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Should We Keep Talking About Writing?
Quitting the Algorithm and Just Doing the Work
I keep reading pieces from people who’ve quit Instagram. Each time I do, I press lightly on the pulse of my own relationship with the gram, checking to see if there’s still yet life for me there. As of yet, the cadence is still regular, but fainter each time.
When Instagram first released, Twitter was still the it-site for creators and thinkers. Folks poked fun at Instagram from their ivory towers, dismissing the work there as “photos of what you had for breakfast or latte art” and those who used it as “self-obsessed.” I remember feeling a sense of self-consciousness that I actually enjoyed Instagram. I liked the possibility of showing instead of simply telling. I found enjoyment in “listening to my life, seeing it for the fathomless mystery it was,”1and sharing the ways the sunlight slanted on the ceiling or the ebb and flow of water at the lake’s edge or the joy of a moment caught in time.
I remember, too, though, the shift of when Instagram became overrun with quote images and ads and an over-stimulating, impossible to keep up with source of information. It suddenly felt like everyone was shouting but putting it on pretty backgrounds with pretty fonts (me too, me too). More and more, publishers were putting Instagram on the list of platforms an author needed to build before publishing, and it eventually became just another Twitter or Facebook. It lost its luster.
I do wonder at times ifwill somehow finds its way into the same sort of cacophony. Although, the clear and consistent communication (even promise?) from Substack higher-ups is that they’re working hard to not let this space become that. I’m not sure it would matter too much to me if it did, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
I’ve been blogging since 2001, consistently using different platforms throughout the years, switching to new ones when their interface grew easier for me to use. Right now, Substack has the easiest interface for writers, and especially with their spoken desire to push back against algorithms, etc., they have my loyalty. If that changes, then I’ll consider a change too. I’m not afraid of changing.
But what Substack is doing right now is aggressively removing the need for some authors in particular to stay on social media. Some authors will stay because it’s their brand, it’s how they built their audience (i.e., they like to spar on Twitter, engage community on Facebook, post aesthetic work on Instagram, etc.) and how they will retain their audience. But for writers and authors who really have made a career out of writing, I think social media is losing the battle for their attention. People read those writers for their writing, even if they like getting a glimpse of their lives through Instagram or a taste of their accessibility through Twitter. By opting out of social media (all at once, or slowly, as I’ve been doing), we’re telling our readers, “Hey, I’m not an influencer or debater or celebrity or whatever. I’m a writer. I’ve always been that—even if I felt like I needed to jump through those hoops for a while there. It’s not working for me anymore and it’s not (really) working for you, even if you can’t see that yet. Instead, I’ll be over here, writing.”
Other folks can stay in those spaces and do work in them. It’s not a sin to make people laugh with comedy on TikTok or share recipes on Pinterest or bring your followers along with you to the thrift store on Instagram or spar with a fellow theologian on Twitter, or whatever. It’s 100% okay, just as it’s okay to post pics of your breakfast or latte art. But it doesn’t have to be your job if you don’t want it to be. And you can opt out if you want to. And you can say, “I’m a writer and I’m going to give my best attention and work in spaces where I can write.”
Listen, I know that some of you will comment that your publishers or agents or whoever have told you you have to grow your platform before you can publish a book or yada-yada. But I want to be someone who tells you that almost all of my readers are here because of my writing, not my social media. I didn’t get email subscriptions from Twitter followers or Instagram. Less than 1% of my traffic comes from social media. Maybe at some point it played a small part in my readership growth, but actually I’d make an argument that it never played as much of a role in my readership growth as actually writing has done. Nothing has grown my “platform” as much as writing itself.
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Okay. So I’m saying all of this because I’m hearing some grief or grumbling from folks who’ve given blood, sweat, and tears in those spaces, they built community or engaged with vocational heroes, and now maybe they feel a bit homeless or like their access has diminished or their reach has stalled. Listen, I get it. We were sold a load of crock by tech giants who wanted us to give them all of our attention, and publishers (I think?) scrambled to keep up with this new way of showing up in the world and just lumped it all into “platform.” But I think I can say with some authority as someone who’s been at this writing online thing for over twenty years: nothing reaches or retains readers like writing itself.
Now, this is incredibly disappointing news to some of you because of the load of crock you were sold and because you saw explosive platform growth work for about 1% of people, you thought, dreamed, imagined, and worked your fingers to the bone to try and get in that 1%. (Now is a good time to remind you that I am not one of those people. I have no idea how many followers I have on Twitter since I left it earlier this year. A few thousand on Facebook since I deleted my personal account last winter. And somewhere around 22k on Instagram, which, if you do the math, is about 1000 people per year for the number of years I’ve been writing online—which in influencer metrics is, hmmm, let me check, nothing.).
I want this piece to be permission to you to stop trying that method. Opt out. Please, for the love of writing, opt out. Get your butt in the chair and write long-form work and publish it however you can (freelance, Substack, a blog, print magazines, etc.). It will take you a long time to get noticed. It might take you 20 years to get published (it did for me!). But not one bit of that time will be wasted: you will hone your work, perfect your craft, learn to not be so precious about your words, suffer disappointment and sometimes humiliation, but not a bit of it will be wasted.
Stop idolizing the 1% who made it big on social media platforms, some of them worked hard for it in other ways, others just hit a nerve at a particular point in time and culture, and others still have God-given qualities about them that they’ve capitalized on in other ways. Social media was not made for serious writers and it will never work for us in the ways we’ve been told it would.
Opt out if you want to or just change the way you use it. I’ve done both, opted out of Twitter and my personal FB (my writer profile is set up almost entirely passively), but changed the way I’ve used Instagram. My soul is better for it. My writing is better for it. I’ve lost tons of “followers” but only gained readers.
Listen, it’s slow work. I’m not promising you any quick results. I’m promising you anti-quick results. I’m also promising you it’s work. You will have to show up, you will have to prove your ability to write, you will have to face yourself if you turn out to not actually like writing more than captions or tweets (and that’s okay!), you will have to acknowledge after some point in time that if no one is showing up to read what you write that perhaps you are not called to publish books2 (this one is a hard one to face), but if you are a gifted writer who works hard and keeps at it over a long period of time, you will look behind you and be surprised at the faces of men and women who are showing up to read what you write. You will have built an anti-platform, but a loyal community of readers—which is what we want anyway.
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I edited this from just “write” after some wise comments a reader made.