| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life TLDR; I Tweeted Myself Into a Career and Now I’m Stuck Online
As part of our Social Media Week series, Leah Johnson writes about using social media to connect with her readers and how she engages online as a recreation rather than an obligation.
My publishing career, like so many things these days, began with a tweet.
Well. It began with an essay that took off on Twitter that got me my first agent which we leveraged into my first book deal which I announced via Twitter where that tweet did numbers and garnered early support that eventually became a massive wave of straight-from-Twitter preorders and before I knew it I’d fashioned a ~platform~ for myself out of a space that had previously been used exclusively for Logan Lerman thirst tweets and Real Housewives of Atlanta memes.
I’m being flippant, of course, in an attempt to tell a story tonally aligned with the mediums I’m talking about. The bridge between where I began and where I currently am was constructed with sleepless nights and long days and expensive Brooklyn rent and debilitating self-doubt and midnight rooftop writing dates and heaps of MFA student loan debt.
But you probably knew that already.
Because if you’re anything like me, you were raised on the internet—had your earliest foray into (emo) poetry forged in the fires of the LiveJournal comment section, once spoke exclusively in six-second Vine buzz phrases, and developed your political praxis via Tumblr shitposts. So you know what it takes to tell a story, to mold yourself, for an audience you likely cannot name. You learned to code-switch not just by oscillating between varying social groups in the real world but by adapting to unspoken codes of discourse on a minimum of four social media platforms at a time.
My evolution from quirky-complain-y millennial in her early twenties to a Public Figure With Opinions wasn’t so much a choice as it was the natural progression of a life spent online. In my days as a young journalist, social media was framed as a necessity, not just to get a job but to maintain it. We needed to develop a Brand, we needed to be Reliable, and we needed to be Present. I was taught to build a life where social media was as much a part of my day as checking my emails.
I’m no longer a journalist, but, as they say, old habits die hard. Social media when I started out as a writer felt like the natural extension of my work on the page. For a long time, the way I understood the world and my position in it was relative to the way I engaged with my socials. But soon, in addition to it being the way I could find other people to talk with about which White Boy of the Month was occupying an unreasonable amount of my brain space, it also became the way I connected to readers.
Most writers don’t have the luxury of relying on a team of powerhouse publicists or multimillion-dollar marketing budgets for our books. We are our own marketing machines. Social media sometimes feels like the closest thing to an equalizer we have—the vehicle for us to reach the widest audience for the least amount of money. It’s a job, to be sure. One that comes with very little in the way of tangible returns but can feel as urgent as the work that results in a steady paycheck every few weeks.
People often say that “Twitter doesn’t sell books.” And look, I’m sure there’s data to support that. But I can tell you what I know: I wouldn’t be here without Twitter. Or without Instagram and TikTok, for that matter. I wouldn’t be here without the people who tweeted about my debut and made aesthetic Instagram reels with glowing reviews and posted TikToks declaring that “it’s sapphic and it’s slaps.” It’s changed my life. There’s no underselling that.
But somewhere between my first book and my second, I had to reevaluate the type of pressure I was placing on my engagement. I couldn’t be great at every platform. I wasn’t cut out for the hypervisibility required by Instagram; I’ll likely never adjust to the level of consistency required to thrive on a platform like TikTok. What drew me to Twitter a decade ago wasn’t its marketing benefits. It was the truncated format, the sense of connection, and the fact that my voice was well suited to the site. If those things were true even now, then that was what I needed to return to.
I don’t know that I’m cut out to be the kind of writer whose accounts transition to “updates only.” For now, I genuinely enjoy the act of speaking to my readers directly. I enjoy talking to them about things other than my books. I want to debate the best songs on folklore and freak out over the most recent Dylan O’Brien content and weigh the merits of cast-iron skillets against the classic nonstick pan when preparing salmon. I want to post in colloquialisms and use TikTok sounds in 280-character conversations.
I wouldn’t be here without the people who tweeted about my debut and made aesthetic Instagram reels with glowing reviews and posted TikToks declaring that “it’s sapphic and it’s slaps.” It’s changed my life.
I began to treat my online experience more like recreation and less like an obligation. I began to tweet less like I was trying to pitch something and more like I was inviting folks into a conversation that never quite ends. It’s how I feel closest to my readership, by developing the type of relationship that extends past the desire to sell and be sold to and into a relationship that is—yes, I’m gonna say it— organic .
This, I know, isn’t the case for every artist. And for good reason. To borrow from Olivia Rodrigo: It’s brutal out here. Social media can take us away from the work, erode the already-paper-thin barrier between creation and capitalism, and put us too close, too often, to the types of criticisms that can keep someone from wanting to return to the page at all.
But if I’ve learned anything about social media in my time online, it’s that it’s as much about space curation as a physical dwelling. You don’t owe anyone an invitation into your world unless you want to extend one. Block liberally. Limit replies like it’s going out of style. Hide “like” counts. I can’t guarantee it’ll sell you any books, but I can guarantee you it’s better than the alternative of trying to be everything for everyone all the time.
Right now, social media is its best tool for me when I give it the 2005 treatment: I post what I want, using whatever shorthand tracks with the audience I’m speaking to, and hope my mom doesn’t find out.