Recently, I have arrived at the conclusion that more often than not, I loathe social media.
I hate the way it engulfs me in a cloud of self-doubt and inferiority. I hate the righteous tone of angry people offering opinions like they are cast iron facts and scaring everyone else into silent submission. To this day, I still find Selfies a troubling phenomenon; why are you putting pictures of your own face on the internet? I left Instagram over two years ago because I found the narcissism, which is classically fueled by a lot of insecurity despite the brash displays of self-adoration, way too much. But I’m a words person, so Twitter and LinkedIn stayed. (Facebook practically doesn’t even count anymore. So embedded is it in people’s lives, that it feels like a distant cousin you will inevitably have to see at some point). And then, before I knew it, I found myself with a chronic Twitter addiction that resembles flies around shit. I cannot stay away.
It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, I thought Twitter was a chance to find story ideas and track interesting people down and overhear favourite writers’ conversations, in real-time, unedited. It was a revelation. And I also can’t ignore the opportunities it’s provided me over the years (despite the frequent bouts of abuse from angry men). I have had radio and TV producers find me on Twitter. Work that I have posted on Twitter once found itself in James Corden’s timeline and he sent me a poignant DM from LA at 3am (all very above-board, I’d like to stress). I’ve met brilliant writers and editors. And I came to understand that to be on a social media platform is to be part of the conversation. To demonstrate you are connected, opinionated, occasionally witty (or so you think) and have a following (albeit a modest one) is playing the game. And for a long time, if those were the rules, I was happy to join in.
But then something started to change, like the faint whiff of milk on the turn, and talented, creative people became secondary, in terms of landing commissions or bagging work, to people with exceptionally large social media followings and, well, not much else. My feed became clogged with relentless self-promotion, a carefully contrived charade of a ‘perfect’ life, often portrayed as if wild success is all one big happy accident. Influencers blurred into journalists. Influencers became authors. Big followings became a shortcut to opportunities and kudos. Social media became a window to how cynical the creative industries can be, and that, in some cases, well, quite a lot actually, work comes via numbers, engagement, clicks to buy, not originality and talent. Of course, I understand that money makes the world go round, and people won’t commission you without considering what you can deliver. Creatives, I believe, who ignore that they are a business, and the creative industries are a business, are on borrowed time. But even with a heavy dose of awareness, it began to feel stifling. I didn’t want to play anymore if that meant supplementing my writing with selfies and spending more energy on my “brand” than a skill I’d spent the best part of a decade working my arse off for. I wanted out.
But if you are a freelance creative is “out” really an option? After a blissful two week holiday last month in which I only looked at the New York Times news app once a day, I came back even more desperate for a life without social media. I’d had two weeks without the incessant buzz of social media and I knew I could remain as engaged and stimulated with the world without it. What I didn’t know, however, was if I could have a career without it.
In desperation, I took to…er… where else? Social media. And I posted this very question on LinkedIn. And in some ways, the question answered itself. First off, rather problematically, I was commissioned to write this very article on the subject because of that post. And LinkedIn proved to be a helpful and supportive community that responded to me thoughtfully. Just by asking the question, I’d found my answer and it was the one I wanted to hear least. In one fell swoop, social media had brought me money and support. What an evil thing! So what now? I’m stuck on Twitter forever, refreshing myself into a spiral of self-loathing?
Not necessarily. As the comments grew underneath my post, people from across a range of sectors suggested that I focus on making more meaningful connections IRL. It takes time, but the pay off can be worth it. Janey Woolf spent five years working in the marketing department of some of the UK’s biggest book publishers. After commissioning designers to work on book jackets, she realised she wanted to be doing the designing, not the commissioning. Woolf took an evening course in graphic design and jumped into a new freelance career. It was a big investment (expensive fees) and a big risk (bye-bye pension) but she’s never looked back. Her success, she believes, is in part because she already had a network of meaningful relationships in which people knew and trusted her. “It’s the best decision I ever made,” she says, “but I was very deliberate about it. I knew I had all of those relationships in the bag. They knew I was hardworking and diligent and so were happy to give me a shot”. The work she has with her publishing clients also meant she came out the gate with an impressive client list, which in turn made approaching other gigs easier. And so she didn’t need a large social media profile at all? “Instagram is fun for designers, it’s a place I experiment with, but I certainly don’t rely on it”. I’m not suggesting we all put five years into a full-time job but it is a useful reminder to be strategic, think of the long game, and in doing so, real-life relationships can be hugely beneficial.
