Social Media: Writer’s Aid or Addiction?

By Posted in - Social Media for Writers on August 20th, 2011 16 Comments

Those of you who connect with me on social networks know I’ve maintained a very active online presence for some years, but I recently had a moment of clarity about the impact it was having on my ability to focus on writing, or reading, or walking by the sea… even napping. What? REST? What a concept!

In America today many people feel pressure to juggle a lot of balls, some of which are necessary, and some of which are not. For a writer, the wisdom from publishing houses and agents alike is that an online presence is vital but none of them are advocating the level of time that some of us (he-hem) have been spending on social networks. Finding that balance is the Grail quest of many.

I first noticed that my own use was getting out of hand when I found myself going about my daily life with a view to what my next post on Facebook would be instead of what the next development for my work-in-progress would be. Then, when I sat down to write, my focus was constantly interrupted by the urge to check e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

It doesn’t take a Phd in Neurology to understand why.

Writing a (good) book is one of the hardest things one can attempt in a lifetime of hard things—right up there with raising good children. And both take a long time. In fact, both feel like the longest marathon ever, with every bend in the road revealing how far you have yet to go before you reach the finish line. Not only that, but the location of the finish line itself is a matter of perspective, depending on who is reading the manuscript or judging your parenting skills.

Social networks offer instant feedback to the lonely writer and an interactive experience that you’ll have to wait years to get from readers of your novel, especially if you spend more time on social media than writing said novel—that is it’s seductive, hypnotic, addictive power—but the quick ‘hit’ of pleasure from the approbation you receive in response to a useful or amusing post on social media is just as fleeting. With minutes your post is old news and you must come up with a post that equals or surpasses it. Never mind the fact that most of the people who respond online are not people you’re ever likely to meet in person, that they can’t bring you soup when you’re ill, or lend you a tenner when you’re skint.

It is a virtual life, a virtual success.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the way social media has transformed the loneliness of the necessarily solitary writer’s life. It’s just that little by little it can become a dependency rather than an aid.

Now that my month’s abstinence is over I’m returning to the social scene, but with a more conscious awareness of its effect on my habits, mental focus, and productivity. Because it’s not the amount of time you spend on social media that matters so much as the way it retrains your brain to need constant approval, feedback, and stimulation so that even when you’re not ‘using’ it, you’re constantly fighting the urge to do so.

I’m enjoying the serenity I’ve regained this past month and the progress I’ve made with writing, which is, after all, the one thing I most passionately want to accomplish.

How it went:

First week:

Announced my retirement from social media for a period of one month on Facebook and Twitter. Dealt with the withdrawal symptoms by allowing myself one post on Google+ a day.

Second week:

Stopped posting on Google+ and relapsed by posting a wail about how lonely the writing life is on Facebook. This was the hardest week. I was twitchy and restless, couldn’t sit and focus. The dog got walked. A lot. I called friends and revived my social life. Realized I’d lost five pounds.

Third week:

Stopped automatically turning the computer on before making breakfast. Called the cable company and put my account on hold saying I was “going on holiday”. Now I could only receive e-mails on my iPhone. Responses became very brief, and I no longer lost an hour to interesting links. Desperately missed Google search and Wikipedia. Took up Tai Chi. Attended a writer’s conference so I could be sociable in person.

Fourth week:

I no longer missed Wikipedia or Google search. Remembered I have books. Opened them. What a concept. Writing happened. A lot of writing.

Fifth week:

Returned to social media with something akin to trepidation. Surprised and a little smug to find much of the content non-essential. Resolved to restrict self-generated posts to one a day, and keep responses to no more than a few minutes during my lunch break and half an hour at the end of the writing day. The space in my mind and the focus of my thoughts is now more precious to me.

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(16) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Michael - Reply

    August 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I'm happy for you, Lia! I've told you about the periodic hiatus's from the Internet that I go on, and I'm glad you've got a chance to experience one.

    It's freeing and really gives you a sense of what's most important. It helps you truly focus your priorities, not just for your writing, but also for life. At the end of a hiatus I find that I begin utilizing social media in a more efficient way.

