The Exposure Addiction Trap

(a version of this post first appeared in my monthly subscriber-only newsletter)

“There won’t be any money, but it will be great exposure,” says some suit to a hungry artist, and she rolls her eyes because it’s become such a cliche. Does that line still work on anybody? she wonders. Everywhere on social media she sees people complain about jobs that pay in exposure, people warning up-and-comers not to take those jobs, that they’re being ripped off, but still there are people trotting out the tired line.

She tells him no, she doesn’t work for exposure. Exposure won’t pay her rent or put food on her table. Then she goes home in a bitter mood and gets on her computer, where she types a thousand-word screed about how sick she is of being offered exposure like it’s money.

Ten minutes after she clicks “post”, her rant has thirty likes. Two hours later it’s been shared sixty times. There are cries of affirmation, likes and loves, new friend requests are pouring in and new followers are finding her on Twitter. Contrarians offering up their devil’s advocate takes in the comments are met with resistance by dozens who rush to keep fighting the battle she’s started. She’s queen for a moment, basking in the exposure gleaned from her anti-exposure stance.

She posts some of her artwork a few days later, and makes a couple sales, but with all the new friends and fans, not as many sales as she hoped. Seems none of them are paying much attention to the art. Though they’re still reblogging her rant now and then, saying, “Just got another exposure offer and had to go back and read this awesome post again.”

The next time she has a bad experience with a client, she’s eager to repeat the pattern. She drives home trying to make a mental outline for when she gets to her computer. The fury pours out of her onto the screen and when she clicks that post button it’s an instant success. Not as big as her last one, sure, but still big. As the likes and retweets and comments and shares come in, she feels that endorphin buzz get stronger and stronger.

Now she’s got a habit. Every bad experience she has needs tweeting. She’s hyperaware of everything related to the business of her art, searching out any complaint she has that might resonate. She digs in her past to recover all the forgotten bad experiences there. She paints them all in the worst light she can paint them. Her accounts become a steady stream of negative energy, a collection of the worst aspects that her chosen career has to offer, echoed all the while by the growing crowd of those who agree with her, until one day an old high school friend comments, “Honestly, I don’t even get why you keep trying.” And she’s spent so much energy building this collage of negative experience, that she begins to ask herself the same question. After a lifetime pursuing her art, she finds she’s coming to hate it.

But was it because of the industry? Or did something else happen?

Most of us know by now that the way these social media platforms work (or at least the simplified version) is that they analyze what’s making us stop scrolling and look, or what we’re clicking, liking, commenting on. They look at the patterns of your behavior and compare them to the patterns of their other billions of users, and if you and I show similar habits and they know something got my attention, then they prioritize it for you because it will probably get your attention too.

Most of us have also been in a position where other people leave reviews for you, or for something you care about, and have felt “negativity bias” at work. That’s the feeling where, when you get five great reviews and one terrible review, you find yourself thinking all day about the bad one, and not giving as much thought to any of the five good ones. Or if three people compliment your appearance and then one insults it, you probably dwell on the insult more than the compliments. It’s an evolutionary instinct, a heightened recognition of anything that could be perceived as a threat, even if it’s a threat to our social status as opposed to a physical threat, since we are social beings and an attack on social status threatens to cut down our quality of life.

So if negativity is more likely to get our attention than positivity, and social media platforms prioritize whatever is most likely to get our attention, it’s not hard to see why it often feels like the social media experience skews toward the negative. And since so many of us have something we’re trying to promote online—a blog, or a business, or a book, or a skillset—it feels important that we grow our numbers, get a lot of people liking and sharing our content. In many ways, it’s the rat race of our times—one that’s for exposure rather than money. We have to grow our digital brands, and the way to do that is by posting the type of things people gravitate toward. Put all those factors together and it’s a good indication of why Facebook and Twitter often feel so messy.

