When I began Stories in Paper in 2015 my plan was clear: create my art, make a website and a shop, share it on a variety of social media platforms and wait for the momentum to begin.
18 months on and this all seems extremely naive of me.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had some wonderful positives from my experiences on social media. I have met or reconnected with some really amazing creative people. I’ve had my work shared, some of my blog posts have actually been read by people all over the world, and I have made sales directly from these. I am grateful for every person who has given me positive feedback about my work or follows my progress (if that’s you then thank you!) However, on the days where I spend hours writing a blog post that 32 people read (again, shout out if that’s you), or I share a discount offer on Facebook that no one takes up… it can be hard not to compare myself to people with 100k followers who get to make art all day everyday and never even have to use a hashtag to get their work seen.
I think social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand it can be inspiring and useful to see other people succeeding, and it can keep you motivated when you get positive feedback (let’s all admit to the little rush of adrenaline when you log into Instagram and a load of tiny hearts are waiting for you) . On the other it can make you feel judged, like you aren’t achieving at the same rate/ scale as others, and set unrealistic expectations based on the people who become social media success stories.
I wish I had an equation I could share with you to get thousands of enthusiastic followers – trust me if I did I’d be using it. But I don’t. So based in my own experiences, I’ve complied a short list of 6 things I do when I feel like I’m failing at social media.
1. Take a step back
We all know by now that social media is addictive. Not only has it been proven that we get a rush of endorphins by simply holding our phones, we all recognise that nice feeling when your work gets lots of ‘Likes’ or positive feedback. The only problem with this is that it also has a negative side – it can start making us equate the reaction to our posts on social media with how worthwhile our art is. I have known so many people who end up feeling disillusioned and like a failure because they have posted consistently for a long time and still have a relatively small number of followers (because in our society if you’re not a ‘winner’ somehow that automatically seems to make you a ‘failure’ for some ridiculous reason).
When I feel these negative self-judgements taking hold I’ve begun to step back from social media completely for a little while. I’ll won’t post anything. If I have to reply to messages I’ll avoid checking my followers (simply by not paying attention to my number of followers on Facebook and Instagram – this is hard because Instagram is cleverly designed so your number of followers is right at the top, staring you in the face every time you are on your profile.) Often during these periods I’ll be really busy with teaching, but if not I’ll give myself a week to concentrate all my working time on making things. And you know what? I actually gain followers during these periods. Sure I might lose some too, but my point is once you loosen that grip that social media has on you, you quickly realise that no one notices when things go a bit quiet at your end (despite what Facebook will try and tell you). I actually think it’s potentially more detrimental to post lower quality content simply to be ‘present’, then to spend some time giving it a rest and remembering you are so much more then an online profile.
2. Explore a different world on the internet
I find that when I’m looking at the social media feeds of other artists I’m subconsciously researching, thinking, analysing, comparing, taking notes etc. Which is the thing to do, because that’s how we learn and improve what we are sharing. What this sometimes stops me from seeing though, is the passion and the joy within it all.
Over the last year I’ve become a bit of a marine biology hobbyist. This is mainly due to the fact that I began to make images of marine life, and through this I became fascinated by learning about how these creatures live (thank you again art for endlessly enriching my life!). I started reading forums and following pages of marine biologists, underwater photographers and environmentalists, and I was blown away by the passion and knowledge these people have. It inspires me! I’ll never be a scientist (I don’t have the grades to be honest), but spending some time in the online world of marine biology enthusiasts can really help me to come back to the world of art and illustration enthusiasts with fresh eyes.
3. Make some art just for me
I’m the generation that began to experiment with social media. I had a Livejournal (remember them?) when I was 17, but I didn’t join Facebook until I was 21 and I only made an Instagram account in 2015 (I was obviously seriously out of touch at this point). The reason I’m telling you my internet history here is because the idea of sharing every stage of your creative process to an audience is a relatively new one (bar a few pioneering conceptual artists). The notion of actually creating things to share online is a recent phenomenon, and I think it’s dramatically altered how lots of people engage with their creativity.