    This is why I haven't posted any more video blogs to YouTube even though I continue to get kind requests. Maybe I will one day. I have more ideas and I love making the videos, but that process got in the way of my writing. And I want to be a writer, not a vlogger.

    I think it's a good idea to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate where we spend our time. That goes for any profession, but specifically for us writers who wish to publish books at some point.

    There is no social media that will get the book written. And it's arguable whether or not social media actually sells books. So far, there isn't any data on that.

    And in regards to your astute observation about the non-essential content frequently found on social media, I have to admit that sometimes what is supposed to be a "conversation" actually feels like noise. People shout their views and move on. There isn't much listening.

    True conversations require a back and forth that doesn't really exist in social media (video chats being an exception). There's a reason that this message I'm typing is called a "comment" and not a "response". Social media is only a conversation in the broadest sense of the word.

    Anyway, your post was well written and and enjoyable read as always.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      August 21, 2011 at 8:51 am

      Michael, you're so right about the mistaken ways that people use social media as a broadcasting medium instead of a conversational medium.

      I believe that social media makes a significant difference to sales, IF you are being social with the right people. Just as in real life, telling the maid the post office worker that your book is out isn't likely to be as powerful as telling a librarian (or teacher, if you're writing for teens or children). Developing a relationship with people who can put your books in the hands of many more than you can is a way to expand your reach in astonishing ways.

      The secret is balance. After only a couple of days reconnected to the internet I feel the pull to check Facebook, and I resent it! But what can you do beyond set specific times in the day when you allow yourself some social time, and times when it's absolutely out of the question, thereby reducing the stress and will power involved?

  • @keelyinkster - Reply

    August 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Hi Lia!
    I had a similar revelation over Easter when we went to New Zealand – wi fi was spotty plus we had lots of fun stuff to do. At first I felt kind of anxious but soon relaxed into it. It was well worth the pile of emails waiting for me on return, but now I'm trying not to get re-hooked and that's hard. So from next week when school's back I'm going to check my email in the morning the turn off the wi fi until my kid comes home from school. I will finish this novel!!!

    BTW I love the way you designed your website – so cool!

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      August 21, 2011 at 8:54 am

      Yes, you will finish it! If, like me, you love being around people, try meeting a friend at a coffee shop for a few hours of writing. Do it with strict rules. You can chat while you get settled with your coffees, you can chat for ten minutes after each hour, and you can chat at the end – but writing is the object of the game here, writing in company.

      I have a bit of a competitive streak, and if I see someone else tip-tapping away at their keyboard it bugs me until I'm writing, too, no matter how blocked I may be at that time. I have to write something, or be seen to be doing so! And pretty soon the real words start to flow. Much harder to achieve on your own. 🙂

  • May Water - Reply

    August 20, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    You did an awesome job! I understand what it means to change habits & lifestyle. Naps, walks on the beach….mmm sounds yummy. Enjoy your peace. 🙂

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      August 21, 2011 at 8:57 am

      Thank you, May! Those naps rejuvenate my tired decision-making brain (have you ever noticed how many DECISIONS you have to make as a writer?!!!) and those walks on the beach get my endorphins flowing, send oxygen to my brain, and help me fight off the mid-afternoon slump. Of course, it helps that where I live is very beautiful!

  • Dee White - Reply

    August 21, 2011 at 2:51 am

    I love this post, Lia,

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the whirl of social networking.

    I’m employed to run a blog and post at least twice a week. I enjoy doing it, but I sometimes resent the demands on my writing time.

    One week I did four posts so I could have the next week off.

    I only took a week’s break from Social Networking, but it was heaven – to be able to give my family, my writing and myself my undivided attention.

    I agree that social networking is wonderful for the lonely writer. The international Warrior group you set up has members from all around the world so I can check in 24/7 and there’s always someone lovely online to chat to.

    But I have to say, that wonderful as all this is, it was so much more special to meet you in person at SCBWI LA

    No matter where technology takes us I don’t thing the virtual world will ever be as good as the real one.

