Self-expression has always been one of the joys of the internet. But as social media has evolved to centre around likes, views, followers and stats, you may find it difficult to express yourself without feeling crushed every time a post does not do as well as you want.
But over the past couple of years, I’ve been able to recover a sense of privacy and solitude that allows me to get in touch with what I love about writing to begin with. Here’s how.
Get back a sense of privacy
OK, so by now, we all know that everything we do – our contacts, locations, web browsing, clicks, purchases – are being tracked by Facebook and Google. And to be honest, aside from using burner phones, paying for everything in cash and writing letters, I’m not sure how much we can do as individuals to protect our privacy online.
So the privacy I’m referring to is a kind of internal, sacred privacy. It’s the kind of privacy that Zadie Smith describes in this interview when she says:
“The key with the unfreedom of the algorithm is that it knows everything and it feeds back everything. So, you can no longer have this bit of humanity which is absolutely necessary — privacy: the sacred space in which you do not know what the other thinks of you.”
Privacy essential to write, to draw, to create without an eye of judgment. I felt really burnt out from always thinking about what other people would think if I tweeted this or that. I found it difficult to maintain a blog because I thought: what’s the point? No one’s going to read this anyway.
Solitude is essential for creativity. A lot of my creative recovery has been about being able to create things in private without the need for it to be viewed or measured.
So for about a year, I wrote without the desire to publish or to share anything. I began a fiction novel in a notebook and then threw away the 100 pages or so of small scrawl I wrote. When I gave up the internet for two months, all I did was read and write. None of that writing made it online.
Letting go of the pressure to be published or productive meant that I could connect with what I loved about writing to begin with.
I also found that the most valuable things I created didn’t need social media at all. I made a short documentary that was at a few cool independent film festivals and even won an award. But the idea of sharing that, online, made me feel nauseous.
It wasn’t spending years connecting with filmmakers on Twitter that led to that. It was taking the time to make a film at a summer school with great teachers. It was hours spent in an editing suite everyday, blocking out the rest of the world.
If you obsess about the number of reactions you get at the outset, instead of focusing on the pleasure of your work, you will never connect with the part of yourself that motivates you beyond dopamine hits.
It’s a toxic trap to think: “Oh I need social media to be a writer or filmmaker to be successful.” No. You don’t. You need the time and the privacy to create freely, and if social media encroaches on that solitude and freedom, it is standing in your way.
Spend a year dedicated to your craft without the need for social media applause.
Think of social media as the promotion, while the writing, drawing and filming is the craft. Posting and ‘doing well’ on social media is not a substitute for creativity. It’s marketing.
Withdraw your attention from social media
There is a lot of cognitive and emotional load that comes from participating on social media. Whenever I would post something, I would be obsessed with seeing how it performed, even when I knew it would be self-destructive.
The easiest thing for me to do was to limit as much time as possible on these platforms. I could write and create for them, but when it came to publishing, I would delete the app from my phone and block the website.
I realised that I couldn’t stop comparing myself to other people. What I could do is limit the amount of time I would expose myself to competitive spaces. Social comparison has not got easier. But it has got easier to put boundaries in place and make time to focus on what matters.
Daydreaming is one of the few spaces that aren’t tracked.
Until we have hyper sophisticated brain-computer interfaces that can decode our fantasies (and I hope that will be never) our daydreams are a radical space for personal and creative freedom. Daydreams are a form of resistance that cannot be tracked or surveilled.
So make space for daydreaming in your life. Not only can daydreams give you more energy and help you solve problems, they are a rare space of freedom.
Set milestones that you can control
Instead of benchmarking yourself against other people who are more successful than you, set yourself milestones that you can control.
For example, instead of saying: “I will have succeeded once I have 100,000 followers on Instagram!” a more relevant milestone would be: “I will not give up until I have published 500 posts.”
Getting good at something is often down to graft and habit. But that graft is easier when you don’t feel the anvil of failure looming over your head every time you log onto social media.
I still feel like I’m in the process of recovering a sense of creativity. I still have bad days when I obsessively check Instagram and blog stats. But the difference is that I’m spending far more time developing my skills and daydreaming than wallowing in front of a feed. So create in private, make space to do nothing and set yourself benchmarks you can control.