I don’t keep track of how much time I spend on social media, but I know it adds up.
Before the internet, my creative progress was easily measured. I spent most of my day alone in my office, bringing ideas to life, or doing something ancillary that enabled my work—interviewing, filling out expense accounts, prospecting new jobs. In any case, something would be started or finished or added to. Something on my to-do list would be checked. Honest effort would be expended and I’d see the result.
Now, at the end of a work day—which never really ends until I scroll one last time thru the platforms, send an appropriately ironic goodnight Bitmoji to my son, and turn my cellphone face down on the night table—I sometimes strain to remember what I’ve accomplished during the previous hours.
With a lifetime of accomplishments as fuel, my star may be as bright as ever, but my universe has expanded to such an extent that keeping my head down and doing killer work is no longer an option—not if I want my stuff to be seen, not if I want further employment. And definitely not if I want to maintain my own self esteem.
We are all of us judged by the clicks we receive. By our Google rankings, our numbers of friends and followers; our hearts, wows and thumbs up—and our shares, most especially our shares: the hardest to come by and the most telling. To like is no investment. Even to love. But to share is to take someone else onto our own timeline, to truly support, yea, even to advertise for them. (Or to steal a little of their thunder.)
You might have a boffo blurb from The New York Times Book Review, a photo show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or a three-car garage courtesy of happy clients, but if you don’t get enough good customer reviews to trip Amazon’s algorithm, you’d better learn to be happy being the very best artist nobody’s ever heard of.
I post, therefore I am. Please follow me.
Before the internet, the media universe was very small.
It wasn’t hard to know which magazines, newspapers and television shows were the most popular and important, or which stories were making the most impact. All you had to do was step up to one of those iconic newsstands that, according to a Google search, once occupied more than 1,300 street corners across the great city of Manhattan, which itself was once the central axis of world communication. Compact and convenient, fashioned of plywood, each newsstand displayed a nearly identical collage of riotous photographs and screaming headlines, an ever-evolving portrayal of the American zeitgeist.
To be published in one of these titles, or in a book—or to appear on a television or radio show on one of the finite number of broadcast networks operating over the airwaves—was an obvious indication that your work, your talent, had been recognized and was valuable to the culture at large. Usually, it took years of dues, practice and salesmanship to break into one of these arenas, though a talented first-timer, given a little luck and the right rabbi, could land there, too.
In any case, you couldn’t just post something yourself. Which also meant you couldn’t publicize yourself, either—unless you wanted to hire a publicist. Or buy a lot of Xerox copies and an industrial stapler.
For the most part, the publicity part was up to the client, the news organization, the network, the studio—whoever paid for the work. As the creative, all you could do was hunker down and make the best product you could come up with. If it was really good, it got noticed. Or it didn’t. Whatever. Basically, I always believed that my every effort was created with only three people in mind. My subject, Myself and The Guy Who Authorizes the Checks.
Day to day, alone in my room, nobody else mattered.
Among the greatest guilty pleasures I’ve experienced during my forty-year career have been the several times I actually spotted people in the act of reading something I wrote. It’s happened on a beach. On a plane. At a newsstand, my piece on the cover, an actual reader’s nose buried in something I did. But I never—not for even one second—did I think about tapping the person on the shoulder and saying, “Hey! Look at me! I wrote that!”
Now I do it all the time.
According to Google, there are only 300 newsstands left in Manhattan. But there are so many outlets where one can publish, broadcast or otherwise exhibit one’s work or ideas that aggregating services are thriving. Even though I’m entering my fifth decade in the biz, when I receive my various emailed lists of best new stories, there are always publications (and writers) of whom I’ve never heard. And it’s a pretty good possibility they’ve never heard of me, either.
So now we post, we like, we share. We hope for shares back. We jump up and down: Hey! Look at me! I did that! And sometimes, even after months of labor, we swallow the bitter pill of indifference. Four impressions. One thumb up. One heart…from my mother.
And then there’s the reach. Years ago, I wrote for a newspaper with a Sunday circulation of about one million—it seemed huge. Most major glossy magazines, up through the 2008 economic downturn, hovered at about 700,000. This past summer I wrote a sports story that got 200k likes in one hour. Remember the first time you went viral? Holy crap.
In some ways the internet is like an opiate. You use it and develop a tolerance. You need more and more to maintain. And even more to get high.
Recently, I wrote a whole section for a major magazine. I was proud of the work. A Father’s Day special, it featured stories about some pretty special guys— the fathers of a trans woman and a multi-racial son, an American-Muslim man raising his son in difficult political times, and another dad with two severely disabled twenty-somethings. For reasons having to do with marketing strategy (something about wanting to sell actual magazines?), it wasn’t featured online.
Being a magazine devoted to men’s health, a copy of the new issue was easily found at the local drugstore. Seeing it there on the shelf, stacked with the others like days of yore, I felt…weirdly unfulfilled. Even after buying the usual four copies.
So I went home, tore the pages out of one of the magazines, and photographed each of with my iPhone.
I post, therefore I am. Please, follow me?