a social media experiment: one week in

a social media experiment: one week in
Photo by Bruno Bergher on Unsplash

I'm already several datys into week two – considering that I wrote my outset post only at the end of week one – and now I feel an urgency to capture all that transpired in the first week, because those were the hardest bits so far in this journey, and also so that I can get on track to posting the learnings from each week at the end of the week itself.

Looking back now, I remember how in the days leading up to 15 December, I wondered if I really ought to embark on this project. I worried that the pale pink background I had chosen for my words was not the right colour. I had come up with a pattern of interspersing posts with background images with those on the pale pink background such that over a period of time, the ones with the images would form diagonal lines and look pretty.

I came up with every reason I possibly could to abandon the project before I could start it (including that I ought to be spending more time writing and publishing my books and stories instead of this free content, except I also love writing these verses and sharing them with readers, old ones and new alike, so I'll not rehash that argument in my head.)

Considering all that, when I did first publish my first post on 15 December, I heard back from friends and regular readers of my works in response. It was such a delight. There were a few likes, a few comments, some even shared my piece, so it all felt like a very fortuitious start to the project.

So Day 1 was a success. It was Week 1 that ended up being a total disaster.

  • Eyeballs for sale

On my second post, I received a bunch of comments from random accounts asking me to promote my poetry on yet another account. My first reaction to this was that of disappointment. I was putting myself out there on social media to find people who'd be genuinely interested in my writings, not people who'd want to sell their services to me.

I remember reacting very strongly to this, and I also know why.

You see, a couple of months ago, on one of the fantasy writers' groups that I'm part of, someone – let's call him JT – had posted saying he was looking for new fantasy books to read and whether we could share any of our published works that might interest him.

Me, along with a bunch of other writers, responded to him sharing links of our works. The guy's profile said he was based in Toronto, so I went one step further and mentioned that Dying Wishes is based in Burlington, Ontario, and it might interest him because of the familiarity of the locale. I felt pretty smart and happy about my efforts at customized marketing!

Barely a week later, I received an FB message from someone – let's call this person MT – who said they came across a mention of my book on a writers' group, and that they too were based in Toronto, and hey, how awesome that my story was based in Burlington, small world, hehe, and would I like to avail of his services to promote my book?

It took me only a little sleuthing to figure out that JT and MT were working together. They were partners providing promotion services for authors. Besides, I've used the same initial T for their last names because their last names too were identical.

When I put two and two together, I felt very deflated at the way JT had first reached out, simply asking for book recommendations, instead of revealing that he was actually on the lookout for writers to promote his services to.

I appreciate that they too were looking for new income streams but the underhanded way in which they went about soliciting new clients didn't sit well with me.

I remember being upset that afternoon, snapping at KrA, moping about, feeling fooled, deceived, wondering whether or not to respond to MT, what I should say, and how mad I was feeling about his approach. I probably gave this as much thought as a president of a nation would give to a speech they are due to deliver on something life-changing, a crisis of sorts, like a pandemic. I was certainly not a pleasant person to be around that day.

Eventually, with the passage of time, that incident bothered me less and less, and I didn't bother to respond to MT's message. Over the past few years of having interacted with people in the self-publishing world, I have found that not responding is more common than I had ever imagined.

People I have worked with in the past, people who promised me stuff, they have easily let my repeated mails and messages to them slide without a response. It doesn't help that most platforms let you know that your message has been read.

I just never once imagined I'd be on the other side, deciding to not respond to someone. I, the preserver of people's feelings, the one who wants to do the right thing even if it is at the altar of her own mental sanity, I decided to not meddle with things and people that didn't feel right to me. Not every action merits a reaction. Not every message needs a response.

So now that you know how that little mole hill became such a big mountain, you can understand why the sight of five promotional comments on my second #InstaPoetry triggered in me such a strong reaction.

I started to feel this is what I was going to attract – people promising eyeballs to those hungry for eyeballs on their works. (OK, now that sounds like an idea for a #talesfordreamers story or the beginning of a horror story. Eyeballs for sale! Buy one, get one free! Grab as many as you can, so they will set their sights only on you and what you have to offer. Grab them all, before they let their sights wander to other, more desirable people and things!)

I spent precious time pondering over whether or not to react to these messages, how to react if I chose to. I figured out that I could 'restrict' or 'ignore' someone on Instagram instead of 'block'ing them outright. That way, I can limit who gets to see their comments on my posts, without blocking or offending them outright. (See that people-pleaser, emotion-preserver instinct in me rearing its head again?)

Over the next few days, I barely got a like or two, and again it was a friend or a family member. Not that I lament their encouragement, but here I am on a quest for more gems, completely dissatisfied with the treasures I already have in my little chest.

I shed quite a few tears on those days in the first week. Sometimes I snapped at KrA. At other times, I was able to rein in the frustration and instead go up to him and admit, both to himself and myself, how afraid I was that no one would ever read my works, that I'd never write anything worthy of selling, that all this attempt at making a living from writing is just me going on a fool's errand, and what if I never made a penny from my works, would we live for the rest of our lives on his single income, isn't that a terrifyingly risky thing to do, especially in today's world?

