On Followers, Focus, and Flowers

So…how do you mentally handle followers and likes and analytics? How wide do you cast your net? What is the method behind your madness for social media (connecting? getting likes? comments? getting your work out there? conversation? growing your circle? your first, second or tenth millionth step toward world domination?) Do you check your opens and clicks and subscribers? How often? Does it ever take over your brain? Do you totally not care? Do you check your Google Analytics? What does it mean to you? ~Vanessa Herald, A Fierce Practice

Vanessa Herald, generous sharer of thoughts and asker of questions, is always posing good ones via her TinyLetter. Her most recent set of questions, about involvement and investment in social media, makes me realize that I have some thinking to do.

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Thinking about social media makes me do this.

Writers–and creative peeps of all stripes–are supposed to have platforms. There are a gazillion-and-one articles out there telling us that agents and publishers want to see that we’ve built up a following, that we’ve got people lined up waiting breathlessly for whatever AMAZING content we’ll throw out there next. We should post early and often, engage our followers, stand out. Facebook keeps wanting me to shell out bucks for “boosted posts.”

Full disclosure: I started a blog because I had heard that it was A Thing Writers Do, because I was looking for an agent and I had heard that agents check up on these things–but also because I wanted to be heard.

The problem: my relationship with social media, and with attention in general, has always been ambivalent. I come from a long line of people who want to slide by under the radar, and yet I’ve always been driven by an ambition to do something that matters, to find my voice and speak. Writers, after all, write in order to communicate, in order to be read. And making a living doing what we love would be nice, too. Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has hit on something beautiful, I think. But how to become an Elena Ferrante?

To answer Vanessa’s questions, I’m sporadic. I’ve recently rethought my Facebook presence, and now I post on FB almost exclusively via my author page. There’s a lot of good stuff on FB, but the other stuff saps my creative energy. I can’t take any more well-meaning posts about horrific atrocities. I stay informed via other outlets, but I don’t need to be convinced that Islamophobia and misogyny and animal abuse are abominable. Still, I have to fight the urge to scroll my feed, and while I don’t put much effort into growing my number of followers, I notice and wonder if I’m doing what I should be doing as an aspiring professional writer.

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I used to do a lot more watercoloring pre-social media. I want to get back to that.

I use Twitter largely to keep up with the writing world and the resistance, but I get sucked down rabbit holes far too often. I notice that I lose followers when I tweet about the rights of women and Muslims. I’m happy to lose those particular followers. But again I wonder if I’m as active as I should be, if I should indiscriminately follow back. But that feels deeply inauthentic, so I don’t. Perhaps this is unwise. I do know, though, that when I see others retweeting articles they clearly haven’t read in order to forge connections and grow their followers, I know that this isn’t the way I want to connect.

And then there’s blogging. I pay attention to my stats, notice that my readership grew steadily for a few years and then dipped last year. I wonder if I’m doing it right. By some standards, probably not. Sometimes I wish I had a wider reach, that I could have a post go viral. But then I get feedback from a reader who takes the time to think about my words and respond to them, and I realize that this is more important, this genuine connection. I also know that I just feel icky when I start obsessing over growing my reach. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with having lots of followers, but I know that for me, it’s inauthentic to spend my time focusing on this.

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In the days before social media, I did a lot more sketching. I want to get back to that, too.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know how I feel. Getting followers for the sake of getting followers doesn’t feel like me. I want you to read what I’m putting out there if it at least in some small way enhances the quality of your life, because I only want to read things that do the same. My time is precious, and so is yours. If you find value in what you find here, then I am writing for you. If not, step away–no hard feelings. What I want is to make the world a little bit better. I don’t want to be just more clutter in anyone’s feed. If this isn’t the savvy, marketing-driven strategy, that’s okay with me. I’m willing to cut my losses. I’m also willing to admit that part of me still really wants to make it big so that I can live The Dream of doing what I love for a living.

So the short answers to Vanessa’s questions are: 1)  I don’t handle all this well at all. 2) I have no really discernible method, just lots of FEELINGS. 3) I get caught up in statistics way more often than I’d like. 4) I want to be a wildly successful writer but I also am totally unwilling to sell my soul so perhaps my entire premise is fatally flawed.

This probably isn’t what I should say if I want to get books on the bestseller lists, but I can’t be who I’m not. This isn’t as coherent as it could be, but I want to spend more time writing books and making art and gardening and beekeeping and walking in the woods and eavesdropping on my kids, who are hilarious when they think no one’s listening. I don’t want to fall down the social media rabbit hole and realize one day that I could have written six more novels in the time I spent growing my following on Twitter or WordPress.

And I really, really loathe the word “follower” in this context. It sounds so passive, so thoughtless. It sounds like groupies and fans and all the other things don’t want to be, so I really don’t want anyone else to have to be any of those things, either. Let’s be anything but followers of each other. Let’s be friends, antagonists, conversationalists, co-conspirators. Let’s be dreamers and talkers and doers. If you can manage the social media stuff in the midst of all that, I applaud you, and maybe when I have some free time you can tell me how you do it. But right now I’ve got some art to make, and the peonies are blooming.

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This is important.