Viewers of Netflix’s recent documentary "The Social Dilemma" will now know, more acutely than ever, the impact that platforms like Twitter and Instagram are having on our lives, including unprecedented rises in pre-teen suicides and self-harm admissions to hospital.
Hearing about addictive, divisive quirks that had been designed to deliberately target our mental health, I was one of those moved to terminate my accounts. Only, when I began the process, I felt a sickening jolt: as an author with a paperback on the way, could clicking ‘deactivate’ kill my fledgling career?
Weeks before my book, We Swim To The Shark, came out in hardback, I was roundly encouraged to start author-focused social media accounts. I was used to writing Twitstagram content for copywriting clients, but wasn’t sure how best to do it wearing a ‘Debut Author’ hat. My marketing team seemed sure I’d be a natural. People will love you, they said. You’re so creative! You can join conversations. Make videos. Get your story out there.
If I put in the time a few minutes a day, tried to be witty occasionally – maybe even shared some hand-drawn shark pics – rewarding connections would apparently soon follow. The main thing I needed to do was Be Myself.
The reality wasn’t so simple. While social content can look like creative writing, it is a medium like no other. If ever you think you’ve mastered it – if those dopamine-laced ‘likes’ start taking off – a lack of reception to your next post could easily burst your bubble. For every thrilling exchange I had with a reader, every fun debate with a fellow writer, every well-received photo of me in a bookshop, several similar, seemingly decent posts would linger unliked on my feed. Conscious I might be trying too hard, I tried hard to try less. Then soon after that approach started working for me, it stopped.
Losing count of the times when, Being Yourself, not one person clicks to ‘like’ you, it’s hard to keep in mind that Online You is really not You; and easy to forget that books are what you set out to write, not tweets.
As I grimaced through "The Social Dilemma", I finally heard what my gut had been trying to say for several months. Social media cannot provide what I need at this stage of my publishing career: namely, confidence, self-worth and space to be productive. Its algorithms manipulate our natural human desire to find connection and recognition – keeping us increasingly hooked online; small voices striving to be heard in a massively crowded room.
At this point, you might be thinking: ‘This essay is bitterness masquerading as social betterment; this author ditched the platforms because she was rubbish!’ To which I say: yes, I am bitter. It’s also highly possible I’m rubbish. Furthermore, I expect there are writers out there who feel genuinely comfortable and in control over how their posts are received. I just haven’t met them yet.
Instead, through off-platform conversations with authors throughout the year, I’ve learned that, even among those with decent-sized fanbases – the ones who, from the outside, look like they’re winning – the same sense of vulnerability lurks ever-present. Naturally, lockdown, with its limitations on real life interactions, hasn’t helped, leaving gaps that are all too easily filled by mindless scrolling sessions. But the truth is the game is rigged. Only the stakeholders leeching off Silicon Valley will win out.
So why, even as I write this, have I still not clicked ‘deactivate’; instead choosing to sign out and use site-blockers; keeping my door to the platforms closed but not locked? Setting aside that It’s-Mostly-Bad-But-Can-Be-Brill dynamic which keeps people trapped within controlling relationships, there is something else at play for early-career published writers like me: the knowledge that, as things stand, ‘influencer’ status means top dollar; the more followers we accumulate, the bigger our next advance is likely to be – irrespective of whether those followers will buy books.
The fear that to check out of social media is to check out of any life-changing future prospects is particularly common among debut authors I know. The result feels like some kind of omertà, where large sections of the community try to look like they love playing the Social Media Slot Machine; like their self-esteem and creativity aren’t being eroded – because they suspect they’ll be dropped by their editors otherwise. Few of us can afford for that to happen.
Are publishers awake to how isolating this can feel? Do they recognise that, by endorsing social media, they are partly complicit in taking protection away from many a fragile private self?
Relieved, and greatly strengthened, by my own publicist’s reaction to me pressing ‘pause’ – having also been disturbed by "The Social Dilemma", she was unequivocally supportive – I imagine the desire for positive change in this area could be widespread. So how do we carve out safe, digital spaces where everyone in publishing can build up their networks online – without all of us losing ourselves in the process?
Georgie Codd is a freelance writer, and founder of the Time Out Award-winning online literary festival BookBound 2020. Her first non-fiction book, We Swim To The Shark, is out now in hardback with Fleet.