My book Show Your Work! was an attempt to answer questions my readers had asked me about self-promotion: “How do I get my stuff out there? How do I get noticed? How do I find an audience?” It is, as it says on the cover, a book about how to get discovered.
(Nowhere in the text do I address the question of why anyone should want to get discovered. There’s a little bit of that in the new book and chapter 6 of Steal Like An Artist: “Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it.”)
It isn’t a book about living in public, it’s a book about working in public. It is, I think, about sharing your work with intention, and using the technology available to you to connect directly with the audience you seek.
I tried very hard in that book, when it came to social media, to be platform agnostic, to emphasize that social media sites come and go, and to always invest first and foremost in your own media. (Website, blog, mailing list, etc.)
I still stand by that advice, but if I re-wrote the book now, I would encourage artists to use much more caution when it comes to using social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
It seems ridiculous to say, but 2013, the year I wrote the book, was a simpler time. Social media seemed much more benign to me. Back then, the worst I felt social media did was waste your time. Now, the worst social media does is cripple democracy and ruin your soul.
I’ve just got finished reading Jaron Lanier’s 10 Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It’s not a particularly well-written book (Franklin Foer’s review is worth reading — he calls it “less polished” than Lanier’s other books and, even, “hokey”) but it has an important message. And I can’t say I disagree with any of the points, especially the last one, in which Lanier argues that the social media machine “hates your soul.” Here’s Foer, summarizing:
He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.
This was a point, I think, made much better in his earlier book, You Are Not A Gadget, which contained a list of things “you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others”:
- Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
- If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
- Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
- Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
- Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
- If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.
It’s about pushing against these mediums and using them in a way counter to the way they’d like you to use them.
Another book I might recommend to writers and artists worried about their social media usage is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. (Especially the second half.) Newport also wrote a popular NYTimes Op-ed, “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” and has given a TEDx talk called, “Why You Should Quit Social Media.”
Two caveats before you read Deep Work:
1) I’m not sure about the terms “deep” and “shallow”. Often in my work, what might seem “shallow” is often what leads to what is “deep”
2) Newport is an academic — he makes his primary living teaching computer science at a university, so he already has a built-in network and a self-contained world with clear moves towards achievement. People doing creative work have neither of those things. (For that matter, Jaron Lanier is already famous and well-respected and has a good gig at Microsoft.) One must always be beware of the advice-giver’s context.
I was struck, in Warren Ellis’s last email newsletter, how much he emphasized solitude, and carving out disconnected time for working:
The trick, for me, is carving out time for things and trying to do them with some wit…. I am not ready for the world until I’ve had my 45 minutes with four espressos in the back garden with earbuds in…. I spend a lot of time on my own, and mostly in my office. You can emulate these obvious role-model traits by excavating yourself a cave in your back garden or taking over a room in your apartment, fitting it with uncomfortably bright lights and way too many screens, filling all the spaces with books and skulls, playing nothing but music that sounds like it’s emanating from a dead moon, and waiting for everyone to leave you alone forever, and then dying in seclusion and being eaten by cats.
And this terrific advice he gave to people worrying about living online:
You don’t have to live in public on the internet if you don’t want to. Even if you’re a public figure, or micro-famous like me. I don’t follow anyone on my public Instagram account. No shade on those who follow me there, I’m glad you give me your time – but I need to be in my own space to get my shit done. You want a “hack” for handling the internet? Create private social media accounts, follow who you want and sit back and let your bespoke media channels flow to you. These are tools, not requirements. Don’t let them make you miserable. Tune them until they bring you pleasure.
I still find value in being on Twitter (just yesterday I learned about a new-to-me artist from a follower) but it is increasingly hard to justify much time spent there and on other social media sites, like Instagram. (I have not deleted my Facebook account, but I rarely sign in there.) That’s why I continue to write here every day and keep up my weekly newsletter, both of which produce better thinking and better work from me and give me a stronger, more deeper connection to my audience.
I’ll be writing more about the need to disconnect in my next book, so stay tuned…
I think of all my books as fancy zines.
A zine (/zi?n/ZEEN; short for magazine or fanzine) is most commonly a small-circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via photocopier. Usually zines are the product of a person, or of a very small group.
When I’m working on a book, sure, I flip through my bookshelves, looking for stuff to steal, but what I really love to do is head over to my zine drawer (see above) and flip through zines.
Even though my books are printed in mass quantities overseas and are shipped all over the world, I want my books to feel handmade, like they’ve just come off the photocopier.
Back in December, I wondered in my diary if I should just go ahead and do a real zine, and work my way up to a book:
Maybe next time. Or maybe the country will collapse and this tweet will come true:
There’s something really special about zines. “Zines Had It Right All Along.” “The Internet Didn’t Kill Zines.” Even though “The Blissfully Slow World of Newsletters” can feel close to the spirit of zine culture, nothing digital seems to fully replace them. “A blog is not a zine.”
Whenever I do a workshop with students, zines are the perfect thing to make together: We make a bunch of blackout poems, each choose our favorites, and then we sequence them, everybody getting their own page. Then we run them on the photocopier, fold ’em, staple ’em, and everybody gets to take one home:
If you want to learn more about zines, check out this book and hit up your public library — several libraries actually have zine collections now! The new Austin Public Library has a whole section next to the comics:
A few months, I became nostalgic for the good ol’ MS-DOS command prompt:
The nostalgia was brought on by two things:
1) reading two programming books back-to-back, Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code and Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, both narratives of making computers do what you want them to do, with snippets of code embedded into the text
2) watching the scenes in Halt and Catch Fire with character Cameron Howe punching code into her primitive computer, programming an OS that literally asks you what you want to do with the machine:
For the 4th season of the show, the marketing team cooked up these graphics:
Those search boxes have me thinking: maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.
I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.
The apps are worse in the same way: they think they’re really smart. They assume they know what I want to see and what I want to think about. I want them to be dumber. I often wonder what Twitter would be like if instead of “What’s happening?” it would ask me, “What do you want to think about?” (You can still sort of do this: the “People You Follow” filter in Twitter’s advanced search is one of my favorite things.) Come to think of it, I’d pay for a Twitter app that bypassed my feed and went straight to the search box.
After all this time, this dumb little box is still my favorite thing on the internet:
You’re going to see a lot of stupid stuff out there and you’re going to feel like you need to correct it. One time I was up late on my laptop and my wife yelled at me, “Quit picking fights on Twitter and go make something.”