“Social media platforms are designed to be addictive, they are designed to make us feel inadequate,” says muralist and designer Tanya Heidrich.
We’re talking about Tanya’s complicated relationship with Instagram, where she has over 80,000 followers.
“At the beginning social media was my way of legitimising my practice and showing people that I existed. I then started to use my numbers to validate myself. When the algorithm changes, you realise that you are addicted.”
Like Tanya, many of us struggle with social media, especially as we begin creating. Whether we have ten followers or tens of thousands, the platforms tap into our need for community, recognition and validation. We also, like Tanya, know that the platforms are addictive. Or as one Harvard neurobiologist bluntly puts it, they “leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.”
Social media’s real and imaginary benefits
So if we know they are addictive, why do we use these platforms? It’s because social media claims to give us two benefits that we simply can’t be without. One of these is real and the other, almost entirely imagined. We’re going to talk about how you can use the real benefit of social media in this article, and share some tools to make it easier. But let’s first put the imaginary benefit away for good.
The social media fairytale – “your work will be seen”
The imagined benefit of social media is ‘democratisation of access’. That’s a way of saying that social media helps us get ‘discovered’, that the ‘right people’ will see your work. Mainstream advice promotes this myth, telling us that social media leads directly to commercial success. We hear fairytale success stories of musicians making millions by releasing their album as via twitter, or we read articles urging us that an “Instagram strategy to engage art collectors should be part of every artist’s marketing plan.”
Maybe this was the case in the earliest days of social media, but for those of us setting out now, the story is very different.
“The promise used to be that social media would be this democratising place,” agrees Tanya. “But they’ve messed with the algorithms for years now. People won’t see your work unless you’re following the platform’s orders and dedicating a lot of your life to it. The more you play into it, the more demanding it becomes.”
Remember that Tanya has already built a following of 80,000, and she continues to struggle to get her work ‘discovered’. For those of us starting from scratch, the challenge is even greater. Most of us start by sharing our work on the platforms with the intention of getting likes or recognition. We usually end up with only a disheartening sense of being just one small voice among many.
We’re competing for attention amongst thousands of creatives, and we’ve no idea how to do it. Some of us turn to courses on social media for artists, or spending on promoted posts, but the ‘right people’ will still remain out of reach.
If you’ve read my article on the three learning zones, you’ll recognise the overwhelming panic or frustration this can cause as a sign we’re in the Undeveloped Zone. It’s the least creative place we can be. Social media’s ‘democracy’ promise won’t benefit us at all if using the platforms means we actually feel less creative.
From the perspective of creativity’s foundations, sharing to ‘be discovered’ is one of the worst things we can do. Firstly, it disrupts our structures as we put more time in sharing than creating work (remember, the platforms are addictive. They are designed to take our time.) Then, without the imagined ‘discovery’, it erodes our self-esteem while providing little in terms of community support. It’s a terrible trade-off, even if the promise of democratisation were true. And, unfortunately, it’s not.
The real benefit of social media – “connect with people”
Luckily, there is a real, positive benefit of social media, and according to their founders, it is what the platforms were initially designed to do. “I founded Facebook on the idea that people want to share and connect with people in their lives,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg on his page in 2011. “This idea has been the core of Facebook since day one.”
This benefit, the way that social media can connect us with other people, is why many of us were initially drawn to the platforms.
“I set up a Facebook group in the early days of Facebook, as a way to connect with other artists who made artist books,” explains artist, researcher and CuratorSpace founder, Dr. Louise Atkinson, when I ask how she found her creative community.
“Back then, Facebook seemed to have a lot of potential for developing networks of creatives. The person who was to become my PhD supervisor saw the group and liked how we had all these organic international, creative networks.”
Revenue was prioritised over connection
Unfortunately since then, the platforms have prioritised revenue over ease of connection. They largely rely on advertising income to pay their staff and shareholders. As the platforms receive payments everytime we see certain posts, it makes sense for them to focus on ‘content’ rather than connection. ‘Promotion’ of that content means sales.
So social media is now set up to get us hooked on ‘generating content‘. Once we are, the platforms make it harder to get our content seen, so in desperation, we’ll start paying for promotion. Their strategy is making ‘your work will get seen’ more of a fairytale every month that passes.
It is, however, a great strategy for the platforms. Twitter now makes 86% of its revenue by selling promoted content. Tiktok’s owner made as much as $17 billion in 2019 by selling advertising and in-app purchases. And in the same year, Instagram made $20 billion. Of course none of this revenue goes to the ‘creators’ the platforms claim to support.
We need to subvert what social media is trying to make us do
What this means is that we can no longer be passive about connecting with others online. We can’t simply make a page or post an image and trust that others will find us. It no longer happens this way. We can still use social media, but we need to subvert what the platforms are trying to make us do. We need to change our mindset from sharing ‘content’ to actively connecting with others.
As in real life, as online, making connections with new people requires courage and vulnerability. It’s far easier to post content and hope for likes. But from a creative perspective, the benefits of pushing ourselves to connect with others are enormous. From my experience in organising arts collectives in real life and online, a community of just four to ten creative people quickly becomes a source of strength, ideas and inspiration.
Simple ways to actively make connections
In Thursday Society we’ve begun to share simple ways we can use social media to actively make connections. It’s how we start to build global, supportive communities. With care we believe we can make these new communities diverse and safe spaces for us all. It’s an idealistic goal but we’re optimistic that as creatives we can do it together.
About the author
Bay Backner is an artist, activist and creativity educator. She is the founder of Thursday Society, and the author of an upcoming book on inclusive creativity. Bay’s own creative path took her from a working-class background to an Oxford degree in physics, then from open source technology to painting for international art galleries.
Bay is a fully-qualified teacher and is certified by The Smithsonian Institution in teaching critical thinking through art. She is currently the resident artist and creativity teacher at a leading independent school, and teaches creative confidence from her painting studio in Valencia, Spain. Bay initially qualified as a teacher through the social change program, Teach First, and is committed to opening creative education to all.