How to trade social media for an innovative writing life

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Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

In a recent post Benjamin P Hardy urges

Do something that requires courage and commitment today.

We shape who we are with the choices we make. How we act shapes the story we live out. All too often we know there is a gap between who we want to be and the person we experience in private.

We know that making changes to that requires deep work. We know that we need time and focus to take the stories we write to innovative levels. We also know that the more congruent we are as people, the more we close that gap between the person we project and the person we aspire to become, the more our creativity will benefit.

We know all of this but we live in a world where shallowness rules. A few months ago I read Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s a book about how we find more time in our lives to do deep work.

This is work that demands increasing levels of craft and knowledge, that requires commitment and concentration. It’s the work we are passionate about and want to push boundaries in. But all too often it’s also the work that gets pushed aside by a a million competing demands on our time, including the demand to be active on social media.

These demands often fracture our attention and divert us from what we love and aspire to. Yet we go along with them not only because, let’s face it, they are easy but also because the prevailing wisdom is that it’s unthinkable to run a press or be a writer without social media.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a widespread contemporary anxiety. Moreover the platforms are designed to keep us coming back for more. Retweeting on Twitter or posting on Facebook delivers short term rewards. We feel like we’ve taken some time to connect with friends or potential readers or clients. We also tell ourselves that we’ve achieved something and that we’ll read that book on writing techniques another evening. We’ll write that article next week. We’ll begin the novel after this busy period is over.

But the truth is, the more time we spend in the shallows, the less likely it is that we will engage with the rigours as well as joys of deep work. The more we fill life with quick dopamine shots of the kind delivered by social media, the less likely it is that we will value the commitment and flow states needed for extraordinary creativity.

I appreciate that we can’t spend all our time in deep work. It’s demanding and we need breaks, but social media is the kind of ‘break’ that, in my experience, doesn’t energise, but drains. It doesn’t allow the mind to freewheel or the unconscious to process issues we’re facing. In short, it doesn’t provide quality relaxation and recovery.

Of course depth needs to be balanced with routine tasks that maintain the logistics of life. But I felt increasingly suspicious of the idea that social media was part of the logistics that keep things running well. And yet, as not only a writer, but also a publisher I kept returning to the notion that it’s self-evident that I should be on social media.

Choosing congruence

I began Cinnamon Press over 13 years ago with the strap-line ‘Innovative, Independent, International.’ We publish gorgeous poetry and wonderful prose that isn’t mainstream. We run courses that I’m thrilled to tutor and offer a demanding mentoring scheme.

Innovating is what keeps me loving what I do. Independence is deeply ingrained in me. I’ve never fitted well into institutions. I eat differently (a Blue Zones style plant-based diet, every other day fasting and a growing amount of fermented foods…). I avoid Google and Amazon, going for smaller and indie. I do long distance travel by train and favour slow travel. I home educated my (now adult) children and haven’t had a TV in the house for over a decade. I live in a tiny village without a single shop, in a quirky, rambling house that is a constant project. And I run a press that majors on being innovative and independent.

How had I ever got swept along in the tide of posting, pinning, tumbling, linking, tweeting … ?

When I suggested that I (and Cinnamon Press) should quit social media there was some consternation. Surely these tools were critical to any business’s survival. Without them, how would people know about our books, our launches, or even that we exist?

They were good questions, but not good enough to outweigh the words of Gandhi:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

My whole rasion d’etre is around how we live out the stories we want to become; becoming a different story. Social media platforms felt increasingly inimical to who I wanted to be, both in terms of how I should use time and the values underlying their environments:

Resisting distraction

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

One of Cal Newport’s rules in Deep Work is ‘quit social media’. Newport has no axe to grind about the morality of these tools, but notes that they,

fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.

His rubric for balancing costs and benefits demands that

the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent.

For most people, including many of us who think that social media is essential to our continued professional existence, the ‘benefits’ are at best minor and random. Yet we cling to the tools that ‘everyone’ is using in an attempt to find any scrap of benefit.

This is not an authentic craftsperson’s approach. When I asked myself what my core activities as a writer and publisher should be, spending up to two days a month loading posts and tweets onto Buffer wasn’t one of them.

And unlike the email newsletters for my own writing or for Cinnamon Press, none of those posts or tweets made any difference. And I wasn’t alone in coming to this conclusion.

Writing in The Telegraph, Rachel Bridge comments:

… even if your potential customers are on the same social media sites as you, they might not be pleased to see you. As the name implies, many people just want to use social media to communicate with friends, not be sold to.

Alysa Salzberg, a writer and travel planner, who doesn’t use social media, has done a lot of research into whether her decision is eccentric or ruining her career. She remains undaunted.

One USA Today report reveals that … about 61% of small businesses don’t see any return on investment on their social-media activities.

