The Invisible Costs of Social Media: How it Harms Writers

In my more recent blog posts, I mentioned feeling burned out and wanting to defragment my brain. This is probably relatable to most people at this point, what with an ongoing global pandemic and all. But because it’s “new year new me” season, I’ve been trying to think of ways to get back into writing while also cutting down on distractions. Sort of channeling my focus into, “What do I really, actually have to do to accomplish the goal of becoming a real writer?”

And let me tell you: It doesn’t include social media.

To Social, or Not to Social?

Look, I like the internet. I am addicted to ✨immediate gratification✨ just like most other millennials. I spend an ungodly number of hours reading discords and text chats with friends, and playing Flight Rising. But those aren’t obligatory. I like talking to my friends and futzing with my dragons.

by god just look at them

But social media does seem obligatory. In the current market of traditional publishing, it seems that writers are expected to carry the weight of their own social media marketing. More and more, it seems like publishers are abdicating their marketing duties and outsourcing that labor to their authors. Usually, outsourcing of labor is paid, but when authors take on the extra labor of social media marketing, they do not receive extra compensation.

Social media marketing can be a full time job. Real human beings work as full-time social media marketers. They get paid for it. It’s a whole field, with experts and everything. So why is there an expectation for creatives like writers to not only produce a library of creative material, but also create social media content?

Part of the reason is due to authorities in the business demanding it:

“Regardless of whether you are traditionally published, self-published, or not yet published, you need to be on social media. At this point, online engagement of some sort really isn’t optional for authors—especially self-published authors.”

Sassafras Lowrey, Publisher’s Weekly 

Need! Need! We “need” to be on social media. To be engaged online. That is a strong sentiment (and not one that the author—or anybody else, really—bothers to prove with quantifiable data). How did the path of writing become a multi-lane highway that included social media as a requirement? Is it really necessary to have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, and more? Does any of it really help you numerically in selling books, and/or help you at all if you haven’t yet been published?

A lot of authors (Me. It’s me.) fret in the face of this assumption of need—“How am I going to build my brand? How am I going to simultaneously and regularly update five socials? How can I be relatable?”—without questioning the truth about whether it’s really necessary. But I’ve reached a carrying capacity where I cannot imagine being more online—especially not posting four times a week out of some nebulous obligation. The idea is frankly nauseating.

So here, I’ve come up with a list of reasons why you (me, really) shouldn’t bother being on social media as an author.

“I am not gonna die on the internet for you!”: The Cons of Social Media

  1. Always being on

In order for socials to push your content to people who aren’t already among your followers (and even sometimes just to reach those) you have to post constantly and consistently—two things that, again, make social media marketing more like a full time job than some insubstantial addition. Consider this: Every minute you’re manufacturing content for your socials, you are not working on your creative stuff. Not writing a novel. Not writing poetry. Not writing song lyrics. Not experiencing joy. Always being on is a significant drain on your brain’s resources.

  1. Social Media’s Corporate Agenda

Social media is patently against its users on multiple fronts. Cory Doctorow recently published an article that goes into depth about how Tiktok is preying on people’s desire to go viral—and manually promoting certain users to keep the facade alive. 

No one wins a giant teddy bear unless the carny wants them to win it. Why did the carny let the sucker win the giant teddy bear? So that he’d carry it around all day, convincing other suckers to put down five bucks for their chance to win one. – Doctorow

Because social media has no paywall, it needs to make money in other, insidious ways. I.e. selling your data, advertisements, etc. I actually had to leave Facebook (like, forever) because their advertisements got too good. (Years ago, due to an ad, I spent $150 on Sephora, and that was essentially the last time I used FB.)

Because social media requires your content to keep their site alive, social media is designed to keep you online. They show users the most inflammatory posts in order to try and synthesize engagement. This dedication to inflammation at all costs is so prevalent and un-policed that it promoted online hate speech that exacerbated a genocide in Myanmar. So add “causes genocide” to the list.

  1. Lack of Control over your Account

If facilitating genocide wasn’t enough for you, the algorithm of social media has been shown to be racist. Social media algorithms are kept mostly hidden from the public, but there have definitely been occurrences that reveal how the algorithm works, such as white dancers copying black dancers getting more views, hashtags such as “Blacklivesmatter” getting videos flagged, and even the For You Page promoting light-skinned faces with Eurocentric features. These programs aren’t good. The publishing industry boycotts all sorts of other racist things, so I’m curious why I haven’t seen more interrogation or condemnation of social media from large publishing outlets.

