But only the good kind.
I'm really, really excited about this.
I was reading another article recently, which was commenting on Axios' take that Facebook's recent redesign marks the end of the social media era (Axios: https://www.axios.com/2022/07/25/sunset-social-network-facebook-tiktok). I can't find the other article at the moment, but the gist of it was: the author laments the rise of algorithm-driven content platforms, calling them 'perfect advertisement machines' or something like that, but is hopeful for the future because now there is no real community-driven social media left amongst the big players (Instagram, TikTok, Facebook are all algo-driven, Snap is some strange bastardization, etc.).
I don't use TikTok, and I'm not sure how to feel about it. On the one hand it's an obvious boon for creators, that stat about 39,000 accounts with over a million followers vs the lower numbers for other platforms is staggering to me. YouTube was always the place, in my mind, where indie creators could get a fair shot at making it and growing an audience through the powers of virality. But YouTube has made a lot of anti-creator decisions over it's past, which TikTok either has navigated through successfully, or just hasn't been around long enough to have to deal with yet. On the other hand, I believe it's pretty insidious, if not outright unethical, how algo-driven platforms exploit weaknesses in human psychology. I feel like it's one of the clearest examples of opening pandora's box with modern technology. I was actually browsing a small TikTok account last night coincidentally, and it was a really chilling experience for me. The entire account was hundreds of videos, all made within a couple day period, that consisted entirely of the user seemingly fishing for a viral hit by doing what seemed like a video for every song or audio clip that's currently popular on the platform. The worst part was she wasn't even really trying to promote anything other than the success of the channel, as far as I could tell. Just viralness for the sake of it, hours wasted for her and thousands of hours wasted across all of the users who would watch her in the case where she goes viral, just meaningless content. That being said, I hope I'm wrong and this type of content-media doesn't end up being as cyberpunk dystopian as my perspective of it is currently.
Substack threads, however, are incredibly cool. It's what I think of as the very best of social media: people who are part of some community interacting on a closer, more personal level. It's intimate, cozy, very real, everything it feels like you were going for with the salon idea. I really hope it catches on, and I'm excited to be a part of it.
The salon is finally getting its digital due. I shall see you in the thread my friend!
Oh, ok then, Elle, I'll become a paid subscriber so I can comment on this post. ;)
Glad to hear that the discussion on Substack about your Esquire article had a higher quality of debate. I was wondering that as I was reading this article, acutely aware that I was one of the one's who wasn't keen on some of the concepts in the Esquire piece. Being able to properly explain my doubts in a discussion on Substack was so much more satisfying than responding on Twitter - where the tendency is to be acerbic and 'witty' and snide, in part due to the enforced character limit.
At the start of writing on Substack I had to post on social media to get any traction, but that's started to shift, I think. Now I find that my non-fiction posts get increasingly high quality discussion from my subscribers, without me needing to push it out any wider. That's immensely gratifying and exciting! Every article I write on Substack feels like another step towards freedom as an artist, rather than another step towards social media subjugation. Not to be overly dramatic.
My great fear now is that Substack will be acquired by one of the behemoths and be warped into something algorithmic and depressing. But until then, I'll continue enjoying this intellectual oasis. I'm primarily on Substack because of you, Elle, so thanks. :)
Interesting post. I. miss a world without social media, but I also know it's got me the handful of consistent readers that I have. I haven't had much luck with Substack bringing me subscribers. It almost seems more overwhelming to me considering the limited amount of time I have. I would love to be able to read and comment on articles, but between a full time job and writing, it's difficult. I am however, interested in this new social media side of Substack. Not sure I fully understand how it works, but looking forward to your take on it!
Wonderful post! Thank you for taking on this topic and sharing your own difficult experiences with social media, Elle!
I often think of social media as a decontextualization machine. Of course, some social media platforms decontextualize better than others. While I still use Twitter, I find that it's almost purpose-built to reduce humans to one-dimensional avatars. Sadly, what happened with your viral tweet is the norm. But in addition to being bad for our mental health and community building, those viral moments might not even deliver any meaningful results. I've actually had a few tweets go viral, and while most of the responses were good or meh, the click-thru rate to my work or my profile was pathetic. When I checked with writer friends who have also gone viral and friends who work in social media marketing, they all said that was pretty typical. In other words, even when social media "worked" it didn't really amount to any meaningful gain for me. Not that I've quit. Actually, I've quit dozens of times and always come back. But I'm working on it.
One thing this post reminded me of was the time I saw Viet Thanh Nguyen interview Walter Mosley (two of my favorite authors). The first question Viet Thanh Nguyen asked Mosley was how he managed to be so prolific. After trying to remember how many books he'd written -- what a problem! -- Mosley attributed his productivity to the fact that he wasn't on social media. Interestingly, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the Pulitzer and an Edgar for The Sympathizer, confessed that he'd be a lot more productive if he quit social media.
But the hard part about quitting social media, as you point out, is that most of us need something - a booster platform to supplement your primary space. Clearly, Twitter isn't going to be that booster for me, but I do enjoy watching videos on TikTok, so maybe that's my next adventure.
Thanks again for great post!
Thanks for this topic. I've really been trying to build my audience for the past six months and the LAST thing I want to do from week to week is pitch my writing on Twitter. I don't enjoy it and I'm not good at it, but I've always read and heard that social media was a necessary evil for writers. I've actually had a similar experience with Substack where most of my audience comes from recommendations from other writers. I find it easier to engage with and support others on here while feeling part of a larger community, so I'm here for anything that continues to build that.
