The Social Media Strait Jacket
Nathan Hill is the author of The Nix, a novel which many outlets have considered the best book of 2016. He has 1,187 Twitter followers and 722 Facebook fans. Colson Whitehead is 6 books into his career, and his most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, was included on every year-end list imaginable. He has no Facebook Author page, no Twitter account, no Instagram. Even his official website is a bare bones page with only quarterly updates. I have 1700 more Twitter followers than Adelle Waldman, whose first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I loved. These authors are at the center of the literary universe and they’re hardly on the grid. They’re more concerned with creating meaningful art than jumping into the social media conversation. As I sit here rebranding my Instagram account, I can’t help but think I’ve got it all wrong.
A Numbers Game
My obsession with the numbers started early last year and reached new heights of ridiculousness as the temperature rose.
I had 7300 Instagram followers this summer. Now, I have 6,763. And that number’s likely to drop even more as the year continues. I don’t have the time to get back to 7,000, to exert the effort needed to maintain that follower count. I simply need to let go but I keep checking my numbers every morning when I wake up. Who else dropped off? Did I gain any new followers? What’s my strategy to keep improving? And for what? I’m a writer--no one, I repeat NO ONE, goes to IG to read things. Instagram doesn’t drive traffic to my site and it doesn’t make me money…so why am I letting it drive me crazy?
Some People Are Actually Going Crazy
Well, social media literally drives some people insane. Jason Russell’s 2012 web documentary about Joseph Kony took him from the throes of digital obscurity to the heights of Internet fame. His video racked up 70 million views in one week! After losing his anonymity, he was now subject to equal amounts of praise and mean-spirited criticism. Fast forward one week to his next viral video. Except this one featured him getting naked in the middle of a San Diego intersection and ranting about the evils of the devil. From a creator of viral content to its sad subject in a week’s time. It was a remarkably fast downward spiral.
Aside from the ways your web pursuits can cost you your sanity, they can also become the source of a new type of addiction. Internet addiction disorder is a real thing, and there’s even a real place where you can get treated for it (the Center for Internet Addiction).
For the last year and a half, I paid someone else to manage my social media accounts (IG, Twitter and Pinterest) on my behalf. A few months ago, I canceled the service because, as a freelancer, you have to pick and choose where you spend your money. (Buy new underwear or pay someone to like Instagram pics?) Social media management didn’t seem like a mandatory expense.
But once following, unfollowing and liking became my responsibility again, I realized how stress-free my life had been. Obviously, working 45-50 hours a week, I didn’t have a lot of time to maintain my social media numbers-so I watched in agony as they dropped. It was like that nightmare where you’re in a room full of people one minute, and the next, everyone’s gone.
The Double-Edged Sword
Social media is the ultimate double-edged sword. As an online content creator, I need it to drive traffic to my work on my site and my articles for my clients. Plus, occasionally, people pay me for a piece of my influence. The downside is that I’m forever attached to it. The moment I back off, the more influence I lose. Influence always has to be maintained; it can never lie dormant.
So, we’re essentially doomed to like, comment, view and follow until social media implodes…if that ever happens. What would happen if I just quit? What would really happen? I’m too much of a chicken shit to find out.
But when a post takes off on Twitter or a video of mine catches fire on YouTube, I get nervous. I want a big following that will pay money for my work and engage with my content. But trolls are always waiting in the wings. The thought of having to sift through false admiration and pointless negative criticism makes me cringe.
Still, I find value in my following, even though it has nothing to do with my real life. I kept tweeting, posting and snapping throughout my honeymoon, less to share my experience and more to remind my followers that I was still there. If I didn’t stay active, who knows how many people would’ve dropped off before I returned from Europe.
The End of Us?
Social media may not end any time soon but it could be the end of us. And I don’t mean that in the way old folks do: that it’s making us dumber or less social. Because I believe it does have its benefits: when I was 3 blocks away from the Chelsea bombing, I was able to use Facebook and Twitter to find out what was happening before any major news outlet could tell me.
I still firmly believe that the world needs more creators, more people to share their world views and their messages. But what I experience on a daily basis is less about messaging and more about becoming a public figure. As fun as Instagram can be, the supply of “celebrities” far exceeds the demand. And I’m not quite sure what they’re offering the world besides jealousy over a carefully curated lifestyle that’s likely false. The janitor who masquerades as a fitness model. The blogger who still lives with his parents. They’re all designing fabulous lives on social media so that we’ll envy them and follow them, but where are they leading us? They’re so-called influencers but what are they influencing us to do? 9 times out of 10, we’re probably more successful and accomplished than the people we worship on social media. How scary is that?
The question of where social media is leading us isn’t an easy one to answer. Social media is part change agent, part distraction, part shit stirrer, part connection to the outside world. It’s this enigma that’s far more complex than we’ll ever understand. I’ve written a lot about the pitfalls and frustrations of the Internet: my run-ins with trolls, my feelings about being unfriended, my disappointment in the world of influencing.
But I can’t walk away. Managing all of my accounts’ content, follower counts and engagement is maddening-much more than I can handle adequately on my own without sacrificing my professional progress. But I feel like I’d be at a disadvantage if I totally disconnected.
So, I have to keep walking this tightrope between insanity and normalcy, always moments away from hurling my iPhone out the nearest window. All this just to stay visible. I don’t really know if it’s worth it.