Writers need social media, right? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat…. Conventional wisdom says that an active presence on these platforms is essential. Writers who don’t tweet like budgerigars, the argument goes, will wither and die, and flop to the bottom of their cages, their works forever unread.
Swallowing this, last October, I decided to try and boost my Twitter numbers from a measly 63. To achieve this, I tweeted daily and followed lots of people. Soon, I’d gained about 250 followers, only some of whom were robots. This was not spectacular, but better than 63.
Some of the people whom I followed were also writers, and I’d occasionally receive an automated message advertising a book or story website. This, then, seemed to be the Twitter model, where marketing works via mutual endorsement. If you scratched someone’s back, then maybe, just maybe, they’d scratch yours.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work, because I never bothered clicking the links, for the following reason. My time is precious, and in any given year, there are far more books produced than I’ll ever have the chance to read. This means that I will tend to read only the best works of a particular genre. I find new books via friend’s recommendations, or by reviews, or by reading new works from an author who is already familiar, and whose work I have enjoyed in the past.
By contrast, a Twitter link by an unknown author isn’t enough to get me to read on, and I have little doubt that the same applies in my direction. A follower does not automatically become an avid reader, even if you beg them.
This Twitter skepticism was crystallized by Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. ‘Deep Work’ is any sort of task that requires a high level of skill, sustained attention and focus. Fiction writing, which requires hours of concentration, peace and quiet, is a primary example. Newport contrasts deep work with the attention scattering ‘shallow’ work practises that have become commonplace since the advent of the Internet.
Newport is especially critical of arguments that authors should be spending lots of time on social media, because (as I suspected) works that become successful and widely read tend to be the best in a genre and do not issue from the person with the most Twitter followers. He cites a number of authors who barely use social media at all, including J.K. Rowling and Neal Stephenson.
Newport also believes that social platforms are overrated as a marketing tool, and he makes what seem to me fairly convincing arguments that the potential gains in readership that you can expect to get from Twitter will be less than you think.
My conclusions, as an author, are that (1) it’s more valuable for me to concentrate on producing as good a copy as I can manage and (2) that I’m better off trying to sell pieces to magazines and online venues and getting a name that way, as opposed to obsessing about the number of my Twitter followers.
I still tweet, occasionally, and I’m still on Facebook, occasionally. Newport doesn’t suggest the abandonment of these tools, necessarily. Instead he suggests their each of us intelligently evaluate their use in our professional lives, instead of being bamboozled by a new app’s hype.
I’ve personally been pleasantly surprised by how much my productivity has improved ever since I made a conscious policy to reduce my use of social media. Fiction writing, as Stephen King suggested, is the kind of activity that requires an inwards turn, which seems increasingly difficult to find, in these distracted days. Let’s opt for the deeps, and not the shallows.
Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk