How to be innovative, independent and quit social media
As a writer and a publisher, it seems self-evident that I should be on social media. Yet recently, I've been questioning this.
Thirteen years ago, Cinnamon Press began with the strap-line "Innovative, Independent, International". We are a tiny, not-for-profit press, though we punch way above our weight. We've published over 350 books of poetry, fiction, and some creative nonfiction. We run writing courses that sell out; we have a fantastic mentoring scheme; and we have authors who form an amazing community. Our cover designs get praised in reviews and we have high production values.
There's a lot of competition to publish with us. The list fills up so far in advance that we've had to be proactive about how we develop existing author's work, and block out time ahead. We run this labour of love with two people and some volunteer help, operating from a village in North Wales that is so small we don't have a single shop.
Our values matter to us. Innovating keeps us loving what we do; it's not lucrative but it's a joy. Independence is important to us; we don't fit well with big institutions. In our personal lives, we put a lot of thought into what we eat, what we consume, how we travel, how to be as low-impact as possible. I home educated my (now adult) children and I haven't had a TV in the house for over a decade.
Given our propensity not to go with the flow, "Innovative, Independent, and on Facebook" is an uncomfortable mix. Somehow, we got swept along in the tide, buoyed up by the many voices agreeing that posting, pinning, tumbling, linking, tweeting, etc, etc are crucial to any business's survival.
But is it the case that a publisher of any size must be active on social media? Without it, will people still know about our books, our launches, or even that we exist?
These are good questions but there are also many deeper questions that have nothing to do with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and it's these questions that have made me determined to quit social media.
Discussions about shaking the dust off our (virtual) feet seem to revolve around two areas:
So, how does the debate stack up on these points?
A toxic environment?
Not all social media platforms are identical. There are several I've never used at all, or only briefly dipped into, but even so it's not a stretch to say that, generally, something is rotten in this arena. The ubiquitous Facebook makes me most uneasy. Why?
Since 2010, we know of at least eight instances when Facebook has conducted psychological experiments on their users without consent. They are a multi-million dollar corporation and profit trumps every other consideration.
Facebook's product is us. Increasing our value as their product is their raison d'être. Shouldn't this appal us? It's dehumanising to become a product.
This lack of privacy is staggering and yet we go on ignoring it as though it's inevitable. But privacy isn't only for those with something to hide. It's part of the human condition to have a personal life that isn't measured by someone else's bottom line.
We transfer information to vendors, services providers and other partners.
Facebook has increased a culture of fake news with devastating political consequences.
Hate-mongers, of course, always find a way to spread their fear and violence. Not having Facebook didn't slow Hitler down and it would be naive to believe that hate-spreading will cease without social media. But the platform has nonetheless been more than implicated in some horrific incidents, including deaths, as the article by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, in The New York Times, relates.
The wholesale manipulation of views, with the added layers of the echo chamber effects that the platform encourages, is anything but "social". Moreover, the echo chambers we inhabit on the platform reduce serious thought, diluting moral issues, ecological campaigns and political activism to little more than lifestyle and fashion accessories for many people. We assuage our consciences by clicking a Like button. And on some level we know this and feel terrible about ourselves, keeping us even more tamed and asleep.
Individual power may be limited but we at least have the power not to participate in a forum that too easily plays into the worst of human nature. In the words of Gandhi:
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.
And it's not only Facebook that raises these issues.
On Twitter the 'who to follow' feed includes a huge swathe of those who've paid to get their profiles put before us. Promoted tweets block organic ones, and there are four large corporations who own licenses to "mine" everything we write in order to measure responses to everything from TV serials to brands.
WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption for our conversations, but the new owners, Facebook, collect all the metadata. If that sounds innocent, it means they know who you contact, where you are, when you make contact, and on what numbers. Already, there is a WhatsApp paid business service offering information about our contact habits and which gives its subscribers access to our phone numbers, so they can send us information that, Facebook claims, we "will love". And there are other experiments in monetisation in the pipeline — Facebook didn't pay $19 billion for WhatsApp out of the kindness of their hearts. And, as that's not enough, Facebook also owns Instagram…
The desire to be popular and pleasing is deeply ingrained in us and all social media exploits this for none-social ends. We all have a gap between the persona we present to the world and the inner person who may feel altogether less shiny and confident, but the need to be liked and to perform to the gallery can only increase this gap and make us less congruent people.
This is not a moral judgment on Facebook, or other social media, users. People use these platforms for so many reasons — many of them laudable or understandable. There are as many humanitarian activists as hate mongers, as many ecological campaigners as climate change deniers. But I would contend that their message is being subverted and trivialised by the medium.
It's a long time since Marshall McLuhan alerted us to the fact that,
[t]he medium is the message.
In other words, the platform, with its dubious morality, becomes integral to whatever message we are trying to convey.
I have no desire for either Cinnamon Press, or my own writing and blogs to disappear into oblivion. And we all share FOMO, this fear of missing out that can overwhelm us to the extent that we no longer see how toxic the environment is. But once you become viscerally aware of how contaminated a medium is, it becomes harder to justify using it.
And then there is the issue that these tools have never even delivered on the pragmatics.
