Whenever I talk with writer friends about abandoning social media, the issue of “platform” nearly always comes up. Writers need, we’re told, a solid social media following so that their stories can be seen, noticed, read, and shared. Most of all shared. If their stories are shared, they can get more followers and the platform will grow until it’s unassailable, leading to speaking engagements and book sales.
Or something. I’ve never been sold on the idea that social media is an effective platform for most of us. If you’re an influencer, of course, that’s one thing and that thing is basically your job, but unless a writer has tens of thousands of followers to begin with an active social media account doesn’t generally seem to make much of a difference, and the effort involved in building that kind of platform often detracts from the time and focus required to do the actual work.
That’s not true of everyone, obviously. Some writers do incredible work and also run fabulous, smart social media accounts. Plenty of us don’t, and likely shouldn’t try, though it’s hard to resist putting the effort in when you’re constantly hammered with the Siren call, “You need a platform!” Maybe the question we should ask ourselves is whether those with massive social media followings are doing it because they’re building and maintaining a platform (the more I type that word the more images of deep-sea oil rigs come to mind), or because they enjoy engaging with readers and the general public online in a variety of ways. I suspect it’s the latter. Then there are those with massive followings who don’t engage, and I always find those feeds kind of dull.
There has always been a fundamental struggle between the act of writing and the sharing or promotion of it. But once you approach a work with readers in mind, your relationship to it changes. The work itself changes.
When I was in grad school, this shift was often spoken of scornfully, as if Art were demeaned by the wish to share it, to publish. (In one class the teacher said explicitly that the minute you get paid for your art, it becomes a commodity. I saw a lot of depressed faces in class that day. The word “commodity” is definitely a killjoy for creativity and I’m no fan of mass commodification, but we all need to eat and we all have our skills and talents to contribute. Money just happens to be how we currently exchange things of value.) I don’t know where or when this attitude developed. Story, after all, is one of humankind’s oldest and most enduring technologies. Stories are meant to be shared; they aren’t crafted solely for the storyteller herself.
My first draft of anything is always written for me first. Even this newsletter goes down in a notebook so I can dump out all my messy ideas before letting anyone else have a look-in. But the moment I begin transferring the words from the page to the screen, I begin thinking of readers. If I didn’t, why bother with any of this in the first place?
In a way, writers are often tricked into thinking that social media is part of this process, essential to bringing your work to others’ eyes and ears. But I’ve found that each platform I’ve been on deflated creative work in its own unique way, and all of them gobbled up the spaces in my brain where creativity happens, or at least that’s what it felt like. Social media connected me with a lot of great people; it took a long time to realize that it was also invading the time solely by myself with a notebook that I needed to create anything that I felt worthwhile. It drowned out wherever it is that Story comes from until I couldn’t hear it anymore.
That said, when I was revising my book, the one constant question I faced myself with was, “At what point will a reader put this down to go check Facebook?” Social media will continue to change writing even if every writer abandons it, because readers’ minds and attention will still be shaped by it.
My mother, who’s a singer-songwriter of cowboy songs, once talked to me about Story that picks you up by the scruff of the neck and takes you off into the night. Martin Shaw, in an excerpt from one of his books (link below—it might be from Courting the Wild Twin but I’m not sure), speaks of Story as a kind of echolocation from Earth itself, hoping to find someone who’s tuned in.
Story is magic; its role in our existence as conscious, connected beings is eerie and beautiful and full of power. That’s all the platform it needs.
Some related stuff:
“Small gods,” mythologist Martin Shaw on story, myth, and Earth.
Dougald Hind and Anna Björkman on the State of Emergence podcast—mostly a conversation about the Trickster archetype but the relevant section on “story” starts a little after 1:00 (one hour) and continues for about 20 minutes. I was less interested in what was said than in the way it got me thinking that I needed to walk with these ideas for a while.
“What comes first: ideas or words?” by Eli Alshanetsky on Aeon.
Sharon Blackie, author of If Women Rose Rooted, with a TEDx talk on the primacy of Story for human beings: “Post-heroic stories are not about strength; they’re about compassion,” like the story of the Holy Grail in which the knight must ask a question of compassion.