daydreaming allows our mind to wander and veer more into the unconscious, allowing different connections to take place. In the default mode, we connect disparate ideas, solve problems, and figure out what steps we need to take to reach our goals.
I'd kept this message in mind during the pandemic. The last two years of lockdowns have been very boring and it has also been the most creative and productive time of my life so far. With no social events, trips, or FOMO, I got even more comfortable staring at walls, going deep within myself, thinking and connecting to my emotions, which all benefited my creative writing.
"Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are."José Ortega y Gasset
These days, I'm not spending a lot of time on social media, only posting when I feel like it. In my feeds are content from brands, celebrities, friends, acquaintances, clients, Internet friends, influencers, meme accounts, sponsored content, promoted posts, news outlets, satirical news outlets, etc. It's too much info coming at me all at once.
I'm already an information junkie, reading articles, essays, newsletters, and emails. I like to check what people are talking about on Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. When our brains are busy and overstimulated, we are depleting neural resources, which are already in limited supply. Something's gotta give.
Give yourself permission to disconnect as often as needed so you don't lose focus. Contain your creative energy for your own projects. Getting traction on social media shouldn't come at the expense of your craft. Don't be afraid to press mute on the world and retreat so you can have the time and mental space to work on what you really care about. Those tweets and selfies are still going to be there when you check in later.
2. Losing Your Unique Creative Voice
Social media's engagement metrics make it easy to see what type of content is trending and performing well. If you're an artist keeping track of your likes, shares, and comments, you can check in real-time the response for your latest post. If you know what's popular with your audience, you may be tempted to duplicate that content even if you've moved on. You risk centering your work around what other people want instead of what you really want.
The algorithm tends to promote the posts that get the most traction within the first 24 hours. If it doesn't, it gets buried, which can be disheartening if the artist has worked tirelessly to produce it. What grabs attention usually has to be understood within seconds before the user scrolls on. True social media addicts have very short attention spans. Any work that's a little more complex and requires deeper rumination might get lost in the shuffle.
Let's face it: mediocrity is often rewarded on social media. Many people are on there to be distracted and entertained. I know I go on to share some pretty dumb memes. People might not be ready for the intricate work you've excavated from the depths of your soul.
Some of the easiest things to produce can go viral on social media. Some of the hardest are overlooked. Author R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame once tweeted "Shakira, Shakira!" and that became his most popular tweet of all time. "I spend so much time trying to write funny tweets, and this is what gets 30,000 likes?" he told Intelligencer. "It just makes no sense at all."
Trying to make it big online is a lot of shooting in the dark. If your work is not receiving enough love, I hope you don't water down your gifts by copying the generic stuff that's trending. I hope you don't lose the desire to experiment and play in order to stay "on brand." Your work deserves more than a two-second pause on a phone.
Your audience might be elsewhere. The little rectangular smartphone screen might not always be the best place to showcase your work. Paintings, sculptures, or any tactile art are better experienced in person. Musical performances can be enjoyed online, but they're usually better live. Even photography, often shared on Instagram, is more impressive blown up and hung on a wall.
Chasing Internet likes can also trap you in an echo chamber where all the creators produce similar content. The @Insta_Repeat account for travel photography is a perfect example of what happens when chasing clout results in safe, derivative content at the expense of artistic innovation.
If your goal is to entertain people and become famous, it makes sense to go the mainstream route, join in on the latest social media trends, echo popular opinions, and make content that is easily digested and accepted.
But if you want to be an artist, part of your job is to push boundaries and carve new territory. That's not always easy or comfortable. Artists face a lot of rejection, failure, and uncertainty. Praise is always nice, but it shouldn't be the reason you create. You've probably heard of artists who died as penniless outcasts and their work fetching millions long after they're dead. Sometimes, the world can be slow to catch on. If you're still creating after facing countless rejections, you're a true artist because you're creating for you, not external validation.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.Samuel Beckett
3. Are You an Artist or an Influencer?
Some people are just naturally good at social media. They are unself-conscious, love to share, and genuinely have fun online. It is their playground.