Even if you don’t have something to promote and you’re just on social media for fun, it’s satisfying when people pay attention to something you put up, and it activates the reward system in your brain, releasing a little praise for yourself, making you feel you did good. It’s one of the many things that glues so many of us to our phones, refreshing every few minutes to see if anyone else reacted to that hilarious meme we just shared. Those hearts and thumbs give us a feeling of value, a jolt of pride that we made a positive contribution. Especially if that “positive” contribution was “negative”, since the algorithms have a tendency to work in that direction.

For these and other reasons, I’ve been working on pulling away from this stuff. I unfollowed everyone on Facebook a few months ago so that my feed is empty, and I have apps set up on my phone and computer that limit my usage. I have a phone on order that has no features beyond calling and texting, and my laptop has its own router, separate from my other devices, that is set on a timer so that it will boot me after 30 minutes and remind me to do better things with my day.

When I got my apartment earlier this year, I set up an office with a typewriter and a legal pad. Outside the office, I have a plastic case with an hourglass in it, and each day when I go in to write, I take out the hourglass and put in my phone. Then I don’t come out of the office until the sand has flowed through the hourglass and I know it’s been an hour. I quickly found that was more focused in there, doing better writing than I have in a long time. That feeling of cutting out noise, especially noise that wants to pull you in a specific direction, is freeing. And I’ve been wanting to move more and more in that direction.

I used to use Facebook and Twitter largely as places to be funny. When an amusing thought occurred, I’d shape it for one platform or the other, post it, and see if it earned likes. This year I started going to open mics and using those jokes for standup comedy instead (a hobby I had in my early twenties but hadn’t gone back to in a long time). I find it’s a lot more satisfying.

I was telling some of the other comics about that, and about how I’m moving away from social media, and they told me, “Oh, you need some social media though. You can’t make it without a social media following.” And of course I’ve heard the same thing about writing, and about film. And often it’s from the same people who say not to work for exposure, that people who ask you to work for exposure are assholes. But nobody’s business is built more on people working for exposure than Zuckerberg’s. It’s all exposure. In fact, if you pay cash money to Facebook, they’ll give you more exposure. And almost all of us creatives have done it at some point or another.

Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been one of the “Exposure can’t pay my rent!” people. Exposure certainly has value. And maybe it’s true that you can’t be successful in the arts today without the help of social media. But I doubt it. Is it harder? Probably. But impossible? It can’t be.

I’m writing better with less of it in my life though — writing better, and writing more. And if you want to be successful as a writer, I suspect writing better and writing more are two damn good ways to better your odds. Do they make up for what you lose by not having a social media presence? Hard to know. But it seems worth finding out.

I’m trying to be a little less like the heroine in this story, performing for exposure on Facebook by complaining, but I suppose that’s exactly what I’m doing as I write this post. I’ve been feeling better with less of it in my life though, and while I have a few little things still in the works that tie me to Facebook, I’m trying to wrap them up between now and the end of the year so I can delete those profiles going into 2022. I want to commit to at least three months with no social media presence at all, and then consider whether I feel I’m missing anything. I’ll keep this blog, and I’ll keep the newsletter, but I plan on dumping Facebook and Twitter for a while. A part of me is starting to wonder, even if you do need social media to succeed in the arts today, would I sooner be a successful writer with a social media presence, or an unsuccessful writer whose time is his own, and you know, I’m not certain I know the answer just yet.

3 responses to “The Exposure Addiction Trap”

  1. Yup Still catching your stories every now and then. Sorry about your smedia addiction. Can’t happen to me as my aversion to talking on the phone as a teen has blossomed into producing a pretty high anxiety reaction since Covid teaching initially involved Google Meets(Zoom). Not so great for s.o. who is camera shy. I know that’s hard perhaps for you to get being the seasoned performer that you are. ANYWay. Keep at it Greg. I always love your work. Still got those original manuscripts.❤️Always. Your ole HS Art teacher Ms Dodge

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