There is a commonly held belief that in these days of social media, what we do is manufacture content. How many times have you been told that when you use Facebook or similar sites, you are not the customer, you are the product? Your engagement, your clicks, your likes, these are the items that are being sold, and for huge numbers if the Instagram purchase is taken as evidence.
This is, after all, the way of our new product-based civilization — in order to participate as a citizen of the social web, you must yourself manufacture content.
And manufacture it we do, every occasion photographed and uploaded, often before even saying farewell to our companions, for every location a check-in, every issue from the critical to the trivial can be extensively and rabidly commented upon. We must be the generation both with the greatest opportunity to express ourselves and the least inclination to notice when others do the same – who can say that they regularly keep up with everything they have bookmarked or flagged? Most days, scratching the surface and sharing a little of what we have unearthed is the best that can be hoped for.
A camera-phone photograph is a captured moment, a tweet or a status update is a passing thought crystallised. None of them are meant to stand for eternity, perhaps for the first time our means of recording what goes on around us are designed to have a transitory quality (if you don’t believe me, try searching for tweets you wrote more than a year ago as I did when writing The Teas That Bind, it was the biggest headache of the whole process).
So, where does that leave those creators, the writers, photographers and artists who are trying to produce something of more lasting value? In this eloquent exploration of ‘the Facebook Problem’ for photographers by Martin Parr – a photographer who relies on a seeming lack of awareness of the camera on the part of his subjects – he notes that:
[n]ot having everyone looking at you in these situations is a major achievement.
As we have become more aware of our roles as content creators, so we are also developing a more heightened sense of our public image, so that calls for unflattering photographs to be deleted and retaken are now so routine that they pass without comment except in jest. Few of us, I expect, would be happy with an unfavourable photograph being displayed on the internet, even if the button was clicked by a legend like Mr Parr.
For writers the social media problem is often one of focus, as when everything ever written is available for you to read – often via the same machine you are attempting to use to create – it takes a strong soul to turn away from the delicious yet distracting fruit being proffered. Writer Sean Lotman notes, in this interview with the Diverse Arts Project:
[Doing art] … entails removing yourself from the outer world with its tweets and status updates and general distractions. It’s not easy to do. In fact, it can be like hitting your head against the wall… it’s easy to be influenced by others’ work.
It appears to me that creators are caught on the horns of a twin dilemma, building your social media presence to establish an audience for your work takes you away from doing the work that the audience are meant to be appreciating. Investing time in the creation of vibrant online presences will only enhance the wealth of some Silicone Valley entrepreneurs. Hell, at least in the ‘bad old days’ the writers and photographers routinely got paid, without having to send emails like this.
In that case, why do it at all? Back to Sean Lotman for a final word:
Don’t expect to get rich or famous. Don’t let your ego be manipulated by ‘views,’ ‘faves,’ or ‘likes.’ The best art is rendered because it had to be. You don’t have a choice in its creation.
The only choice, then, might be who you create the content for. That being the case, be sure to choose wisely.