If you’re inclined to give a damn, and good for you if you’re not, there was some (relatively) big news in certain social media circles the last couple days. Joss Whedon, beloved by geeks for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the short-lived show Firefly but best known to most as the director for the two Avengers movies, quit Twitter.
If at this point your reaction is, “so?” Again, good for you. That is an entirely reasonable way to feel. In almost every possible way, Joss Whedon being on Twitter or not being on Twitter does not matter. This is mostly how I feel.
See, I can’t entirely disentangle the noise around Whedon’s decision to delete his Twitter account with my own hangups about social media. In order to elaborate, I’ll need to provide a little background on the stories surrounding his decision to quit. I am so sorry for making you think about Twitter. This is probably not a nice thing to do.
Damned If You Do
People started to realize that Whedon deleted his account on Monday, May 4th when they clicked on links to it and got an error page. This came shortly after he had posted what is now recognized as his last message. Here’s a tweet from ScreenCrush with a link to the screenshot of that tweet.
‘Avengers’ director Joss Whedon has deleted his Twitter account with one final message: pic.twitter.com/WevxLKqj4R
— ScreenCrush (@screencrushnews) May 4, 2015
This came right on the heels of the opening weekend of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. That film is making giant piles of money but there’s been a bit of commentary on how it was slightly less successful on its opening weekend than the first Avengers movie and is receiving a bit less praise from critics.*
Topping the success, both economic and critical, of the first movie was always going to be virtually impossible. The fact that the first one even had critical success was something of a minor miracle. Comic book movies have tended to fall flat when they stuff in too many heroes and villains, and The Avengers exists entirely to stuff in as many of them as possible. By all accounts, Whedon was exhausted and burned out by the time the second one was finished.**
But when he deleted his account, the internet did what it sometimes seems to exist only to do. It ran wild with speculation, often stated as though those speaking knew the clear-cut facts even though the man himself had not said anything. The popular theory was that “angry feminists” chased him away in the form of backlash about the story arc of one of the characters. A slightly gentler form of this theory was that it was in response to vocal disappointment in the film in general, not limited to feminism.
I do not fully understand why, and good God I’m not getting into it now, but there is a segment of the population that seems to love being angry at anything associated with feminism. As Whedon had heretofore been lionized for writing strong, interesting female characters, there were plenty of people who loved the idea that “those crazy feminists” were now going after one of their own. Though he owes nobody anything here, Whedon has since stated that the idea it was because of feminists was nonsense and that he quit because being on Twitter was a time-consuming and exhausting distraction from what he really wants to do: write.
Damned If You Don’t
Whedon’s lament is a real conundrum and one I’m grappling with lately. Twitter and other social media outlets both matter and don’t matter a great deal. On one hand, it’s easy to look at any given tool and think, “that looks fun. I’ll use that,” or “I don’t see how this will enhance my life. Pass.” For most people, that’s probably how it does work, or at least it seems that’s how it should work.
But for anyone whose work requires interacting with the public or at least stands to benefit from it, it’s not that simple. There are huge pressures to use these tools to build an audience and awareness for what you’re doing. Even for relatively famous performers, the size of your following can make or break certain opportunities. Then, as soon as you say anything publicly, some portion of the population will be utterly terrible toward you.
Look at the search results for “Twitter death threats.”I recognize these threats are almost certainly empty, but this is insane! Who does this? Don’t do this. That’s today’s life tip.
I am not remotely famous. I have a tiny following on social media right now, and I’m starting to wonder whether I just like it better that way. Yet as a writer, it feels like something I’m supposed to be focusing on. It feels like I need to be trying to grow an audience and connect with people so that I can later on convince them to support my work. At times this is actually sorta fun, but mostly it feels daunting and distracting. Social media might eventually help me sell my writing, but it sure doesn’t help me actually write.
I Ain’t No Follow Back Girl***
Here’s an example of how this stuff can distract and how its value is unclear.
I’m not sure how or why, but I’ve seen a steady uptick in the number of people following me on Twitter. It’s small but noticeable, and mostly this is nice. I like to think that it maybe has something to do with my blogging, but who knows? What’s bugging me is that there’s also a strange, largely unwritten, etiquette or protocol around this.****
If someone chooses to follow me, I will almost always check out their page unless I straight up forget to do so. If the person seems interesting or is working in a field that interests me, I’ll often follow back. In fact, a lot of people seem to expect this as a means of building their audience, a sort of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” thing.
What strikes me as odd is that some of the people who have followed me have almost immediately unfollowed me, like just a day or two later. Why? What was the point of following me in the first place? It’s confusing to me. I’m only interested in following accounts that I think provide me with some level of value. Interesting opinions. Good jokes. Info on stuff that’s important to me.
I can only conclude that in some of these cases that people only followed me as a means of chasing a larger following for themselves. What’s more, some of the people who I did decide to follow also unfollowed me. It seems likely they were hoping I’d follow, bump their numbers, and then they could quietly drop me. That’s fine, I guess, but it leaves me wondering — is this really worth the hassle?
It feels like a game I have to play but one that can’t be won.
Not to Worry! This Post Will Be Tweeted
Don’t let the title of this post fool you. I enjoy a little social media now and again. For all the bashing of Twitter above, it’s my social media drug of choice. It’s enabled me to learn from and interact with a wide range of interesting and smart people who I’d be unlikely to ever know otherwise. I think Instagram is a fun way to see other people’s great photos and occasionally share a moment out of my day if I see something interesting. LinkedIn helps me connect to other writers and people doing cool work, keep track of interesting companies, and stay up on developments in technology. Facebook. Honestly, I don’t like Facebook much, but I recognize how useful it is for organizing events and activities, keeping in touch with people just enough, and mostly for reminding me when people’s birthdays are. Your friend also just had a baby. One of your friends always just had a baby.
I just wish I didn’t feel like social media mattered much beyond stuff like that. I want an audience for my writing, and I think Twitter and Facebook and other sites might help me get that in some small way. Maybe it’s not precisely required, but it feels pretty damn close to it. And there’s probably a safe-ish middle ground in terms of notoriety where your following will be mostly cool folks who want to share thoughts and opinions in a safe and meaningful way but you can largely dodge the insane nonsense. I’m also hopeful that Twitter will sort out the problems with abuse that the company knows it has.
But until then, man, it’s a weird out there.
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*This is a bit like criticizing Michael Jordan for leading the NBA in scoring by a slightly smaller margin than he did the year before.
**I don’t think we regular humans realize how hard writing and directing any movie is let alone one of such scope and anticipation as The Avengers. Imagine being the CEO of a company spending millions of dollars developing a new product. Your previous product was a hit, and everyone expects this one to be even more successful. You will spend four years working on it with control over every meaningful decision — you can’t rely heavily on delegation or other experts. For months before product launch, you’re probably working on it in some way for 16+ hours a day. Then you have to travel all over the world talking about it. Also, you’re actually only making one single thing that can’t be fixed or recalled once it launches. Your company sells only one product at a time so there are no other products to help you recover if this flops. If you succeed, people will expect you to start doing it all over again. If you fail or succeed by less than people expect, people will wonder if you’ve lost your touch or can’t hack it anymore.
***For those who did not get the reference, here.
****Note: I’m not talking about blatant spam accounts and bots following me. I’m talking about accounts that have every indication of having a real human using them.