And then the next morning I'd wake up, find that someone legitimate (or as legitimate as one can assume them to be, given this is social media after all) has liked four of my poems and has now chosen to 'follow' me! And my spirits would soar from the depths it had plunged to the previous evening, and I'd find myself thrilled and delighted at this unexpected turn of events, and post the next poem with great gusto, and keep checking Instagram every few minutes to see if it has garnered any new likes or follows, rewarded on occasions for my persistent checking with new likes, and disappointed on other occasions seeing no new updates.

  • How much time are you really spending on social media even when you're off it?

Instagram shows you how much time you've spent on the app, and you can also set a reminder for youself when you've crossed a certain time limit on the app. But the choice to close the app and put your phone down is entirely yours. (On my laptop, I use SelfControl to keep out unnecessary distractions while I'm at work.)

So Instagram showed me I've been spending only 5 minutes or so on the app per day. Which, technically speaking, doesn't sound like a lot. It's usually less than 20-30 seconds of checking each time to see whether I've received a new like or follow or comment, and usually there'd be one or none, at least no comment worth responding to as they were of the type "DM @soandso for feature" etc.

But that 20-30 seconds of checking was usually followed by 20-30 minutes of moping (most often) or feeling delighted (less often), but at least the latter would encourage me to sit down and write a few more verses.

So when Instagram says I've spent 5 minutes on the app, it means I've easily spent 5 hours caught up in the all the emotions those 5 minutes of screen-time left in their wake.

Which is why my fiction writing has stalled in the past few days. The books that I want my readers, old and new alike, to enjoy, are not being written, and that makes me question all over again the sanity of investing time and effort in putting up daily poetry on Instagram.

Having said all this, the choice to use this opportunity wisely rests entirely with me. I can surely make a choice to post in the morning and not touch the app until the next day. This was the intention I started the project with, and it quickly got lost along the way.

Now as I write this, I think I can do a little reset. Look at all these learnings I've acquired, this chance to observe my own behaviours and responses.

It is one thing to anticipate a certain pattern of behaviour and prepare for it, and yet another to experience and exhibit those behaviours as the situation actually unfolds, and realize that it is not the preparation made to avoid hitting a wall but the experience of actually hitting the wall, sliding down to the floor, and sitting there with my head on my knees, wondering why it is all turning out to be a lot harder than I had ever imagined, that makes me want to get up and try again.
Only, this time, I will truly know what will assail me, what will bewitch me, how it will grip me in its clutch, and it will be fresh in my mind that nothing good came of succumbing to those very human, very mortal desires of wanting to be liked, loved, adored for my words, and I can accept them as part of my human self and move on.
  • Can you be detached enough?

A few other things also happened this week that almost derailed me from the project. An acquaintance I was interacting with this month on another matter, told me that she had deactivated her Instagram account a few days ago. I was shocked to hear that. She had a great following on Instagram (though the actual number eludes me now) and she used to post inspirational quotes.

So it was all feel-good and inspiring content, a good use of the app, in my opinion, yet she too felt that she found it hard to stay detached from social media at the end of the day.

To learn that she had stepped away from the platform at a time when I was only just getting into it with full fervour made me wobble. Made me question whether I should do this, knowing there is a very good chance that somewhere down the line, I'd want to tear all my hair out and thrown my mobile phone into Lake Ontario before getting up to publish yet another Instapoem.

And then I reminded myself that even if that was the eventuality I'd face, I'd still have a body of work, a bunch of poems I could share in the form of a book with the wider world.

  • Do you really need social media?

Let's get to yet another incident that demoralized me. One of the writers' groups on FB that I'm part of, someone wrote a post to explain how social media is not at all a necessary tool for a writer to gain more readers. This is not something new, and in fact it has been stated often by various writers in various ways. It is a variation of "You do you."

The point is that if you don't like social media, then forcing yourself to be on social media to promote your books or to gain a readership will not help because your efforts will, at best, be inauthentic and half-hearted, and hence, unlikely, to attract a fan base in the first place.

Instead, you do what you enjoy doing. If podcasting is your jam, go for it. If writing non-fiction is your thing, that's what you do. If it's social media, then hey, go for it.

The person who posted the latest exhortation on this meant well. She was responding to a new writer who had bought into the belief that unless you were making videos to put up on TikTok (which has a big BookTok community, I believe), there's no point in writing and publishing books because no one's ever going to know your works exist.

The writer of the post was not saying you shouldn't use social media. All she meant was that you don't need to use social media if you don't like it.

Which brings me to my dilemma? Do I like social media?

The trouble is, I don't really know.

I think it is a tool that can be used for good and bad. One of my favourite sites, Tiny Buddha, is on both FB and Instagram, and likely on a few other social media platforms too. I do subscribe to their weekly newsletter, but it is most often through their FB posts that I go to their site to read a new article. I also follow them on Instagram, where they post inspiring snippets, and I love them.

