As a writer and poet, I’ve always struggled with marketing my work on social media. Indulging in “shameless self-promotion”, as the internet refers to it, felt duplicitous to the artist within me.
For years, I remained hesitant to create an Instagram page to share my poetry until a friend spelled it out for me: “Neha, if a monkey is dancing in the jungle and no one sees it, then what’s the point?”
The logic seemed sound and so I proceeded to create the page … promptly deleting it just 10 minutes later.
Personally, once I put the pen down and the clacking of the keyboard ruminates, I do not want anything more to do with my words.
However, with the pervasiveness of social media, even the most introverted and technology-averse writer cannot refute its powers.
Writers finally have access to a globalised platform that is capable of disseminating their words like never before. Repudiating the powers of social media would not only be utterly foolish, but a wasted opportunity on a writer looking to grow.
Writers are the new influencers
I joined Instagram as a writer in 2020 hoping to connect with fellow Pakistani authors and poets, discover potentially fascinating figures to profile, and promote my own journalistic and poetic work. After a few months, I began to acquire a sizable readership.
One day I received a message from a reader complaining that she, ‘couldn’t see the human behind my words’. Supposedly, all she could see was a salesperson who was using the platform as a marketing tool and nothing more.
Venerated authors like Leïla Slimani and Zadie Smith have, in the past, openly repudiated social media. But this is because these writers are from a time when one could make their literary living the traditional way: through literary festivals, book signings, and mild online publicity.
For upcoming journalists and writers who are publishing in the digital age, however, having a social media presence is practically non-negotiable. It is even more incumbent for those writers who cover cultural criticism, internet trends, lifestyle, and autofiction.
The image of the alluringly mysterious author leading a hermit-like existence is obsolete. For the first time ever, writers are being asked to take centre stage and endure the exposure that comes under the influencer job description.
Writers must now document the minutiae of their existence, from their night-time skincare routine to their favourite coffee to the books they’re currently reading to their elaborate writing process.
Readers, nowadays, have a keen interest in learning about a writer’s obsessions, their aversions, their political leanings, and writers are more than willing to make themselves wholly accessible to them.
A writer’s brand is their image and their work, which is now commodified and publicised to their online followings. A writer’s personal image helps add some authenticity, relatability, and humanity to the words they advertise — newsletters delivered directly to their reader’s mailboxes or think-pieces and features posted on their Instagram feed.
As Allegra Hobbs states in a Study Hall feature, as the line between the writer and the influencer grows progressively thinner, the only difference between the two is that the former is simply a more scholarly and cultured version of the latter.
On Instagram, writers broadcast a pristine version of the ‘writerly life’. Glamorous shots of the author with a straightened posture and a laptop gently perched on their lap offer a stark contrast to the actual reality of unremitting rejections and editing slogs. The gaucheness of a writer’s creation is sloughed off until only the final, picturesque version is revealed online.
In 2021, The New York Times reported that even publishers feel more secure in taking on younger writers with sizable online followings because these writers bring with them an in-built audience who the book can be easily marketed to.
Ultimately, every writer holds out hope that playing the social-media influencer role will reap economic benefits, from acquiring book deals to receiving podcast invitations to being offered lecturing gigs. The traditional novelist has now been replaced by writers who not only know who their work should be marketed to, but exactly how it should be done.
Are writers selling themselves out?
It is no secret that social media can slowly turn into an addictive burden. The online validation can compel writers to turn prolific and churn out articles in order to maintain and satisfy their readership.
Writers, like anybody else, want the consistent reassurance that their lives are worth following, that their narrations are worth reading.
But any literary work produced under pressure is bound to be flavourless.
Attempting to sustain the writer-influencer lifestyle is a guaranteed way for writers to become creatively burnt out. Spending hours micromanaging their faultless image, engaging in countless live-conversations with other authors, and self-effacingly re-sharing mentions of their work have turned writers into distracted creatures. How can the writer-influencer fully disconnect to tap into their creative processes if their brains are wired around the clock?
Ultimately, one can’t really blame aspiring writers and journalists for hustling when many have simply graduated into a post-pandemic, fledgling economy.
It is unsurprising that young writers would want to invest in a platform that is separate from the influence of their bosses and the job market, and one where a side-revenue can be generated.
Personal essays or navel gazing?
One afternoon, a man who had read a deeply unguarded, first-person essay I had published in Swaddle about my years working in the Pakistani Film and Television industry, sent me an extensive email through my website saying how much he had resonated with my ‘vulnerable piece’.
I felt honoured that the sentiment had touched him, but I couldn’t help but feel terribly exposed. Though most of my journalistic writing remains confined within the realms of op-eds, think-pieces, and reports, I receive a more resounding response whenever I share the occasional personal essay on social media.
But I fear that by publishing my personal life on digital media, I have transformed it into a public commodity.
However, I am not entirely blameless in this posturing. It would take a simple glance at my Instagram feed to figure out what my agenda is as a writer. My photo grid is arranged into a deliberate pattern of well-lit, glamorous selfies and my literary work — fundamentally, I use my face to peddle the real work that I do.
In personal essays, writers, particularly female writers of colour, contend with the most traumatic and intimate of experiences — from mental health struggles to the microaggressions and racist experiences they battle. But these are pieces that bring in tremendous traffic and clicks on a magazine’s website because readers are interested in learning that they are not alone in the problems they face.
Over the years, I’ve stopped writing as many first-person essays. It became uncomfortable to monetise my identity, gender, and relationships to receive validation and acceptance from strangers online. I realised that in order to protect the sanctity of my personal life and my relationships, I couldn’t transform it into a desirable product to be sold.
Separating selfhood from online persona
Over the past few years, art across all mediums, has slowly turned performative and will continue to grow as such — upcoming contemporary writers will continue to consciously cultivate their ‘writer persona’ online, writers will continue to commodify their genetics and personality in order to sell their words, and social media will continue to evolve under the growing capitalism we see today.
Though the line between the influencer and the writer becomes progressively blurred, I personally like to think of myself as a writer first. I try to constantly remind myself that the real joy comes from the work itself, from creating stories, essays, and poems; the online adulation of the work is simply a bonus.
Applications like Facebook and Instagram have always been the antithesis of critical thought and deep focus — they were, after all, designed to keep us hooked. But if writers can find a way to balance the cacophony of social media with the silence of writing, they have truly won the ‘writer-influencer’ game.