Some people do a brilliant job of this. They have built their careers on posting every day, and this seems to work well for many illustrators. I look forward to seeing little snippets into other people’s working process, and I love that the internet has opened people up to sharing this and demystified the creative act a bit. The regular posting approach also seems to be really helpful when people are working on a specific project, or where this kind of framework helps them to make a step forward in their practice (like the #100daysof projects which I one day intend to do). However, being an exceptionally slow worker, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to use these platforms to share the work I have been making, not to make work to share.
Like everything there are conventions in social media, and in our visually articulate society a consistent ‘feel’ to your pages seems to be one of the key elements to build up followers. But surely one of the most important parts of being an artist is experimenting. Feeling too scared to make new work that doesn’t fit into your ‘visual brand’ is boring and uninspiring! So when I feel like I want to take a brave new step I give myself the permission to play. I make something just for me with no intention of sharing it, happy to take those risks without having to show them with the world before I’ve had a chance to explore and enjoy them.
4. Make connections in the real world
I have had lots of opportunities arise from my website and Facebook page, so in no way am I suggesting you shouldn’t bother with having an internet presence. It’s obviously really important these days, and it’s wonderful that we can share our work with people online.
Still, most of my opportunities have come from meeting people face to face. I don’t always feel like it, but I never regret going to a talk or a show opening (and there aren’t endless chances to do this in Cumbria so people tend to make the effort). Meeting people who share your passions and getting to talk about them together is so much fun, and it always leaves me inspired. I find it pretty scary to go to things on my own, but I’ve gotten more used to it by slowly pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and it’s helped me to meet some wonderful people.
5. Turn off my devices
Google for 30 seconds and you’ll find there are endless articles on how to build your social media following. As a general rule they say the same things: post at least once a day, engage with the community by commenting on people’s content, add people, join forums, offer giveaways. All of which is really good advice… it’s just so time consuming!
I’ve followed some of this advice, and I’m sure it’s helped people to find my work. But when you’re feeling burnt out with the endless internet self-promotion it can be hard to find real enthusiasm, and I feel like it always shows through. When this happens I try to give myself some time off the internet, be it an afternoon or a few days, to have some time experiencing the world off screen. Obviously it’s a good idea to let clients know when you’ll be difficult to contact, and maybe give your friends a heads up on Facebook if they’re used to getting in touch with you or you might stress some people out a bit. Then go out for a walk, and if you see something beautiful appreciate it (and the fact that you don’t have to spend 10 minutes crouching down working out how to take a nice photo of it).
6. Try to stop comparing myself to others
As I said earlier, I think people should use social media in whatever way it suits them, and for some people who work very quickly posting every day can work really well. However, for those of us who have things in the way whether that be illness, caring for children, having a full time job, having a personal crisis or just being a slow worker, it can add a lot of unnecessary pressure.
I’m not immune to comparing myself to others and feeling low as a result. It’s hard not to, but I really do think it’s the biggest waste of time and energy. We are given totally unrealistic expectations based on other people’s extremely controlled representations of their lives. This comparison game seems to be seeping into everything – you don’t just have to make good work you also have to have a beautiful house, find time to go on amazing adventures, have wonderful pets or children who you have energy to hang out with, look good, eat well….it’s all too much, and our lives are not show homes!
My Instagram account is not me. It’s a series of considered images of my work taken in settings that I think compliments it. I’m really open with my friends but I’ve made a decision not share a lot of my day to day life as part of my business. A few years ago I shared a bit more, and have gradually pulled back. That is simply my personal choice, and I’m not criticising others who do. I’m also not trying to challenge the idea of ‘styling’ your home or your life, because if people want to do that it’s up to them – I respect them and think some people are very talented at it. I don’t share pictures of the chaos of the morning rush before nursery not just because the house looks awful, but because it just doesn’t have much do with my work. The consequence of this is sometimes my Instagram might be bit reserved, but that’s what I’m comfortable with at the moment.
Who knows, I may change my mind in the future. To me one the wonderful things about art is everyone is different, and we are all expressing our creativity as one part of our unique, complicated lives.
So there you have it. Those are the 6 things I do when I feel like I’m failing at social media, but what are some of yours? I think we all wish there was an obvious and easy to follow rule about how to make this work, but for me the secrets are persevere, and don’t let it ruin the thing that you love! Good luck!
I’d also like to say a special thank you to Sarie at me old china for inspiring me to get these thoughts together through her honesty. Her work is well worth checking out too 🙂