Moreover, those that do see a return are not the kind of ‘small’ that Cinnamon Press represents. We are ‘minuscule’ by comparison and yes, we have tried boosted posts and they netted precisely zero sales. However we did learn that we could get huge amounts of likes (which convert to nothing tangible) if we feature the Cinnamon Press cat.

Social media and marketing specialist, Stephanie Schwab adds,

As someone who is deeply entrenched in, and very much in love with, social media, it’s very hard to say ‘Don’t do social media.’ But honestly — more and more, I find myself telling some of these entrepreneurs and business owners that social media may not be the most important thing for them to do….

She is referring to small businesses, but there are also huge, successful organisations that eschew social media too.

Or take Mike Smith of Guerrilla Freelancing who points out

You don’t need social media sites to get work.

Another writer, John Peltier, notes that he

I studied all of my Google analytics for the past few years and where all of my income had come from. Hardly any of it — really an insignificant amount — had come from social media. That kind of analysis made the decision an easy one for me. I’m out!

Putting values first

Beyond the pragmatic considerations of time use and the balance of deep work, there was something else rankling me about being on social media. I couldn’t escape the feeling of being in pernicious environments.

They are multi-million dollar corporation in which profit trumps every other consideration.

Since 2010 we know of at least eight instances when Facebook has conducted psychological experiments on their users without consent.

Facebook’s product is us. Increasing our value as their product is their raison d’etre. Shouldn’t this appall us?

The lack of privacy is also staggering and yet we go on ignoring it as though it’s inevitable. Privacy isn’t only for those with something to hide. It’s part of the human condition to have a personal life that isn’t measured by someone else’s bottom line.

Then there is the increasing culture of fake news. Hate-mongers, of course, always find a way to spread their fear and violence. Not having Facebook didn’t slow Hitler down and it would be naive to believe that hate-spreading would cease without social media.

But Facebook has nonetheless been more than implicated in some horrific incidents, including deaths, as an article by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in The New York Times relates.

Moreover, the echo chambers we inhabit on these platforms serve to reduce serious thought, moral issues, ecological campaigns and political activism to little more than lifestyle and fashion accessories for many people. We assuage our consciences by clicking a ‘Like’ button. And on some level we know this and feel terrible about ourselves.

There are limits to individual power but we at least have the power not to participate in forums that play into the worst of human nature or keep us half-asleep.

And it’s not only Facebook that raises these issues. On Twitter we’re encouraged to follow paying accounts and have everything we write ‘mined’ to measure responses to everything from TV serials to brands. And the list could go on.

Yes, there are as many humanitarian activists as hate mongers, as many ecological campaigners as climate change deniers. My concerns are not a reflection of the people I’ve engaged with on social media. I know people who use social media for important campaigns or for whom Facebook is forum of contact and support in otherwise isolated situations. And I know others who feel that Twitter has introduced them to niche communities.

But I couldn’t escape the conviction that their message was being subverted and trivialised by the medium. It’s a long time since Marshall McLuhan alerted us to the fact that,

The medium is the message.

In other words, the platforms, with their dubious morality become integral to whatever message we are trying to convey. It was time for me to leave.

Living without social media

In August 2018 I closed down my accounts with

  • Facebook (I had 1,172 friends and well over 5k likes on the Cinnamon Press page)
  • Twitter (with 4.5K followers)
  • Instagram (never got into it anyway)
  • Pinterest (hardly used)
  • LinkedIn (also hardly used)
  • WhatsApp (I’d only used it for a couple of months, liking the end to end encryption, but not its collection of metadata or Facebook ownership).

I have a Slack account as a work space for Cinnamon Press but it is hardly used and doesn’t receive notifications.

I have Signal messenger service, fully encrypted and independent, though hardly anyone I know is on it.

I have email lists for my writing and mentoring work and for Cinnamon Press. And I’m on email, which I answer in a short time slot on weekdays only.

Five months later:

  • I’ve lost no friends and am no less in contact.
  • I feel more focussed, less fragmented and more committed to deep work.
  • There have been no professional losses either for my writing work or Cinnamon Press.
  • Conversely, I’ve had more time to devote to growing email lists of people who choose to be in touch.

I’m less afraid of missing out on time to:

  • spend with those I love
  • write my next novel
  • work on a big creative nonfiction project on living the writing life
  • travel and immerse myself in places that will feed my imagination and inspire new ways of working.
  • walk in the Moelwyns (the hills above the village where I live)
  • journal, read, cook and do yoga…

Most importantly, not being on social media is more congruent with my story and who I want to become.

Call to become your story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life as well as a fantastic special offer for my new suite of online mini-retreats, Diving Deeply into Your Story. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.

If you would like to explore becoming your story further, I’ll be launching the first in a series of mini-courses to inspire, encourage and support your writing through the seasons of 2019, Diving Deeply into Your Story, begins at the end of January with a 4-day intensive online journaling retreat: Writing the green blade.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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