Imagine having over 221K followers on your Instagram account. Think about how many artists and content creators would kill to have that kind of an audience.
Now, imagine posting the following message to your 221K followers:
“NOTICE: I will no longer be using social apps after Jan. 13th. I believe this social media cell phone plague to be a detriment to my enjoyment of life, for many reasons (not possible to be discussed here). Of course, don’t be silly, there are many great things about it and for many people! But not for me, I believe the bad far outweigh the good, and I enjoy living my life without a phone glued to my face, life is too full of wonder to miss.”
Who would do something like that? Who would walk away from a huge social media following?
His name is Jeremy Mann. He’s a fine artist known for his dark, moody city paintings, as well as his expressive figurative work. According to Evoke Contemporary, one of the galleries that represent his work:
“Jeremy Mann (b. 1979) earned his BFA in painting from Ohio University, graduating cum laude, and later earned his MFA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, graduating as valedictorian.”
Why would a smart, successful artist like Jeremy Mann decide to dump social media? Isn’t social media critical to any artist or content creator’s success and happiness?
The Tyranny of Likes
When I was a boy, I spent all my time drawing. I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but my parents urged me to pursue a more conservative career route. They meant well, knowing that many artists struggle to make a living.
So, I went off to university, obtained a graduate degree in criminal justice administration, and became a police officer.
During my law enforcement career, I moonlighted as a newspaper cartoonist and studied landscape painting with the artist Scott L. Christensen. Clearly, the creative muse never abandoned my spirit. In fact, my game plan upon retirement was to become a full-time, professional landscape painter.
Before retirement, I took up blogging on my artist website. I wrote creative articles and stories and began sharing them on other sites like FineArtViews.com and Medium.com. As my audience grew, I started leveraging social media to gain exposure.
I took online courses to learn how to game social media algorithms, attract more readers, more claps, and more attention. I thought I was a well-adjusted guy, yet I was succumbing to the tyranny of likes.
I checked my iPhone constantly, to see how my latest posts were doing. I checked analytics on my blog and relentlessly tweaked my website design.
I spent hours responding to blog and social media comments. It was getting to be stressful and crazy.
The only thing I wasn’t doing was painting.
The Dust of Everyday Life
Recently, I read Cal Newport’s excellent book, “Digital Minimalism-Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” The book was like a thunderbolt wake up call for me.
Besides painting, I enjoy writing and illustrating articles and stories. But somehow social media and the inevitable drive for approval mucked everything up.
Moments of valuable solitude were punctuated with tapping and swiping my iPhone. I was checking likes, analytics, comments and more, like some kind of addicted monkey.
A minimalist in other aspects of my life, how did I become such a techno maximalist? I realized I’d fallen victim to what Newport calls the “digital slot machine.” We keep tapping and clicking (pulling the lever) in the hopes of a reward. A little self-esteem boost, or low-quality distraction to save us from our thoughts or solitude.
We see this all around us. People in restaurants and waiting lines, with their noses to the phone screen, scrolling and clicking this and that.
Pablo Picasso once said:
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
When I paint landscapes, I get lost in the artwork. Time and the worries of the day seem to disappear. Whether in my studio or outdoors, landscape painting frees me. The dust gets washed away. I don’t need social media claps or likes.
As Cal Newport wrote:
“…a life well lived requires activities that serve no other purpose than the satisfaction that the activity itself generates.”
Craft Makes us Human
I realized that my immersion in social media and digital distractions was not making me happy. I neglected my landscape painting because of it. I was posting old images of paintings because I had no new work. Talk about pathetic.
Cal Newport notes:
“Craft makes us human, and in doing so, it can provide deep satisfactions that are hard to replicate in other (dare I say) less hands-on activities.”
I think people today are full of angst. Beyond the rituals of work, relationships, family and social life, many confront the existential question: “Is this all there is?”
Some turn to substances like drugs and alcohol. Others pursue sex, money or high achievement, in an effort to fill the hole they feel inside. A lot of us are numbing ourselves with social media and what Cal Newport calls, “Low-quality digital distractions.”
Social media and the digital age have their place when used in moderation. They connect people, and can certainly help creators promote their work.