Narina Exelby is another example of a social media-lite career. She is a freelance travel writer and photographer, currently residing in a small fishing village in West Bali, living the nomad life. However, social media hasn’t played the role you might expect. Even though she’s living the dream (or at least what it looks like to those of us on the outside) she hasn’t tried to build an online following and her social media isn’t discussed when she sets up a commission with editors. And although her Instagram is full of beautiful pictures, she hasn’t harnessed this to become ‘an influencer’. She only posts her work, not her ‘nomad’ lifestyle, focusing on her subjects, not herself, keeping it strictly professional. And instead, she feels social media is useful in another way: “I use it to keep my finger on the pulse and see what the world is talking about. In terms of networking, I live quite an isolated life so I do feel that social media is my link to the outside world”. While many travel influencers have made their career off the back of their Instagram feed, Exelby’s work is what has propelled her and that is a comforting thing to remember.
Jane Hunter, who has a twenty-year background in global brand marketing, is now a partner at The Hoxby Collective, a handpicked community of experienced freelancers who work flexibly across the world, founded in 2015. She doesn’t have good news for me. Hunter believes that to be a successful creative freelancer, social media is a must. But she says “I don’t think you need everything – social media is a broad term and there are different parts”. At The Hoxby Collective, for example, Slack is crucial: “Being part of a community that is easy technologically is critical to our success. It is the heartbeat of Hoxby”. Outside of tools like Slack, Hunter believes that social media plays a key role. “It is how the modern world communicates”, she says. It’s also the first port of call for research today. “The first place people are going to look for a freelancer is the internet,” she continues: “Being a successful freelancer involves a lot of push, a lot of hard work, but there has to also be a pull. And that pull can be the conversations or the work you share on social media”. But like Woolf, Hunter believes in being strategic. Both because it is good for business but also good for mental health. “Have your own social media strategy for you as a business. And in this way, draw a distinction between how you are using it for work and how you are using it for your personal life. Social media can blur those lines so it’s about having a good mindset and knowing which bit you’re using for what”.
The trick, it therefore seems, is to utilise the strands and strains that work for you, and not, as I have been doing of late, become completely overwhelmed by it. We are surrounded by stories of those who have become wild sensations because of a savvy use of Snapchat or Instagram but it is refreshing to remember there are plenty of talented people out there with successful careers built in a different way; that propensity for self-promotion isn’t the only market or route to success. However, it’s also good (especially for people like me) to remember that even those who don’t rely on social media use it as an enhancing tool. And I guess, if you can get to the point where you use it as a function to aid you, like air conditioning or a Fitbit, not a barometer of your entire career/identity/soul, then it doesn’t need the all-out ban I’m so ready to impose. Because unless you’re a Phoebe Waller-Bridge or a Zadie Smith, closing off a big potential source of employment and income just doesn’t make much sense. Crucially, however, you’re social media presence doesn’t have to reflect your value, whatever the Kardashian dream flouts, because if it does, something has gone very wrong.
For those starting out in the creative industries, as a freelancer or simply just trying to exist in it, we need all the help we can get – it’s a tough terrain out here. So why would you deny yourself access to this free tool that can bring about opportunities? As Hunter said, we need the push and the pull. And, as I have experienced first hand, there is an amazing community of supportive people willing to offer advice, commiseration and lols when and as you need – it’s not all the idiots who drive you to despair.
As the social media landscape continues to transform, we’ll have to continue to learn to react to it, work within it, monitor and manage it. But we don’t have to be owned by it. Because for all the times I was approached by an editor for a tweet, the time spent at a talk listening to a brilliant thinker or at an event networking or reading my favourite journalists or writing endless words that never saw the light of day was just as valuable as racking up 50 more followers.
I still am no fan of social media, or at least what it has become. I think, for the most part, it brings out the worst in people but, sadly, its power, scope and influence isn’t going anywhere. But if we can control it – and not the other way round – then it doesn’t have to be so toxic and all-encompassing. Social media can help your career but, as I’m trying to remind myself, it doesn’t have to define it.