It would be hard to imagine a time when it was easier for someone with little or no talent to become a celebrity. Reality television shows and viral videos are perhaps the most obvious examples of this, but virtually everyone who makes use of social media is, in some way, a potential celebrity, should the right circumstances happen to propel them to fame. Whether measured in the number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or blog readers, it is possible to think to yourself that you are someone of importance, because you happen to have typed something into a computer which then posted that information to the internet, and other people have then read it – possibly even engaged with it. Yet for most of us who are not paid to take part in such social media engagements, perhaps it might be a good exercise to take a step back and look at ourselves, think about how and why we are producing this content, and whether we might consider some degree of self-editing.
The level of your use of social media will depend to some extent on how you look at yourself. At one end of the spectrum of social media users we might put those who participate in the full panoply of options for engaging with others via content production, from posting their own YouTube videos and maintaining several Facebook pages, to Twitter accounts, blogging, podcasting, and everything inbetween. At the other end of the spectrum we might put those who have an email account and possibly a very basic page on a professional-oriented site such as LinkedIn, and that is all. Most of us who use social media on an amateur level probably fall somewhere between these two points.
For my own part I have increasingly had the sensation that there is something of a disconnect between what I write about at length in my blogging, and what I write in brevity on Twitter. When blogging, I can explore at some length topics that interest me – perhaps an artist’s work, or a new film I have seen, or a building I find particularly splendid. I like being able to draw attention to things which my peers in their 20’s and 30’s might not be aware of, because the state of cultural education in this country is particularly grim.
On Twitter and Facebook, however, what seems to attract followers is how quickly you can post a rejoinder, particularly if you can do so humorously or bitingly. I have no problem with the former, as I have always had a skill for the swift turnaround in conversation. Yet sometimes this can become not an exercise in wit, but a slog-fest of whinging. I dislike when others do it, and yet I am certainly guilty of it myself, from time to time.
Despite that fact that you will rarely read a post from me on these pages in which I directly address a political issue, for whatever reason my Twitter timeline is dominated primarily by people who are tweeting about politics. You would think that my followers, and those whom I follow, would predominantly consist of cultural conservatives who themselves want to explore, and to advocate for the exploration of the richness of cultural life, particularly from the Western, Catholic perspective which I happen to hold. Yet that is most definitely not the case for me, at least as far as that particular venue is concerned.
I remember reading once, some years ago, in a book about exploring your career options, that one of the best ways to find satisfaction in your daily work is to look at the things you enjoy doing on your own, when no one is paying you or forcing you to do them, and consider whether there is a path for you to engage in those activities to earn your daily bread. The idea is, if you like to cook when you have free time, perhaps you should work in the food industry; if you are not a good cook but love to be around people who are, and happen to be a whiz at numbers, then perhaps you can work in the business aspects of the food industry. In other words, engaging in a discernment process of matching your interests and your talents will likely make you happier than simply following the herd.
Should we argue that the same level of discernment and self-examination is needed in the use of social media? If I am primarily interested in football, should I blog and tweet mainly about football-related matters, and cultivate followers who have that same primary interest? We would not expect a professional football journalist, for example, to become popular on a social media site such as Facebook because he posts incessantly about zoology. For those of us who are amateur social media content creators, the situation is somewhat different: if you are not a professional journalist covering the world of football, do you really lose anything by creating both football and non-football content?
One of the pitfalls of being a self-published commentator, which is ultimately what those who blog, tweet, and so on are, is that there is no editorial board to keep us in line, and focused on that brand image which professional content creators strive to cultivate for themselves. On the one hand it means that the individual content creator is more diverse in their subject matter. On the other, it means that the impression left with others may be that of someone who is unfocused – or at best, suited to cocktail party chatter and not much else.
I cannot claim that I have the answers as to how we amateurs ought to be using social media outlets. I am not at all sure that we have fully grasped the possibilities, problems, and pitfalls which all of these outlets have given us. When everyone is a critic, after all, there may not be anyone left without an already-formed opinion to take the critic’s advice. And simply holding an opinion, along with a venue in which to air that opinion, is no guarantee that everyone or anyone wants to know what your opinion is.
Without an editor, or a publisher, or an employer to tell us what we are best at with respect to what we put out into the swirling maelstrom of social media, most of us are going to have to use our best judgment as to whether we are contributing to the conversation, or simply engaging in the online version of a food fight or writing nasty messages on the stalls in the locker room. If as stated above, the world has now moved to a point where anyone can become a celebrity for not really doing very much at all, when it comes down to it, those who are possessed of a realistic assessment of their talents and abilities may want to reconsider whether they are actually contributing to the build-up, or to the decline, of the culture in which we happen to have been born.