The problem is that it’s designed to addict you. Your ego looks forward to those likes, claps, and comments. Before long, you’re spending hours online and forgetting to pursue your creative passions.
The inward joy of your creative work is abandoned for the fleeting, shallow joy of digital distractions.
Ironically, the biggest way to gain attention is to produce amazing, interesting work. In order to do that, you need to devote serious time to honing your craft, not watching cat videos on YouTube.
Great work tends to stand out and get noticed. You can tweak your website and social media all you want, but people see through the fluff.
It’s why a painter like Jeremy Mann can stop posting on his social media accounts. His work is that good, and he knows his fans will find him on his website. Instead of spending hours updating Facebook and Instagram, he can become an even better painter.
Peter Korn is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. He took the road less traveled and became a furniture maker in 1974. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums nationally.
Korn is also a fine writer, and his book, “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters-The Education of a Craftsman,” won him the 2014 Maine Literary Award.
In reading his book, I was impressed by Korn’s aesthetic goals as a furniture maker: “Integrity, Simplicity, and Grace.”
For years, all manner of people has come to study furniture making with Korn. They long to work with their hands. To make something tangible and real. Something they can be proud of, point to and say, “I made that.”
Korn, in his book, makes the point better than I can:
“The simple truth is that people who engage in creative practice go into the studio first and foremost because they expect to emerge from the other end of the creative gauntlet as different people.”
Korn goes on to write:
“But whatever our motivations may be, the bottom line is always the same: we engage in the creative process to become more of whom we’d like to be and, just as important, to discover more of whom we might become. We may make things because we enjoy the process, but our underlying intent, inevitably, is self-transformation.”
I don’t think the digital distractions we immerse ourselves in will produce self-transformation the way that making something or creating artwork can.
Reclaim Your Life
Recently, I signed up for another online, social media class. It was a good class, full of useful information. It included a lively Slack channel of fellow students, all connecting and commenting with one another.
I was also presented with the chance to join a year-long Mastermind group, which surely would have introduced me to other online creators and opportunities.
Then I read Cal Newport’s book about digital minimalism. Sitting in my art studio, I gazed at the beautiful Hughes easel I bought last year. Sadly, I’ve barely painted on it. Too busy online.
Something inside me stirred. A deep sense that I was off track. That I had lost my way.
How about you? Have you been seduced by social media and digital distractions? Have you neglected your art, writing, music, crafts or creative passion? Have you forgotten what it feels like to simply create?
It’s not too late to reclaim your life from the digital slot machines. All you have to do is recognize the problem and make changes.
Drop notifications on your smartphone. In fact, drop all those social media apps from your phone. Allocate a specific time each day to get on your laptop for social media. Give yourself an hour. Set your alarm. Then get off.
Start making your creative life a priority again.
Educate yourself with books like Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” and Catherine Price’s entertaining, “How To Break Up With Your Phone.”
Everything in moderation. You don’t have to drop all social media and online distractions, just limit it and put your energy into your passions again. Start making stuff. Create. Hone your skills. Get lost in your art or craft just for the joy of it, not to see how many likes you can get online.
My Heart Skips a Beat
The actor Julia Roberts told InStyle why she doesn’t use social media:
“It’s about allowing time to just exist… Conversations require a complete disregard for the clock — so that you can just listen and really be present. It becomes a paradox of efficiency and presence. That’s why I love the summer. I just don’t care what time it is.”
Actor Daniel Craig also shuns social media, telling BBC America:
“I am bloody not [on Facebook]. And I’m not on Twitter either… ‘Woke up this morning, had an egg’? What relevance is that to anyone? Social networking? Just call each other up and go to the pub and have a drink.”
I guess these movie stars figured it out before I did. They recognized that the most important thing to focus on is your craft. Perfecting your creative work. The simple act of creating is the reward. The joy. All we need.
I dropped out of the online social media class. I declined the year-long mastermind opportunity. I went for a long walk with my dogs, took a deep breath, and stepped back into my art studio.
My palette is loaded with fresh paint. The linen canvas is ready. My heart skips a beat, jubilant that I have stepped away from the digital precipice, and back into the loving arms of my creative life.
I hope you will, too.
Before You Go
I’m John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about life. Thanks for reading!
Previously published on Medium.com.
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Photo credit: John P. Weiss