I don't follow people's personal updates. That way lies a lot of digression and self-doubt, loss of self-worth, and a constant nagging thought that I ought to be doing more with my life, even though if you were to ask me, there's nothing else I want to do other than write and publish my writings and spend time with KrA and D.

Yet, reading that post made me wobble some more. It took quite a bit of talking to myself to recentre my focus on my project and not on other people's opinions on social media or poetry or writing or anything for that matter. Their opinions are what works for them. My opinions are what work for me.

  • Data analysis: Do you take it personally?

I had been using Instagram's professional account and it provides me with insights such as how many interactions with my post I've received, how did readers find my post (through my profile or through hashtags), and so on.

During that period of frenzied checking after putting up a post, I often looked up the Insights tool, and wondered whether I ought to change my hashtags, do something such as scratch another poet's back so that they would scratch mine (but I quickly dismissed this because what I want are not one-night stands but a longer commitment to my writing).

And it didn't take long for me to realize that not even a week has passed since I put up my first post, and that it was way too soon to start thinking of tweaking variables in an attempt to increase discoverability.

I've often seen writers do this when it comes to running FaceBook ads or Amazon ads to get their books in front of more readers. They are burning money every day on those ads, so the urge to take something that is not working and tweak it in the hopes of making it work can be really high.

Although I am not spending money at this stage, I am spending a valuable resource - time - time that could have been spent writing fiction and publishing more books. I have a bunch of drafts sitting here, waiting to be edited and published. In fact, the covers for some of them are already ready.

All said and done, the one variable that is paramount in this game is time. And there is nothing that can be done to tweak it.
Building an audience or readership is truly a long-term game.
If one can spend months or years on their work, regularly, consistently, putting themselves out there regardless of whether they have found the right audience yet or not, over a period of time, the needle surely begins to move.
I have seen this over and over again. The trouble is it rarely moves fast enough for us to want to stay in the game for that long.
And I think that persistence alone makes all the difference between someone who is 'successful' or not, whatever your definition of success may be.

Nevertheless, despite this insight, I was so sick of looking up insights on Instagram, that I switched from a professional account to a personal account.

Big mistake! Big facepalm moment!

Because, I am on this venture to increase my audience and if I'm not able to track over the long-term how best to gain more readers, what the heck am I even doing this for in the first place?

The other thing that happened, and I didn't realize it at the time, was that my Instagram account then got decoupled from my Dream Pedlar Facebook page! And I could no longer automatically post on Instagram and have the image appear on FB too! I could only post it to my personal FB account, and that is not what I wanted.

I realized this only when I pulled up Instagram the following morning to publish my poem for the day. It took me a good part of an hour trying to switch back to the professional account and getting the FB page linked up all over again. Phew!

The lesson for me here is to truly not take any of it personally. To be part of this game, yet not immersed in it, that is the lesson I am learning here. Because none of it is in my control other than my ability and willingness to write and publish each day consistently until the end of June 2022.

  • Is your work good enough?

It was only during this week that I learnt about the Harry Potter reunion that's set to be telecast on New Year's Day, I think, and when I saw the trailer, it took me down memory lane.

But it also sent me down that terrible road of comparison and made me question if it was worth making art that only a handful of people may like, if at all.

It was also unsettling to know that the JK Rowling herself was not part of the making of the reunion. Harry Potter would not have existed without her in the first place, and to find her displaced from her own creations owing to her personal transphobic opinions is something I couldn't wrap my head around.

But I digress. When we look at such great works that we love and admire, works that shaped the lives and childhoods of so many people so much, my piffling attempts at writing feel exactly that – mediocre, substandard.

It's hard not to fall into that trap, but that is what it is. A trap. Yet another way for my frail ego to tell me my work is not good enough. It may be so, but that is no reason to not keep working at it. And who decides what is good enough and what isn't? I've often noticed that a piece of work I think is brilliant receives very little reponse, whereas another work that I feel is shoddy elicits heartfelt messages from readers.

So I have to keep reminding myself this: I am the worst judge of my own work. I only need to keep at it, do the best I can at each stage, keep learning, keep trying new things, and send it all out into the Universe, and let go. Let it all go. Because what happens or doesn't happen after that is not mine to question or ponder over.

All in all, this looks to be an exercise in personal discovery as much as one in discoverability. I'm curious to see how this unfolds.

For now, I set the intention of simply posting and not going back to Instagram or FB for the rest of the day. It will be harder said than done, but that way lies sanity and a greater chance that I'd be able to stick to this for long enough to determine whether it is worth pursuing or not.
Until then, I'll do the deed and try hard to not lay any claim to the fruits of my actions, as that beautiful, peacock-feathered, blue-skinned, love-inspiring Hindu God, Lord Krishna, said.

Image Attribution: Photo by Bruno Bergher on Unsplash