Feeds Don’t Nourish Me: Social Media and Creativity

Social media is overrated for creators. There, I said it.

Jefferson sings that "The emperor has no clothes"

Surprised to hear this from me? I am too, a bit. I spent the last year or so learning how to use social media to promote my books, even sharing a few how-to posts here.

Lately, though, I’ve done a lot of reflection on my personal relationship with my online platforms, especially in connection with creative burnout. After I got on my soapbox about this in one of my writing servers, I realized I probably should take it to the blog. In fact, it seems that I’m writing an unplanned de facto series on burnout and replenishment.

The importance of social media as a promotional and networking tool is almost a publishing truism at this point. Many writers I know, including myself, spend as much or more time and energy on book promo as they do on writing. I recently learned that a major writing conference featured a keynote that boiled down to “get on social media.”

But is cultivating an online presence worth the cost of admission? Does it really yield benefits in publicity, networking, and sales? Does it make sense to divert significant time, energy, and emotional resources to social media promo that we could devote to our actual work, the writing of words? My answer today is a resounding meh.

Allow me to articulate.

The last few months have developed into a reset period for me. I’ve found myself turning inward more, trying to listen deeply to better meet my needs for self-care. Those needs include what feels like an absurd amount of rest and a deep dive into mindfulness practice.

Listening to myself better has led to a reassessment of my habits, networks, and recreational activities based on whether they make me feel drained or energized. It’s a deceptively simple metric that has yielded some difficult conclusions. Video games, for instance, which I love, should provide recreation, but thanks to issues with eyestrain and postural fatigue, they mostly leave me depleted.

There are few things, though, that feel more draining these days than spending time on my favorite social platform. Yes, I’m talking about the bird site, with its addictive dopamine drip primed to capture my ADHD-shortened attention span. It’s hard to quit it, even now when I have started to notice how bad it feels.

Note that I primarily talk about Twitter in this post because it is literally the only social site I have used meaningfully in the last month. But most if not all of my conclusions apply just as much to TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, etc. The only place that doesn’t feel this way these days is Tumblr, a site whose denizens celebrate the degree to which it doesn’t work—its owners have let its algorithm languish and in their neglect, fandom and creativity is free to flourish wildly like beautiful weeds.)

To feed or not to feed—is that the question?

Maybe it’s me, now properly medicated and meditating, who needs the hit it offers less. Maybe it’s hard times in the publishing industry turning my personal feed into a sour mélange of justified anger, dread, and desperation. Maybe it’s something in the air, the pervasive musk (if you will) of late-stage capitalism.

The thing is, I keep thinking about the word “feed” in this context. It’s funny and apt. It’s also doublespeak.

It’s natural to think that the word means an online platform is feeding us—news, industry insights, memes, jokes, content. We go to the “feed” to fill our need for entertainment, information, connection, validation, and the algorithm serves it up to us. That’s the implication, isn’t it?

Indiana Jones says "Those aren't big birds, sweetheart, they're giant vampire bats
The bird is a vampire *cue grungy guitar riff*

It’s also a lie. Social media isn’t made to feed us; it feeds off of us. We think we’re its consumers and customers, but we’re actually the product, grist for the mill. Sites like Twitter are literally user-powered, exploiting the energy of creators who fill their feeds with unpaid content, but also our attention, our data, and our eyeballs on the ad space.

Enragement feeds engagement.

If it seems like your Twitter feed is full of bad takes, there’s a reason for that—rage is one of the most effective drivers of engagement. Humans tend to pay more attention to threats and negative stimuli in our environment. It’s a survival skill that dwells deep in our hindbrain.

We see the bad stuff as more salient, so we respond to it more. When we respond on social media, we train the algorithm’s response, too. What we see is what we engage with, what we engage with is get more of, and down the rabbit hole we go.

Eleanor Shellshrop says this is the bad place
It’s a hell of our own making.

This is why social media can breed polarization, conflict, and depression. In the social media world, where attention is currency, it pays to play on people’s strong emotions. Nuanced takes don’t go viral—controversy does. But even content that generates positive emotions can be used as a honeypot.

The house always wins the algorithm games.

The primary purpose of social media, at least in its current incarnation, is not connection but manipulation. It’s a tool, of course, but whose tool? Most platforms actively work against visibility for creators and artists to encourage us to pay for advertising on the one hand while exploiting our free content with the other.

An illustration from Alice in Wonderland showing Humpty Dumpty taking Alice's hand. Text says: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
The tools of the master, etc.

This also means that becoming adept at using social media to promote your work requires learning the skill manipulation—of the algorithm, yes, but also of our fellow humans’ emotions. Being manipulated in this manner is intrinsically draining. Trying to game the algorithm yourself is downright exhausting, since you also have to out-manipulate your competitors, who might also be your reading audience and your community.

Effie Trinket smiles, saying "Welcome, welcome..."
We’re all hungry here.

Sounds like an unhealthy and underhanded relationship, doesn’t it? It’s even worse for non-neurotypical folks trying to navigate this minefield of ingenuousness. It’s counterintuitive and often distressing for many of us that the most genuine bids for interaction yield little return.