If that wasn’t enough for you, social media sites can lock or delete your account at any time based on the actions of other people. This process is called “mass-reporting” and it is when users, angry at a specific user, report that user, resulting in the suspension or deletion of that account.

RachelwithReads, a popular Booktok user, received retaliation in the form of mass reporting after she posted a negative review about author Piper CJ. RachelwithReads had been putting out consistent, regular content on Tiktok and had gained a large following, but due to anonymous mass reporters, TikTok deleted her account. All of it, gone.

Mass-reporting ALSO happened to me! Albeit not on a social media site. It was on Flight Rising. There I was, happily playing my dragon game, and then I got mass reported by other players. I thought I’d lost my account forever due to internet trolls. I was really friggen depressed. I got the account back after six weeks, but I could’ve just as easily lost it forever. It was all up to the decisions of strangers online. Do you really want to build your castles where angry strangers can knock them down?

  1. Negative Consequences to Mental Health

Probably the most serious personal consequence of maintaining social media accounts is that it can contribute to burnout and other mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. There has been a slew of recent journalism touching on how YouTubers and streamers—people who create consistent content for their audiences—are suffering from burnout. They feel exhausted, anxious, dispassionate, panicked, and overwhelmed with the task of constantly performing online. Hell, even Pokimane doesn’t want to do it anymore.

The Legend

Streamers and tiktokers are the rockstars of gen-z. They have “made it” in terms of social media. And even they aren’t happy. If being at the top is still a full-time job (and an abusive one at that) is it really worth climbing that mountain? (This is me telling me as much as it is me telling you. I have a Tiktok just like everyone else. I had dreams of being a Youtube star.) Now, obviously, authors on Tiktok and other socials aren’t usually trying to make it in the same way as streamers, but there is a dream there.

Sites like TikTok are idolized as breakout venues where authors can get six figure book deals. That’s the legend. The ✨fairytale✨. But, again, it might be relevant to think of the carny with his teddy bear. It is not normal for authors to get book deals through BookTok. It’s such a small percentage that it’s honestly negligible unless you are some kind of marketing wizard. Because that’s what you have to be to be good at Tiktok: a marketing, cinematographic wizard with loads of free time and tons of energy to create digital products, and sometimes a dedicated team of assistants.

Which, again, is worth reiterating: Social media marketing is a real job that people are paid to do, and many famous authors have assistants or whole teams to help them with that sort of thing. Holly Black has one. Cassandra Clare has one. Brandon Sanderson has a small army. If you’re just one person, you can only do what one person can do, and it’s not worth beating yourself up for not being able to do more.

Alternative uses of time

Sometimes I wonder if—with the amount of hours people put into social media—those hours might translate to more book sales if they just talked to a person about their book anywhere else. Or, like, got a small gig and paid someone else to market the book. That’s always an option, my guys. You can just pay people who are already Booktok famous to show off your book.

I am definitely more of an in-person person—a critique group person, or a book club person, or a convention person. Knowing what kind of person you are is really important in terms of where you put your energy. I don’t think I’m a social media person. Most of the sites I honestly hate. TikTok is only enjoyable as a doomscroll right now because my feed is like 85% cats. But I’m sure the second their sponsors become more profitable than their users, Tiktok will show me garbage that I don’t want to see instead.

So what should you do with regards to social media?

Social media engagement can feel overwhelming because it’s hard to set firm boundaries with your time. There’s a huge difference between setting up a landing page that points to your books and putting in weekly hours to try and “make it.” One of those has a finish line; the other never ends.

We all have finite time in this world. And if you’re here, reading this blog, you probably want to be an author rather than a social media marketer. So maybe it’s worth considering that social media isn’t all that it’s chalked up to be, and that writing—just writing—is the most valuable use of time for a writer. Don’t get conned into spending your time doing something you hate just because someone else is holding up a big teddy bear. For any pros that social media may offer, there are numerous, serious cons.

So if you don’t love social media and the prospect of curating content for multiple feeds has you wanting to get back into bed and pull the comforter over your face, then maybe just… don’t. We can’t all be the top tiktokers of the world. Some of us were made to write.

P.S. Happy Valentine’s Day! ❤

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