And then there are other people, like me, who just suck at being a "personality" online. I used to think it was important to present myself as a "real person" for people to be drawn to my work. As time went on, I learned others connect to me because of my writing, particularly the long-form articles on this blog, not necessarily my social media posts. (Although I should clarify that I consider my blog posts as information rather than art.) I don't need to be an influencer for my work to be discovered and appreciated.
Being an artist can coincide with being an influencer. Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde, for example, are famous just as much for their flamboyant personalities and social lives. Actors and models make natural influencers. These people are comfortable performing; they want to be seen.
I don't care about being in the limelight. But I do want attention for my art. It is good. It gets some of the best parts of me. You can enjoy my work, but my life is my own. My personal life is not gossip fodder. My relationships are not content. My pain is not entertainment. Social media can cheapen our most intimate moments if we broadcast them for strangers' approval. Privacy is a luxury now. My rule of thumb is that if I wouldn't share information, photos, or videos of myself with random strangers on the street, I wouldn't put it online.
It's healthy to have a clear separation between your work and you as a person. I don't really think it's possible to be your authentic self on social media anyway. A person is not a digital database. The algorithms, as much as the tech engineers want you to believe, do not know you better than yourself. We should be questioning whether our feeds are fulfilling our needs.
"The influencer industry is simply the logical endpoint of American individualism, which leaves all of us jostling for identity and attention but never getting enough."Rebecca Jennings, Vox
Online, we present flattened versions of ourselves for mainstream consumption. We must be likable, presentable, uncontroversial. The desire for perfection and acceptance can be debilitating. We should be allowed to be flawed. Our internal messes can often inspire our art as we try to make sense of them. We should be seeking truth instead of spending our energy constructing artificial personas. We should also have the right to suck.
For every good idea, we are bound to have several bad ones. But the Internet is not a great place to experiment and make mistakes. Not when the pitchfork mob is waiting for the next villain to shame. There seems to be little room for nuance and context on social media. A tweet can ruin a person's life. When I think about Justine Sacco, I feel frustrated that so many people failed to recognize satire in her tweet. Sacco wasn't a racist. Her tweet was making fun of a certain kind of white person who thinks that way. In his TED Talk about the Sacco controversy, journalist Jon Ronson concluded it by saying, "The great thing about social media is that it gave a voice to the voiceless, but we're now creating a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless."
If you open your life to the public, be prepared for public scrutiny as well. Everything you post online is going to stay there, your past self digitally frozen in time. If you want to change and evolve, you risk going "off brand" and alienating your hard-won followers. If you decide to change your mind on the issues you built your platform on, your followers might even turn against you.
If you are benefiting from using social media, enjoy it. Ride the wave while it lasts, but have a backup plan. An app can be in one day and out the next. It's a full-out war in the attention economy, where all the tech companies are competing to be on top, and user experience is now an afterthought. Currently, the hot app is TikTok, so all the other social media companies are pushing short-form videos. Even trusty old Pinterest!
If you’re tired of the social media grind but still want to showcase your work, I highly recommend getting your own website. A website is never going to go out of style.
If we're not online all the time or don't pivot to the content the tech companies want us to make, our posts will lose engagement. So what's the point of even building a following on any given platform when they can pull the rug from under us at any time? Social media used to be fun, sort of, but it has now become a job. Are we really volunteering to work for free so that obscenely rich tech companies can get even richer? Seems like a bum deal to me.
My free time is better spent on doing what my heart and my soul are calling me to do. Trying to get attention for your work on social media shouldn't come at the expense of making your work. No algorithm should be dictating what you should and shouldn't create. Social media can still be useful as long as you use it as a supplementary tool and not the end all be all. You are in control of what kind of artist you want to be.