A waste of time?
Writing in The Telegraph, Rachel Bridge comments:
… even if your potential customers are on the same social media sites as you, they might not be pleased to see you. As the name implies, many people just want to use social media to communicate with friends, not be sold to.
Alysa Salzberg, a writer and travel planner, who doesn't use social media, has done a lot of research into whether her decision is eccentric or ruining her career. She remains undaunted.
One USA Today report reveals that … about 61% of small businesses don't see any return on investment on their social-media activities.
Moreover, those that do see a return are not the kind of "small" that Cinnamon Press represents. We are "minuscule" by comparison, and yes, we have tried boosted posts and they netted precisely zero sales. However, we did learn that we could get huge amounts of likes (which convert to nothing tangible) if we featured the Cinnamon Press cat, Freyja.
Social media and marketing specialist, Stephanie Schwab adds,
As someone who is deeply entrenched in, and very much in love with, social media, it's very hard to say "Don't do social media." but honestly — more and more, I find myself telling some of these entrepreneurs and business owners that social media may not be the most important thing for them to do.
She is referring to small businesses but there are also huge, successful organisations that eschew social media, too.
Or take Mike Smith of Guerrilla Freelancing, who points out:
You don't need social media sites to get work.
Another writer, John Peltier, notes that he
really want[ed] the toxicity of social media out of my life. I studied all of my Google analytics for the past few years and where all of my income had come from. Hardly any of it — really an insignificant amount — had come from social media. That kind of analysis made the decision an easy one for me. I'm out!
I recently read Cal Newport's Deep Work, Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World. It's a clearly argued, pragmatic book about prioritising work that is hard to do, that demands concentration and creativity. As a writer and publisher, I resonated with it enormously and the deep work he describes would also be essential for any academic or creative or craftsperson.
One of Newport's rules is "quit social media". Newport has no axe to grind about the morality of these tools, but notes that they
fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.
His rubric for balancing costs and benefits demands that
the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent.
For most people, including many of us who think that social media are essential to our continued professional existence, the "benefits" are, at best, minor and random. But what so often happens is that we ignore all the negatives in favour of getting any scrap of benefit at all. What we should do, instead, is adopt the craftsperson's approach:
Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
For Cinnamon Press, independence and taking an innovative stance suffer damage by continuing a presence on these social media platforms. Moreover, it takes me between one and two whole days to load Facebook posts and tweets onto Buffer for each coming month. This is time taken from editing and mentoring, our core activities. And, unlike our email newsletters, none of this effort results in sales, or so rarely it's not even statistically relevant.
Our presence there also damages the values we purport to hold and this knocks on to my personal life as a writer developing courses and mentoring with strong philosophies about the writing life.
So why did we ever sign up?
- We are social animals.
- Humans love connection and, even if the connections are shallow, they can feel important to people for all kinds of reasons.
- We all like having friends and want others to like us.
- The ubiquity of the message that you "have to" have at least Facebook and Twitter to run a press is overwhelming. (Not responding to LinkedIn or being on Instagram or Pinterest is surely enough eccentricity?)
- All this increases our anxiety levels. We're not immune to FOMO and the voices whispering that not being on social media will drive friends and customers away.
But we don't have to stay signed up.
So how will we connect without social media?
Cinnamon Press has an email newsletter with over 5,000 subscribers. It's well read and produces engagement and support. My personal email list for my writing site, Becoming a Different Story, has over 4,500 subscribers.
These are people who care about writing and reading and who engage with writing that's outside the mainstream. There are more of those people out there to discover, so why should we fear missing out?
Moreover, we have authors who tell everyone they know about their books, in a multitude of ways. We produce postcards and leaflets, and distribute posters for launches and events. We get featured on book blogs, and send out lots of review copies. And then there's the trusty and humane method of word of mouth.
And connecting isn't always the problem. In order to have lots of time for deep work — meticulous editing, beautiful book designs, sensitive mentoring, writing great course materials — and still have the energy and creativity left to work on our own vital writing projects, we have to make good decisions about which activities are at our core.
At the end of this, I'm still afraid of missing out. But I'm not afraid of missing out on the one customer who might be waiting for me on Twitter, or for the odd book sale that will make little substantial difference. Rather, I'm afraid of missing out on the time to write my next novel, or the big creative nonfiction project on living the writing life. I'm afraid of missing out on the time to travel and immerse myself in places that will feed my imagination and inspire new ways of working.
I'm afraid of missing out on time with those I love, or time to walk in the Moelwyns (the hills above the village where I live).
I'll write an update on how it's going without social media in a few months time. In the meantime, I've got email. I'm on Signal (it's encrypted and doesn't collect metadata).
Or take a look at Cinnamon's list of events and come along to meet me, Adam or one or more of our authors in person. We'll be somewhere in England, Scotland, Wales, Carolina, France, Budapest …
Thank you Jan for the most eloquently argued case against social media and particularly Facebook I have yet heard. I am weaning myself away, slowly... but hearing your arguments makes me respect and support Cinnamon Press all the more. I am sure I am not alone and I imagine the impact on sales and wider support will only be positive. Good luck.