Cursive Letters: the social media menace

I recently had to mute a friend of mine on social media. He is a good friend – funny, reliable – but he was constantly posting promotions for his projects and retweeting praise for his work from other people, and it got to the point where I was cringing every time I saw him in my feed.

The thing is, now it’s awkward when I see him in person. I think he thinks that I’m up to date with his writing, and since I haven’t admitted to him that I muted him, I have to smile and nod along.

Do I tell him? Do I stop being friends with him? Or do I go on pretending that I know what he’s talking about when conversation drifts to his accomplishments? I feel bad because I want to be a supportive friend, and I do like his work, but it’s become embarrassing to watch him build his personal brand. Personal branding seems to be something most people are okay with. So should I just get used to it? Maybe I’m the jerk here and I’m just envious.



Dear JSP,

It was a relief to receive your question, because we all have these friends. Watching a mate desperately harangue potential customers online is not good for a relationship built on mutual respect. That kind of self-promotion is probably good for business, but it’s terrible for your community, who are in the end the people you are going to be working with and relying on for the rest of your career.

Given the public/private crossovers all our lives have become online, it’s hard for people to find the boundaries these days between personality and brand; between what’s appropriate and fun and what’s being a needy whiner. ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ some people’s feeds seem to scream, like a megaphone strapped to a fencepost outside a shop, playing the same promotional copy on a loop. We can get used to it, or we can try to rise above the fate of human clickbait.

We tend to treat social media as a morally different space from real life, but that distinction is less valid than we assume. Online, we say things to people we wouldn’t say to their face. We don’t value those relationships as much as we should. Do you want your friends to think of you as a potential customer, or as a person? The remark you made about conversation ‘drifting to his accomplishments’ flags something for me. Maybe this friend is just as self-promotional in the context of a bar or cafe as he is online. Maybe he’s actually a narcissist.

It comes down to figuring out what else you value in the relationship. If this person really is a good friend, you should be able to tell him when he’s being a dick. It’s just like calling mates out on their prejudices. It stings at first but it will either strengthen the relationship forever or reveal to you how little it was ever worth.

So I say if you value the friendship, take him aside one day and politely let him know that his brand is sustaining a repetitive strain injury. It’s very likely you’d be doing him a favour by letting him know it’s a turn-off. Chances are if it’s annoying you, it’s annoying his other readers and followers too.

But I don’t think you’re under any obligation to tell him. You can still sustain a friendship with someone you don’t follow online, and it should be no big deal if he finds out you unfollowed him by other means. (He sounds like the kind of person who would check.)

This question opens up a broader issue we all face about the ethics of self-promotion on social media. We’ve grown up in sophisticated marketing environments, and critical thinking is second nature. We can smell it a mile away when someone’s trying to sell us something. It’s not a pleasant smell, even when it’s doused in humblebrag air freshener. On the other hand, we’re all told we’re supposed to be building our personal brands, to craft these neoliberal self-images that slot neatly into the product/consumer matrix, and it’s getting harder and harder to find an authentic human space outside that. Those spaces are hard to define but they matter. Those spaces, I’d argue, are exactly what literature is for. And if I sound naive, have a gander at the origins of the term ‘branding’.

This isn’t comparable to slavery, but it is in part a question of working for free. Publishers should be doing more to help authors reach their audience, but we’re all expected to manage some or all of our marketing ourselves. Making you the product helps them, but does that pressure help us? There’s a difference between reaching an audience and stinking up the room your community lives in with the smell of your own burning flesh.

I’ll try to be specific here. Announce news, but don’t repeat it endlessly; tell people what you’re up to, but spend more time engaging with them. Celebrate your wins, but know when to shut up. In essence, treat social media more like a real conversation. I wouldn’t listen to a self-obsessed bore at the pub, so why would I want to on Twitter?

The point of being a writer isn’t to sell books, but to be a part of a broader conversation; to make a contribution to public discourse and to the inner lives of others; to tell stories; to challenge and belong. Social media is a part of that. Large swathes of it are already chest-deep in corporate marketing and PR. People, and that’s what readers are, will respect an authentic human person managing to survive in all that sludge, even when they’re flailing around a bit. Just like we know a true mind at work when we’re lucky enough to find one in print.

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Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

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  1. I’m mostly a self-published author, and in my circumstance, self-promoting us how I get sales, because if I don’t do it, I don’t make any money. I’m lucky to have some other sources of income, but if you don’t, you could starve I’d you don’t self-promote. Fanned if you do, and starving I’d you don’t.

  2. I am always pleased to see my friends; photographers, writers, artists and musicians, posting about their latest projects, and delighted when they retweet the expressions of appreciation from others. Never embarrassing!

  3. I largely agree with you, Jen, and I know I cringe inside every time I post on twitter about an event I’m doing. But I do think there’s one major difference between a chat in the pub and a twitter post, which is that when you say on twitter ‘I’m doing an event’ there may be absolutely no one listening, or one hundred people listening – you can’t (unlike in the pub) tell. So sometimes you post a thing 20 times and the same person reads it 20 times and thinks, ‘god, shut up already’, while another person misses it every single time and asks you later, ‘why didn’t you tell me you were doing an event? I would have come’. It’s confounding.

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