I agree with your overall thesis. But some comments:
1. I believe I first saw your "Writing books is not really a good idea" post either on Twitter or via a Google news feed suggested post (because it thinks I want to read posts about publishing, which I do). From there, I subscribed to your newsletter last summer. I'm not on TikTok so I would never have found that initial post if you were only posting there. Or unless someone else in my orbit had posted it on Twitter. I think Twitter has a big problem with negative comments/pile-ons as you experienced (and I'm really sorry you went through that with your Esquire article), but in other aspects it can be a good platform to be exposed to things outside of your own network. TikTok is a visual medium and so I'm never going to find recommendations on articles to read on that platform.
And if I only was relying on newsletters I was subscribed to to refer me to other things, then I'm depending on them to source interesting content (which is one reason I subscribe to them!), and am cutting myself off completely from other sources.
2. I have several issues with TikTok. One, most of the "viral" successes vis-a-vis BookTok seem to be happening because BookTok reviewers are finding books, promoting them, and then those videos go viral. I don't know that I've seen any example of an author on the platform going viral for their own book/posts and seeing a surge of sales. Is this what Victoria Aveyard has done or is she using TikTok and other channels to connect with her existing fans and turning them into superfans? It seems like the latter.
Bookstores and publishers that are promoting popular BookTok titles and making it seem like that is the next big thing are ignoring that this is just influencer marketing with broader reach.
Two, the organic "reach" is completely unpredictable and determined by yet another algorithm, one that is either controlled or readily within reach of the CCP at worst or at best manipulating people into watching short dopamine-triggering clips and then serving up more of the same. What happens when the free organic reach becomes pay-to-play like every other social media platform? How much time are people investing into building up followings on that platform that they don't own versus subscribers to a newsletter?
3. Going back to your artist on the street, I assume she didn't have a newsletter or a website either?
I'm interested in this topic. I mainly use social media as a creator and to connect with other musicians. I do very little scrolling. I joined TikTok in January of 2020 and have posted a video everyday since then. Today I have 1.8M followers. (@banakula) If I could get 1% of them to read my Substack, I'd be on fire.
Instagram used to be a mystery that I left to my daughter but I find it now to be a great place to connect with my audience. I love the DM feature. I regularly respond to messages there with a voice memo. I've got 145K followers on IG now. (@halwalkermusic) Again... dragging them over to Substack is my big challenge. (550 subscribers on Substack)
For myself, I really need to do the work of finding writers that I love here. I've gotten so used to TikTok that my brain struggles with 1500 words... I have very little patience and have always been a weak reader. But if I expect people to read my thousand words, I've got to be willing to read theirs.
Your post is a reminder to me that what I will get from any platform depends on what I contribute. I love Substack. Thank you for writing. Hal
I couldn’t agree more. Most social media is horrendous for my state of mind. I have abandoned Facebook and Twitter. They only depress and infuriate me. And they never really supported my writing.
Substack has become my leading source of new subscribers in the past two months. And it is growing faster than ever. Discovery has taken off. I have no need to wade into the swamp of other social media to promote my writing.
I tried TikTok briefly to promote my writing but didn’t really give it a chance because at the same time I also tried it for music and it has been phenomenal.
Since the new year, my trio has gone from 0 to 24k followers. And it keeps snowballing. We livestream once per week and last week we got 5000 new followers and made $450 in tips. There is nothing else that compares to TikTok for growing a following for musicians. My own personal musician account is at 1600 followers.
I have found a strong musical community on TikTok. They follow and support artists they enjoy. And I have gotten to know those other musicians also. The same fans show up in all our livestreams.
Can TikTok work as well for writers? Since writing is not a visual medium, it is harder to make TikTok work for writing. But I think writers will just have to be more creative to get good results.
I hope Substack continues to advance the social aspects of their app and it becomes a self-sustaining and growing “social media” platform for writers.
Good riddance, Facebook and Twitter, I say.
Thank you again for your insights Elle! I decided last week to get rid of both facebook and instagram. I'll be focusing on substack more along with... honestly, I don't know what other social media platform right now (I do have linkedin, twitter... not tiktok). But as you said, it has to feel right, I need to have that medium work for *me* and not the other way around. Many people are paid to engineer and craft their way into getting my attention but I'm done, there's only so much time to reach my goals.
I loved this piece. I saw your video #4 on tech and your comments on social media really resonated with me. It made me decide to focus on Substack as my primary writing outlet. I'm preparing some articles right now to get ahead of the game. TikTok, I've just never been able to get into. I know I have to train my feed to get the stuff I want, but the time it takes to do that seems overwhelming. Perhaps I need a TikTok expert to do it for me, anyone got a 12 year-old I can borrow? Alas, I don't own an IPhone so I havent been able to download the Substack app. Can you ask them to please hurry up with an Android version?
Wow! This took an unexpected turn. As a new Substack experimenter, and a new writer, getting tired of the plethora of social media platforms, and how I let them get in the way of my writing, I needed to hear this.
Oh how I loved this and your conclusion. I feel like I've become more and more dramatically frustrated with my relationship with social media - with how much I hate it but how much I feel like I need to post on it to develop here on Substack (although, like you, my subscribers from there are a small percentage of my audience). It leaves me scrolling for hours, trying to bring myself to post and unable to. I have to write around my chronic illnesses and felt like I was spending more time trying but failing to think about the marketing, without doing the actual work.
I recently started experimenting with community on my own Substack with some thread posts, and it was honestly the nicest experience with comments on the internet I've seen in so long. People were kind, supportive, creative, interesting. I'm really intrigued with how Substack will continue to develop the community side of it, and I'm really excited to experiment with it more and continue to grow my community here.