A novelist friend told me that social media is pretty much mandatory these days, otherwise I could expect to remain plankton in a sea of fish all swimming toward the same accolades. As a poet, I’m already used to being a small fry, yet as I move into writing journalism and creative nonfiction, I’ve wondered whether I should log back on.
I quit Facebook in 2014 after a manic episode that reared its Medusa-like head online. My wall was a mess of incoherent thoughts, followed by all the email rejections I’d ever received, copied and pasted from my inbox. For the grand finale, I wrote that I would stage a hunger strike to protest the government’s lackluster care for those living with mental illness. Soon after my last post—but not before I typed out the addresses, emails, and phone numbers of my closest friends (should the news media want to reach out to them for comment)—I was hospitalized and newly diagnosed with bipolar I.
As it turns out, extreme social embarrassment is an excellent way to curb a Facebook addiction. A true introvert and a perpetual validation seeker, I knew my pictures were never cute enough, my posts never witty enough, and I spent hours looking at the profiles of women that guys had dumped me for. “She rides an old-school motorcycle,” I’d think. “Makes sense.”
Post-hospitalization, my friends gently reminded me that their personal information was still online. I deleted my account for good.
My pact to stay off social was tested when I started looking for an agent. I scanned interviews and attended panels in which agents said that a strong social media presence was something they looked for in a client. I read manuscript “wish lists” that expressed a keen interest in working with influencers. I noticed that writers in my social circle had, on average, 20,000 Instagram followers, and some had upward of 50,000 Twitter followers.
At the start of 2021, I gave it a try. One agent advised writers to pick a platform and get good at it. I guessed my strong suit would be Twitter. Like an endless Pez dispenser, I can come up with wisecracks all day. With a few quips queued up, I started an account, waited for something spectacular to happen, and pressed delete the next day.
It just didn’t feel right. As a 41-year-old woman, I chafed at the idea of building a “me” brand. I also objected to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for moral and ethical reasons. I didn’t want to support men who had supported the rise of hate groups, conspiracy theorists, and a racist megalomaniac who committed human rights atrocities at the U.S.-Mexico border that this country has yet to properly acknowledge or reckon with. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey put profit before people—demonstrating how easy it is for tech to manipulate government and destabilize democracy.
I do not wish to discount how essential social media is for connecting people amid a global pandemic. Nor do I wish to ignore or dismiss how critical these platforms have been for social justice movements such as the Arab Spring, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and even #PublishingPaidMe, which revealed deep racial disparities in the amount writers are paid and the ways publishing continues to be predominantly white—from literary agencies to the Big Five (or is it the Big Four?) publishers.
By now, publishers expect writers to become their own publicists and marking team—and I imagine that landing a viral tweet must feel incredible. For me, though, as someone who lacks self-discipline, easily gets addicted to things, and still manages to spend time on Twitter (snooping, sleuthing, and lurking) without an account, social media would put a stake in the heart of my career.
I recognized that my unwillingness to create accounts and slowly but surely amass a following could be a deal breaker for agents, editors, and publishers alike. My response is this: does anyone remember Myspace? People are already leaving Facebook in droves. While Twitter and Instagram are holding strong, Gen Z has found TikTok and Snapchat, hinting that they might be reluctant to type or read 280 characters or view images that don’t move. Or maybe Gen Z will give up social for good, having seen the sort of harm it can do.
Culture is always shifting. The market is saturated with writers who want to reach readers. I want readers, too; however, I’ve decided to put my health and well-being first. No one needs to see the paranoid stuff I’d post—about hidden cameras and tracking devices—amid a manic episode. And I don’t need to feel addicted, anxious, depressed, or numbed out by platforms that are designed to sell ads.
In the end, it’s all about the words. And the best thing I can do for my career is just write.
Julie Poole lives in Austin, Tex. Her book reviews and articles can be found at Bon Appétit, Texas Monthly, and the Texas Observer. Her debut book of poetry, Bright Specimen (Deep Vellum) is out now.