Articles - 3rd March 2020

Being a creative outside of social media

Words by Paula Akpan
Illustration by Ellen Surrey

For many creatives – particularly freelancers, contractors and consultants – social media platforms are ripe with gigs and opportunities. In a digital sphere like Twitter, a tweet about taking the leap to go freelance can pique the interest of people looking to outsource work, while as a writer or journalist, social media commentary on a particular topic can catch the eye of an editor and lead to a commissioned piece.

But we’ve also witnessed a dark side to these digital realms, with users, particularly from minoritised communities, experiencing shadowbanning, finding themselves at odds with tenuous community guidelines and even having their profiles removed with little warning – profiles that have taken years to cultivate and amass a following. Instances like this mean that we can find ourselves very much at the whim of algorithms and content moderators, serving as a reminder that it is crucial, where possible, to own your content or at least make them an offline reality.

In 2017, my friend Nicole Crentsil and I created Black Girl Fest, an annual arts and culture festival that celebrates Black women, girls and non-binary people alongside year-long events and initiatives. It was born of us wanting to recreate the feelings that we’ve experienced when we’ve entered physical spaces and events created by Black women for other Black women.

While many of us have forged online communities and claimed pockets of space for ourselves in the digital realm, we wanted to create an event where Black women could fully roam around a physical space, knowing that everything within it was accessible to them, including talks and panel discussions, our marketplace filled with goods and services from Black women-owned businesses and networking opportunities with the other attendees.

Social media presence has no doubt been critical for us, particularly for the way it allowed our crowdfunder for the first festival to receive the traction it did, for the way we’re able to reach greater audiences every day, for the way we’re able to connect with Black women outside of the UK. But the festival certainly demonstrated to me the importance of spaces that intentionally exist offline and the ways in which they can harness an unmatchable real-life energy that cannot be translated in the same way online. 

Cultural producer Tobi Kyeremateng’s CV is home to a lengthy list of community-building projects. Her work includes Let’s Build!, an architectural project working with four local Brixton primary schools to design and build their own temporary performance space with Ovalhouse Theatre and architects MATT+FIONA, and The Agency at Battersea Arts Centre, a programme that works with specific local young people in Battersea create entrepreneurial opportunities and projects that have a positive impact on their local area. Working across theatre, film and live performance, she notes the big role that social media has played in her creative work with young people to build bodies of work that respond to civic needs. 

“I owe a lot to social media [for] the ways it has allowed me to share and spread the work I do, the work I’m interested in, finding like-minded individuals and receiving job and training opportunities, as well as reaching new audiences,” she tells me. “It’s allowed me to reach into sectors I don’t think I would’ve had the opportunity to access if it weren’t for social media allowing me some sort of flexibility and transparency – I’ve definitely been given jobs off the back of others sharing my work, which I’m indebted to, really.”

Content creator Tolani Shoneye believes the same. Known for her writing for publications, TV and theatre, and being one-third of critically-acclaimed The Receipts Podcast, Tolani highlights that social media has been great for getting her work out into the public domain. “With the podcast, social media for a long time was our only marketing tool. It was using a hashtag that really got people to know about our work on the podcast.” She continues: “Although social media is not where my work lives, it has done wonders in actually getting me work – being able to show my work on my socials has done more for my creative career than any job sites.”

However, Tolani asserts that much of the work that she currently creates exists outside of social media and while, online creative communities are great sources of support for creatives, they need to translate into real life: “I do think these relationships should be built on outside of social media because that’s when collaborating begins and, as creatives, I think our biggest power is collaborating.”

Tobi adds that, while online platforms have created gathering spaces that minoritised communities – particularly Black communities – have been denied access to physically, she will always prioritise creating physical spaces for us to congregate in: “Offline community building is just as, or even more, important in the age of violent marginalisation and issues like the displacement and loneliness that comes with gentrification – something that needs to take over physical space in order to be successful.”

Despite how much she credits social media for the part it has played in shaping her career trajectory, Tolani finds it also doubles as her biggest distraction. “[Social media] also can make me feel inadequate. We live in an ‘announcement’ culture which I completely understand and think is a good thing: shouting about your work always gets your work. But sometimes seeing other people progressing on new projects and announcing amazing opportunities, I feel like I’m not doing enough and feeling inadequate, as always, messes with my creativity.”

In fact, feeling so far removed from the bubble of creative social cliques lead Tobi to create spaces outside of the usual networking events and training opportunities tailored towards those in media-based roles, such as Black Creatives Dinner Party. “[The event] operated as a free/pay-what-you-want space for Black creatives in any industry and at any stage in their careers (or hobbies) to come together in a relaxed setting and truly get to know other people.”

Alongside creating settings to network and collaborate with other people in real life, creating initiatives and projects away from social media and rooted within the physical can offer an alternative form of income – one that isn’t reliant on social media. Freelance journalist Anna Codrea-Rado believes that it is important for any freelancer or creative to ensure that they have different sources of income – advice that she was given by a mentor after she was abruptly made redundant.

“[My mentor] said to me, ‘You have to get this idea out of your mind that you will make a living only writing for magazines and newspapers.’ It’s possible for a really small percentage of people but it’s really hard because of low rates and budgets constantly changing. It’s good to have multiple revenue streams anyway regardless of what you do but particularly with something like journalism which is an insecure industry anyway.”

In describing her love/hate relationship with social media and the importance of having a presence on these platforms, Anna hones in on how she has found them to be transformative in terms of connecting her with other freelancers. “In the absence of having colleagues, Twitter and Instagram are ways for me to make my own freelance colleagues and I’ve realised that I’ve connected with so many people on social media in a way I wasn’t necessarily doing when I was in-house.” She adds: I’ve made a lot of internet friends and it is really important when you work for yourself because you’re usually working from home and it can just feel really lonely.”

While it is her own newsletter, Anna notes that it is not hosted on her own server so, like creatives who build brands on Instagram, it runs the risk of disappearing, like all digital platforms do: “If it disappears, I would have lost my whole archive and everything I have. Everything is a toss-up but I think for the type of newsletter I do, it works best with a reader-funded model but there are other people who might have a different offering where it would make more sense for them to host it themselves.” And while sometimes it can feel like a one-sided conversation with the sending out of her email, the platform she uses, Substack, now has a forum-type feature where subscribers can post a question and speak to one another in the comments: “I’ve been experimenting with that for my paid subscribers so that is a way where you can actually build a community which is really exciting for me.”

All three creatives have formed some kind of community through their projects which exist outside of social media and it’s clear that there are some conversations and community formations that social media simply isn’t equipped to handle, from responses to gentrification and systematic inequality to frank and open conversations about pay and advocating for yourself. “It’s more comfortable to not have those conversations online,” says Anna. “[You want] to be able to just ask someone on a panel or a networking event how to ask for a better rate, how to handle a client that hasn’t paid. These are the kinds of conversations that you just can’t have on Twitter.”


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