Writers@Work: The January Social Media Experiment

Over the winter holiday, Jocelyn Koehler and I agreed to try a social media fast during January. Even though I had a much tamer plan than Jocelyn, I suffered from withdrawal symptoms almost immediately. You can read about my experience at Jocelyn’s blog, Teamblood. To learn how Jocelyn stayed off the net nearly all day (wow!) and what that led to — read on!

Writers@Work: The January Social Media Experience by Jocelyn Koehler

JocelynAt the end of 2012, I was talking with Rochelle Melander about writing practice and the distractions we writers face. We commiserated on the difficulty of maintaining focus for writing or editing when it is so tempting to go online “just for a bit.” We agreed that it was the use of social media in the morning that seemed to be the most dangerous…hit some links on Twitter, and boom, it’s lunchtime and you’ve written nothing.  So we decided to try an experiment. We would limit our “daytime” use of social media for a month and see what happened.

1. What did your daily plan look like? My plan was to only go online after dinner (around 9 pm). I would ignore all nonessential email, tweets, and notifications until after I’d done my writing. I also planned to limit my online time to about an hour, enough time to check everything, reply to things, and search for articles and links I wanted to share later. The Buffer app was key to this plan: I fill it up at night, and it posts for me to Twitter and Facebook all through the next day. Easy peasy!

2. How did the month go? Did you feel better about your social media habits at the end of the experiment? The first week was easy, because I was on holiday, seeing _real_ people! I barely opened my laptop, and sometimes had no internet connection at all. I filled my Buffer and kept on top of my inbox.

The second and third weeks…oops. Back at home, life happened. I was finishing a temporary job. I also got several editing jobs, which required me to work both before and after my “real” job, and I still wrote every day. Unsurprisingly, my new social media habits crashed. I surfed the internet as a mental break. I read too many articles after following too many links. I even read comment threads on political topics (which is like pouring acid directly into your ear canal).

The final week was different. My temporary job ended, and I took a break from everything. I stopped posting on Twitter and Facebook entirely for the last few days of January. It was refreshing.

I can’t say I felt better about my habits…net yet. But I learned about my actual social media use (as opposed to my perceived use). The real pitfall of social media is not that you use it every day, it’s that you’re encouraged to use it many times throughout the day. The format forces you to switch between production and consumption of information, and most brains aren’t designed to toggle between those modes so often or so rapidly.

3. How did the experiment change your writing habits? Dealing with my self-imposed rules made me rethink the assumption that creative writing had to be in the top slot on my daily schedule. While getting distracted online wasn’t helping my writing practice, I often didn’t do well on days that I forced writing to happen first; it took me much longer to hit my writing goals. On the other hand, the final week was great because I was only producing, not consuming.

4. What did you learn? What hints or advice would you pass on to others? It’s silly to get too committed to an arbitrary guideline. I didn’t always have the time or attention to think well at 10 pm. I got tired and put off filling my Buffer till morning…and of course wasted two hours online the next day. I also learned that on the days I posted nothing…no one cared.

The best practical trick I learned was this: if you have to do an open-ended task (i.e. web surfing), perform that task right before a nonnegotiable outside deadline. Don’t check your email when you first wake up, check it 10 minutes before you have to be out the door for work. Check Facebook right before you need to go into a meeting. Use the deadlines the world has already given you.

5. How has the experiment affected your perception of social media? It really made me rethink how and why I’m using these tools in the first place, and whether they are worth the time I devote to them right now. (I’ll be doing a whole post about this topic on my blog soon.) Social media is tricky because we want to use it as a forum, and a network, and a billboard, and a branding platform, and stage, and a library, and a vacation spot. What’s worse is that other people are using the same tools differently at the same time. The best tools in the world can’t be all these things to all people. We need to be more honest and aware of what we want, and what these tools are actually capable of doing.

6. What’s next? What other aspects of your writing practice could be looked at? As an author, I’m primarily concerned with completing projects (short stories, novels, articles, reviews, etc.), because it’s only by selling finished products that I can make a living. So I plan to focus not just on writing every day, but also limiting my scope to a few very specific projects at a time. That’s always been a challenge for me, and I’m gathering ideas for how to address it.

About the author. Jocelyn Koehler grew up in the wilds of Wisconsin, but now lives in a tiny house on a tiny street in Philadelphia. She has worked as a librarian, bookseller, editor, archivist, cubicle drone, popcorn popper, and music store clerk. She learned to love fantasy and science fiction from a very young age. Fairy tales, space operas, and viking sagas all live together on her bookshelf. Learn a little more about the inside of her brain at her oddly named blog, www.teamblood.org.

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