For journalists and writers publishing in the digital age, having a social media presence is virtually non-negotiable.
As a writer and poet, I’ve always struggled to market my work on social media. Engaging in “shameless self-promotion,” as the internet calls it, was a duplicity for the artist in me.
For years I hesitated to create an Instagram page to share my poetry until a friend explained it to me: “Neha, if a monkey is dancing in the jungle and no one sees it, then what it serves ?”
The logic seemed sound so I proceeded to create the page…quickly deleting it just 10 minutes later.
Personally, once I put the pen down and the clack of the keyboard ruminates, I want nothing more to do with my words.
However, with the ubiquity of social media, not even the most introverted, tech-averse writer can refute its powers.
Writers finally have access to a globalized platform capable of spreading their words like never before. To deny the powers of social media would not only be totally foolish, but a wasted opportunity for a writer looking to grow.
Writers are the new influencers
I joined Instagram as a writer in 2020 hoping to connect with other Pakistani authors and poets, discover potentially fascinating characters to profile, and promote my own journalistic and poetic work. After a few months, I started gaining a significant readership.
One day, I received a message from a reader complaining that she “couldn’t see the human behind my words”. Supposedly, all she could see was a salesperson using the platform as a marketing tool and nothing more.
Revered authors like Leïla Slimani and Zadie Smith have openly disavowed social media in the past. But that’s because these writers come from a time when you could make a literary living the traditional way: through literary festivals, book signings, and light online advertising.
For aspiring journalists and writers publishing in the digital age, however, having a social media presence is virtually non-negotiable. That falls even more to writers who cover cultural criticism, internet trends, lifestyle, and autofiction.
The image of the seductive and mysterious author leading a hermit’s existence is obsolete. For the first time ever, writers are invited to take center stage and support the exposure that falls under the influencer job description.
Writers now have to document the details of their existence, from their nightly skincare routine to their favorite coffee shop, to the books they’re currently reading, and their elaborate writing process.
Readers these days have a keen interest in knowing a writer’s obsessions, dislikes, political leanings, and writers are more than willing to make themselves fully accessible to them.
A writer’s mark is their image and their work, which is now commodified and distributed to their online subscribers. A writer’s personal image helps add authenticity, relatability and humanity to the words they advertise – newsletters sent straight to their readers’ mailboxes or thoughts and features published on his Instagram feed.
As Allegra Hobbs points out in a Study Hall article, as the line between writer and influencer gradually thins, the only difference between the two is that the former is simply a more scholarly and cultured version of the second.
On Instagram, writers broadcast an immaculate version of the “life of writers”. Glamorous shots of the author with an upright posture and a laptop perched gently in her lap provide a stark contrast to the real-life reality of relentless rejections and editing chores. The awkwardness of a writer’s creation is removed until only the final, picturesque version is revealed online.
In 2021, The New York Times reported that even publishers feel safer hiring young writers with a significant number of online subscribers because these writers bring with them an embedded audience to which the book can be easily marketed.
Ultimately, every writer hopes that playing the role of social media influencer will reap economic benefits, from acquiring book deals to receiving podcast invites to speaking gigs. The traditional novelist has now been replaced by writers who not only know who their work should be marketed to, but also exactly how it should be done.
Do writers sell themselves?
It’s no secret that social media can slowly turn into an addictive burden. Online validation can compel authors to produce prolific articles and produce articles in order to maintain and satisfy their readership.
Writers, like anyone else, want constant assurance that their lives are worth following, that their stories are worth reading.
But any literary work produced under pressure is doomed to be tasteless.
Attempting to maintain the writer-influencer lifestyle is a guaranteed way for writers to burn themselves out creatively. Spending hours micromanaging their pristine image, engaging in countless live conversations with other writers, and erasingly re-sharing mentions of their work have turned writers into distracted creatures. How can the writer-influencer completely disconnect to tap into their creative processes if their brain is wired 24 hours a day?
Ultimately, you can’t really blame aspiring writers and journalists for scrambling when many have simply transitioned into a post-pandemic nascent economy.
It’s no surprise that young writers want to invest in a platform that’s separate from the influence of their bosses and the job market, and where a side income can be generated.
Personal essays or navel-gazing?
One afternoon a man who had read a deeply inconsiderate first-person essay I had published in swaddle about my years working in the Pakistani film and television industry, sent me a lengthy email through my website telling me how much it resonated with my “vulnerable room”.
I felt honored that this feeling touched him, but I couldn’t help but feel terribly exposed. Although most of my journalistic writing remains confined to the realms of editorials, think pieces, and reports, I get a more resounding response every time I share the occasional personal essay on social media.
But I fear that by posting my personal life on digital media, I have turned it into a public good.
However, I am not entirely blameless in this posture. A simple glance at my Instagram feed would be enough to understand what my program is as a writer. My photo grid is organized into a deliberate pattern of glamorous, well-lit selfies and my literary work – basically, I use my face to peddle the real work I do.
In personal essays, writers, especially women writers of color, face the most traumatic and intimate experiences — from mental health struggles to microaggressions and the racist experiences they battle. But these are articles that drive massive traffic and clicks to a magazine’s website because readers want to know they aren’t alone with the problems they face.
Over the years, I stopped writing so many first-person essays. It became uncomfortable to monetize my identity, gender, and relationships to receive validation and acceptance from strangers online. I realized that to protect the sanctity of my personal life and relationships, I couldn’t turn it into a desirable commodity to sell.
Separating individuality from online personality
Over the past few years, art in all mediums has slowly become performative and will continue to develop as such – future contemporary writers will continue to consciously cultivate their “writer personality” online, writers will continue to commodify their genetics and personality in order to sell their words, and social media will continue to evolve under the growing capitalism we see today.
Although the line between influencer and writer is gradually blurring, I personally like to think of myself as a writer first. I try to constantly remind myself that real joy comes from the work itself, from creating stories, essays and poems; online adulation of work is simply a bonus.
Apps like Facebook and Instagram have always been the antithesis of critical thinking and deep focus — they were, after all, designed to keep us hooked. But if writers can find a way to balance the cacophony of social media with the silence of writing, they’ve truly won the writer-influencer game.