    So pleased that your time offline was productive:)

    Dee xx

  • debutauthors - Reply

    August 21, 2011 at 8:21 am

    "The Shallows" is a book I would recommend. It's about how the brain has adapted to technology, centuries past (think invention of writing) and present. We have re-wired. Our brains are hungry for information. In fact, folks have studied this. The brain likes the quickness, the skimming, we do on the net. The pattern is called f-ing. Not the curse word, but the pattern our eyes take as we read, let's say, a blog. We begin at the left, move briefly to the right about two times and then shoot down the webpage, skipping from hyperlink to hyperlink. Voila, a pattern. But, it doesn't stop there. No. Constantly, we check the phone during dinner, even answering a call. How rude, when you've stopped one conversation to have another with someone who isn't present. Yes, we're conditioned and you are so right when you bring up the point of self-management. In my opinion, management is the key.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      August 21, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Thank you for the book recommendation, Robin! I've ordered it, as it ties into research I'm doing for my book, too. 🙂

      For anyone else who's interested, the link is: http://goo.gl/qhIlD

  • Leigh K. Hunt - Reply

    August 21, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Wow, a month went by pretty fast. Really interesting to see your week by week breakdown. There have been times when Social Media just gets beyond me, and I end up switching off completely, which means that no writing get's done either.
    I used to be super good, and never connect my laptop to the internet, but the introduction of wireless into my house a few years ago smacked that idea on the head. Now whenever I'm home, I'm constantly connected.
    Hence why I feel the need to just absolutely switch off. Usually during this time I get a lot of reading done, and I watch a fair few movies.
    Time management and will power are huge factors here. I'm so darn impressed that you did it for a month. There is such a thing as too much. We don't need constant approval from our peers to do a good job. We just need to focus or refocus.
    Great post, Lia. Lots to think about… and it has definitely made me assess how much time I'm spending socialising on the great interweb.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      August 21, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      What's interesting, Leigh, is that I wouldn't hesitate to switch off and "go dark" again, now that I've tried it and noticed what a dramatic difference it makes. Getting my son to agree to live without the internet is a whole other matter, however, so it's only likely to happen when he's away visiting his father!

  • Elizabeth Varadan - Reply

    August 21, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I appreciated this post. I've been ambivalent at times about how much time to spend on social networking — especially as it seems to mushroom and lead to even more networking. I'm always feeling I don't network enough, even though I do much more of it than I ever would have imagined. But even then, sometimes I do miss the mental "quietude" of my pre- networking days, when I spent some of that time on walks and hanging out at the library and just musing about my WIP in a private, quiet way. On the other hand, there's much that's gratifying about it, so i'd hate to give it up. What I'm hearing in all the other comments is the importance of balance; not too much and not too little. I think that really is the key, although that can be hard to figure out.

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      August 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

      I don't see enough written about how to be clever in one's use of social media. In other words, pay attention to WHO you're connecting with, and make sure your choice of who to connect with is a good match for your goals. It's also helpful to make a private list for yourself of exactly what those goals are so that you can focus the kind of material you share towards the needs and interests of the people you choose to connect with.

      Then, find out what times of day those people are most likely to be online and schedule your posts for those times. There's no point in sending out great posts at times when no one is reading them.

      By focusing your efforts in this way, you may be able to reduce the amount of time you spend on social media at the same time as you increase your effectiveness!

  • Sarah Ketley - Reply

    August 24, 2011 at 8:03 am

    oohh well done, not sure how i would have coped. I really do love your blog header, though i'm sure i have said that before…

    sarah

  • claudine - Reply

    August 24, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Great post, Lia. I keep thinking I should do email only for 99% of the time. But so far, I'm still hooked.
    Best wishes on your writing.
    c

  • @TheGearCog - Reply

    August 26, 2011 at 6:15 am

    Lia,

    Lovely post, much appreciated. Although I am an employed addict of Social Media, you cant appreciate something if you consistently drown your senses in it. Much like the first kick from a coffee after a week abstinence, it is definitely something to moderate.

    Even if in a masochistic sense, you take a break to just enjoy the return to it 🙂

    Stay Well,
    Douglas.

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