"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
This is the sixth installment in the Meaningfulness Project series, an essay project devoted to exploring a sense of purpose through long-term commitment to core values.
We are living in the Information Age, a time when there is more easily accessible content than we will ever have time to enjoy. Free videos, visual arts, recorded dances, essays, literature, fan fiction … all are available on social media at the touch of a finger. And from a content creator’s point of view, it’s never been so easy to get your creative projects in front of people.
This leads us to a primary problem of the Information Age: information overload. Immersed in a sea of online creativity, we’re told that our attention is now a commodity for advertisers to purchase. In the past, elite literary editors, movie producers, and other industry gatekeepers curated the creative output of the times; they decided what was worthy of public exposure, and what wasn’t. The price of liberalizing the creative market is a surge of low-quality content and more competition for attention.
With no gatekeepers to hold everyone to the same high standard, individual creativity is free to run amok. This, I think, is good for the state of creativity as a whole. Individuals are freer to experiment and push the boundaries of their craft without fearing their projects will die on the cutting room floor, barred from ever reaching an audience. Niche communities have emerged and inhabit social media platforms, each community centered around a special interest or hobby; they provide online creators with feedback and support they never could have found through traditional artistic channels — those venues that only promote work with a broad appeal and profit-making potential.
At the same time, though, more and more creators also gain an audience on social media by appealing to humanity’s lowest, most superficial instincts. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeemable about cat videos, sexual titillation, or celebrity drama. It’s just that we’ve already seen plenty of that throughout history. We’re being led in circles on the leash of our reptilian brain. I’d rather see us reach new heights.
Yes, the gatekeepers are gone, and good riddance. And yet, content creators still yearn for the legitimation that the gatekeepers once parceled out. In the Information Age, legitimation equals attention. In other words, the size and energy of your audience determines the value of your work.
I have a friend with a YouTube channel. On his channel, he describes the latest popular and cringeworthy Internet phenomena, and, as far as I can tell, laments that people are stupid enough to produce and enjoy these videos while they also obstinately refuse to watch his videos. He rails against this facile, lazy entertainment at the same time he’s trying to exploit its popularity. We’re still on the leash.
Two important questions
For those pursuing a creative lifestyle, the state of social media in the Information Age raises at least two important questions:
The answer to the first question determines the answer to the second.
First, we can hope our work finds an audience for a variety of reasons. Maybe we want the fame and notoriety of a large audience. Maybe we only want some feedback from a few respected peers. Maybe we want the ability to reach lots of people, but we’d be satisfied just to share our latest creative enterprise, no matter the response (or lack thereof).
The bottom line is this: if you’re craving legitimation to satisfy your ego, you need to back off. Public opinion is not something you can control. Why feel worthless and tear yourself to pieces trying to do the impossible?
The purest, most authentic urge to engage with social media as a content creator comes from the impulse to share. Period. Not share in exchange for validation, money, friends, or anything else. Just share.
And if sharing isn’t enjoyable for you, then don’t do it. J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, ultimately decided that publishing his writing interfered with his spiritual connection to his craft. He chose to retreat from the fame and social obligations earned through his first novel and live as a recluse in the woods of New Hampshire. It’s a viable option.
Not to say that avoiding social media equals social suicide. There’s a huge variety of intermediary steps from social media butterfly to agrarian hermit; I just happen to be in love with J.D. Salinger.
Next, after you’ve pieced together your motivation to participate on social media, I urge you to create some ground rules for this participation. We’ve all heard stories about the poor soul who falls asleep by the glow of a smartphone, who posts during work meetings or during class, and who bases their self-worth on numbers of “likes” or the carefully manipulated image in their profiles. This is the byproduct of compulsive use of social media. What we’re aiming for is controlled use.
I’m borrowing this idea from Cal Newport’s blog (read it here). Suffice it to say, in order to harvest more value from the currency of attention, social media taps into ancient pathways in the brain to keep us clicking away indefinitely. If you allow yourself to get hooked on the dopamine release of “likes,” “views” and “shares,” you’ll end up sacrificing your authenticity, your unique voice, on the altar of a cat video sharing platform. Don’t do that.
What might controlled use of social media look like? To me, it looks like slowly crafting a personal brand (an idea of who you are and what you stand for or want to achieve) through your content. This website is a good example of my attempts to craft a personal brand online. It’s gone through multiple incarnations. At first, I wanted to practice writing for an academic audience. Later, I wanted to create journalism samples. Finally, I’ve decided to focus more on personal development essays, book reviews and lifestyle issues. I try to be explicit about what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve, like with my Work With Me page (here).
Social media takes time, so you need to ask yourself: Should I spend more time connecting with other creators, seeking inspiration and feedback? Or should I spend more time creating more content?
The answer to these questions may change over time and at different stages of your creative process. Just don’t forget to ask them, as they will guide you to get the most benefit from social media and avoid the worst pitfalls.
Smart social media techniques
My worst experiences with social media happen when I set aside my creative mission and dive into social media indiscriminately, sometimes for hours on end. I become a passive consumer of other people’s content, other people’s creativity, and other people’s ploys for my attention currency. I end up feeling worthless, jealous, and just plain used.
My best experiences with social media happen when I have an explicit aim: I’m going to share my recent political activity … I’m going to publish an essay … I’m going to search for a story idea … If I was especially diligent, I’d write this intention down and tape it to my monitor.
Sometimes I use kitchen timers to limit my time on social media. According to Cal Newport’s sources, the average US citizen uses social media for two hours a day. If you think your time would be better spent elsewhere, then you’ve got to set limits. Apparently there are also software solutions to this problem (here). High-tech.
Of course, promoting your creative content online (should you wish to do so) takes time and shouldn’t be subject to the same limitations as aimless use. In these cases, go about it like a professional. Research online marketing for content creators and target your social media participation accordingly.
All this is to say: The creative life has different obstacles and different opportunities in the age of the Internet and social media. Don’t let your ego lead you astray. Define the purpose and pulse of your creative drive, and if social media fits into that sphere, figure out a way to harness it to maximize your creative output and development. Don’t sacrifice your dignity or artistic integrity just to get attention. That’s like what a dog does.
Drop the leash.
*All images are under a Creative Commons license.