Can we make social media social?

Dear Creative friends

Can we talk about how and why we share our work on social media platforms?

When we’re ‘winning’ (ie. able to and making work) it’s become second nature to share our news, clips and photos of the work, often tagging other artists and friends we see as allies. It’s now a core part of how we market ourselves, and often forms part of our funding plans. I do it often. Why? In pure id terms, I’m shouting ‘look at me/us’, in ego terms I’m saying ‘I’m proud of what we’ve made and think you should like this’, in super ego terms I’m saying ‘help us boost our profile, sell tickets and get bookings’.

In purely functional terms, I am asking for your emotional labour. You, whose professional lives if you’re freelance are already about 50% unpaid, speculative labour. Your engagements and comments translate as statistical currency for my reporting. Why does this feel ok?

Assuming we all agree that art enriches peoples’ lives, the part of us that is innocently motivated to share something we think people will enjoy or find interesting can’t be dis-regarded. The joy of making work that engages people is what keeps us going. It’s inseparable from who we are, professionally and personally. The line between our professional social media channels and our personal ones is at best as messy as an ‘oven ready’ government strategy.

The machinery of our neo-liberal age is structured to make each of us a brand. For organisations this is less conflicting than it is for independents. If I’m sharing posts on behalf of an institution or venue, it’s a clear marketing transaction for sales and engagement hits – yes, that institution will have a voice and a personality, but there is a clear, straightforward business strategy that underpins communications. There is a connecting shield separating the people and the brand. For independents, without the machinery of a comms team behind us, the motives are less transparent. Even when we’re not consciously posting with a professional sub-text, we are still positioning ourselves, laying out our judgements, tastes and loyalties. It’s the nature of the digital beast.

So how do we navigate these conflicting threads with care and consideration? I spontaneously ‘like’ posts that appeal to me, or are by artists I know and respect. It’s a genuine ‘like’ that also feels like I’m doing a tiny bit to support those artists and encourage them to keep making. And yes, there are also times I have been tagged or dm’d and am grateful for a heads up about something I may have missed. But I also know the damaging impact that social media can have on our mental health, that when you’re facing down your last £20 ‘til the next UC payment and your £5 emergency electric is about to run out, or if you’ve unable to work for months due to ill-health, the innocent, joyful intentions behind a tagged post from a peer are not always received quite so joyfully as the author may have intended. And right now, there are lot more of us losing than winning.

I’ve got sidetracked on tagging. But this is a bigger issue, about a much bigger structural instrument that now seems to be part of our DNA. When we’re winning, the likes and shares are an addictive validation, but when we’re losing, they are a cold, hard slap in the face. And losing is not something we’re encouraged to talk about or admit.

So is there a solution? A way to embed kindness in what and how we share? Is it about reciprocity, and if so, how do we do that without it becoming another exercise in transactional list ticking – ‘you liked me so I’ll so I’ll like you’? Can we find ways to talk more authentically about our challenges and failures as well as, and as an integral part of, our successes without fearing we’ll become ‘un-investable’? How do we invite conversation and engagement in ways that are authentically generous?

I really enjoy Graham Johnson’s* comms style – when he’s sharing his own work he speaks in a voice that embodies his fragilities as well as his strengths, somehow sidestepping the trap of performing his frailty. His feeds are peppered with his whole, creative but vulnerable being. Are there more examples like this I could learn from? Is this a way to regain control of the cold algorithmic structure of social media? I would love to know.

But if have to tag you to grab your attention and thoughts, I’ll happily take it as a sign that this exercise in conversation has failed. But managing my social media better feels like a small thing i can control while we’re adrift in a maelstrom of performance national politics and pandemic. Afterall, it’s not as if we don’t all have bigger things vying for our attention right now!

*Twitter @MrGJohnson, Insta @mistergjohnson

Published by WeStaged

Independent Producer -Making Work Together

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