Does social media actually move the needle for authors?

Technically, yes. I do seem to get a slight boost in sales when I post promos. (Or at least I did; I haven’t monitored it as closely recently.) By slight boost, mind you, I don’t mean big bucks—I mean a few units, earning me a couple dollars for hours of work.

Let’s be real though, author promos don’t sell that many books (especially on Twitter). Word of mouth sells books. Reviews and recommendations sell books. Marketing departments that pay for ad placement and display space sell books, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

I know this sounds somewhat dismal and maybe even bitter, but it’s not sour grapes. I was told all this as a debut author by experienced, full-time writers in my genre; I just succumbed to the pressure to hustle like everyone else. My point isn’t to steal anyone’s hope, but to ask, what exactly have I been working so hard for? Why are we all working so hard at marketing instead of doing the real work we set out to do—writing?

The promise of success through social media use seems increasingly illusory to me. The algorithm is ever hungry. It’s a creature we adopted on a whim when it was small and charming, and now that it’s grown into something monstrous, we merely live to serve it.

It is Halloween season, after all.

Ironically, you know what you can do, as an author, to sell more books? Write more books. Build your backlist. Bring in new readers. Play the long game. Keep creating.

It’s not all bad.

The main question I’m asking myself these days—about everything I do, not just social media—is: does this nourish me and my creative life? What makes me feel inspired, excited, energetic? Conversely, what makes me feel deflated, despairing, depleted?

The previous paragraphs went super hard on the negative side of social media, but I can still see the benefits. I’ve made lifelong friends on various platforms over the years. I’ve become familiar with people’s lives and cultures in places I’ve never visited. Social media has exposed me to new ideas and enriched my understanding of the world.

Available evidence on the balance between harms and upsides of social media is mixed, suggesting that its impact depends on how one uses it. To that end, I’ve been thinking about what I value in social media as well as what isn’t worth it. I feel energized from my engagement when I’m learning something interesting, sharing experiences or creative processes, gaining new perspective, or building genuine connections. Outside my writing wheelhouse, I especially love seeing updates from scientists, local citizen journalists, and visual artists, or finding unique insights into topics I’m interested in.

I don’t want to lose those windows into a wider world. I also don’t want to give up the modest platform I’ve worked so hard to carve out. At the same time, I want to spend more time creating and less time consuming—or being consumed.

I’m shifting gears, not quitting.

With all that said, I’m not planning to delete my Twitter account or other socials—yet. I’m reevaluating where I allot my time and energy, however. I’m especially trying to be more mindful of my emotional state when I’m on the site and reminding myself close it out when I start to feel upset or anxious—often within minutes.

I might try to shift my energy over to TikTok at some point, since word on the street is that it’s more effective for finding readers. Unfortunately, while the return on investment may be better, TikTok’s algorithmic manipulation is just as insidious, if not more so, than Twitter, and creating successful videos takes a lot more work than drafting a Tweet. Overall, I’m feeling quite skeptical that the benefit to me as a writer, author, creator, and human exceeds the time commitment and emotional cost of engagement on any of the big social media platforms.

My current theory is that social media promos are worthwhile to a certain extent but not worth draining myself. It doesn’t make sense to dump a ton of energy into a platform that primarily exists to manipulate me and exploit my willingness to create unpaid content. The value in visibility or sales just doesn’t make up for the time and effort I’ve been putting into it.

I’m focused on creating havens for myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creating more comfort and ease in my work in multiple ways. I might have more to say about this in a future blog, as it’s a broad mindset shift beyond the scope of this article. My haven-making includes investing in better furniture for my writing sessions and refocusing my creative work on aspects that feel exciting or interesting to write.

Digital havens are important, too. I spent a couple of hours on Friday curating my Windows news feed. Now the only news that pops up on my desktop is about pets, science, weather, and travel, and the peace I gained made the time sink feel well-spent. I have less invasive and more intentional ways of getting informed about current events and there’s no reason to have anxiety pushed to my desktop.

In the near future, I’ll likely prune my social media feeds & maybe even adjust my engagement habits, since I know how I engage will affect what I see. The enriching aspects I identified about social media aren’t exclusive to those type of platforms, so I’m considering alternative ways to meet those needs for learning, connection, and entertainment. For instance, I’ve been spending more time reading nonfiction books about science and ecology instead of depending on the internet to feed my curiosity about my particular topics of interest.

Cover of "Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest" by Suzanne Simard
It’s probably not a coincidence that my current read is about connections that are mutually nourishing.

That’s all for today. I’d rather be writing…or maybe just spending a day lost in the wood wide web.


5 thoughts on “Feeds Don’t Nourish Me: Social Media and Creativity

  1. I’m gremlin-ing it out on tumblr
    also, I’m not even trying to use social media for promo. 🤷‍♀️
    My feed was always meant to feed me and everything that didn’t had to go.
    I hope you find your balance that makes you happy. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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