Here’s a piece of virtue-signalling: I haven’t been on social media during Lent. I’m not a great one for Lenten disciplines – my self-control reserves are usually depleted after a week or so – but this one’s been surprisingly easy. I’ve not found myself with cravings to push red notification buttons until they turn blue, and I’ve functioned fairly normally despite the dopamine imbalance this has surely caused. It’s made me think, though, about the occasionally tortured relationship musicians have with social media, and I’m going to try and unpack it a little.
Delighted to announce
Among some fellow musicians, it’s become a hated cliché to use this formula to introduce one’s latest career success on social media. It’s not only the business-like omission of the first-person pronoun that riles them; it’s the brazen trumpeting of success in a world where we are conditioned to expect humility.
I don’t mind it quite as much as some, and that’s partly because I don’t think there’s a whole lot of choice. If your social media account is a career tool, like your website, then it’s essentially a networking tool with a side order of friendship and pictures of people’s pets. Accordingly, you have to use it to broadcast your successes, and generate the sense that your career is in motion. And it’s probably preferable to be upfront about it – ‘delighted to announce’ – then to try and signal modesty with ‘It seems this has happened, whaaaat’ or ‘somehow I seem to have done [x]’ or the ubiquitous ‘So I did a thing >> [link]’.
It’s widely understood that social media invites comparison. Reading of someone’s success invites you to consider, on some level, how you match up. This leads either towards self-justification – well, they’re doing a different thing to me, they have different goals, etc – or self-hatred – why I can’t I have [x], why can’t I be [y].
If we concede that we’re going to have to broadcast what we’re doing to our network, then honesty might be the best policy. This must be what social-media thinkpeople call ‘authenticity’, without ever managing to define what it actually means in this context. What is an ‘authentic’ way to talk about one’s work? ‘Delighted to announce’ is probably true on most levels. People who are in your corner will probably share your delight. People who aren’t will have a mix of reactions, as described above. Humble-brags don’t really benefit anybody, though I confess they’ve been my awkward go-to on the increasingly rare occasions I have anything to brag about (see, there I go again!).
Peers and rivals
One thing I’ve noticed about not being on social media has been the feeling of a more even keel, emotionally-speaking. I’ve greatly reduced my exposure to things I’d get angry about, or things I’d be happy about, or pictures of cats I’d go ‘aww’ about.
I remember reading an update on social media from a former pupil who had been accepted onto a prestigious course. For a moment, the gall rose – years ago, I had applied for this very course and not got in! It took a moment for perspective to reassert itself – we were in very different positions with different goals and skills.
At the same time, though, those things can be great motivators. I remember an article or podcast which, taking the idea of ‘keeping your enemies close’, advised supporting your rival as much as you can. Celebrate their successes, try and help them be as good as they can be – with the logic being that, in doing so, you’ll be forced to raise your own game, out of natural competitiveness. I don’t think it implies that celebrating your rival is in any way disingenuous; after all, they receive the reassuring feeling of support, and you get a bit of drive to better yourself.
It’s easy to see how this could go too far. Depending on one’s personality, it might be inadvisable to fill a Twitter feed with people one considers to be rivals, and face the constant urge to hustle in response. To do so would be to ignore the other truth of progression in fields such as music: so much of it revolves around luck. Being in the right place at the right time, or making a chance connection – while you can do certain things to maximise your chances for such serendipity, at the end of the day, it’s still luck.
That’s not to denigrate anyone’s hard work – you still have to be in a position to take advantage of that luck, after all – but basing a comparison of yourself with someone else without understanding the hidden advantages could be needlessly demoralising. We all have such advantages – personal, financial, natural – but it would be unreasonable to suggest people preface everything they write with such a caveat.
I justified a fair amount of my time browsing social media as keeping my finger on the pulse of my little musical world. After all, I wouldn’t want to miss out on whispers about jobs, or snippets of information that could help me. On reflection, that was probably 5% of it, with another 5% being updates from my friends, and the other 90% being things I didn’t really care about, flash-in-the-pan scandals and arguments that ultimately had no bearing on me – entertainment, albeit of a peculiar kind.
We feel there must be a cost to not participating in the social media free-for-all. At the one or two ‘social media for musicians’-style seminars I’ve attended over the years (not that you’d know it from my irregular output), that’s been the message. Everyone’s on it, so you have to be too. Make it consistent, focus on two or three ‘streams’ of ‘content’ and put them out there on a regular basis. So you went for a run by the river? Post a picture of it with the caption ‘thinking about my Beethoven concert next week’.
How do people really respond to that sort of thing? I think perhaps we suspend our disbelief because we know they’re playing the game, and we’ve sort of agreed between us that it is a game, and it needs to be played. If I opt out, is what I gain in mystery outweighed by what I miss out on by not being part of ‘the scene’? When I think about who I respect in my circle, it’s not the people very obviously playing the game very hard. It’s the people quietly getting on with it. Or at least I assume they’re getting on with it – maybe they’re just lurking, reading everyone else’s nonsense.