sorry I couldn’t resist using this image.
In May 2018, I emailed several writers whose work I admire for advice on breaking into music journalism. Nearly everyone responded to my pleas, providing me with useful bits of wisdom. I had just finished my junior year in journalism school, so jobs were on my mind. I had done an internship at Paste Magazine the previous summer, and I had just started freelancing for Consequence of Sound. But I was a pure neophyte in terms of skill, and I had no idea how I could make a career for myself in this field.
One of these writers gave me plenty of helpful writing advice, and they recommended that I focus on being a great writer by developing my own voice. They also suggested that I don’t worry about Twitter. If I dedicated my energy to my writing alone, then that should be enough to land me successful pitches elsewhere and become more established as a writer.
I (somewhat) took their advice. I found a bunch of editors’ emails at my favorite publications (including finding emails through Music Journalism Insider), read articles all the time, expanded my music listening habits, and spent time crafting pitches that I thought were interesting and a good fit for the respective website. I seldom gave Twitter any attention from a professional standpoint. I used it mostly to follow other writers, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was subconsciously observing how they used it to their advantage.
That next summer, I barely landed any pitches. I think I wrote one piece: a 600-word review of the original soundtrack for the 2019 live-action adaptation of The Lion King. I sent out pitch after pitch and was met with rejection after rejection. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. In hindsight, I understand that those pitches weren’t nearly as good as I thought they were, so that certainly played a significant role. But, now, I also recognize that I took the aforementioned advice too literally and virtually never used Twitter for writing purposes. I’m certain this was also part of why I rarely got responses to 95% of my pitches.
Once I substantially increased my Twitter activity, more of my pitches were green-lit. Being a writer online is strange. You’re essentially reminding other writers and editors that you exist and that you also like to use words for money. It’s the commodification of yourself for the sacrifice of another byline. If I weren’t active on Twitter, then I’m sure I wouldn’t have written for the publications that I have. There are some prominent writers who either scarcely use Twitter or simply don’t have one. This indicates that they’re established enough to the point where Twitter is no longer a professional necessity.
It’s like an unwritten law that Twitter is for journalists what LinkedIn is for business types. Ironically, I tweeted about this very concept long ago (I can’t find the link; sorry). Sometimes, it feels like I spend more time on Twitter than I do actually writing, which is why I spend so much time on Twitter in the first place. It’s a bewildering paradox of my life and I’m sure it is for many others’.
Recently, my fiancée and I finished watching both seasons of Netflix’s quarantine juggernaut The Circle. For those of you who don’t know much about this series, it’s a game-show where each contestant lives in an apartment and speaks with other players through a television screen. Imagine Twitter except it’s a contest with a maximum of eight users at once. The winner is whoever receives the most votes at the end. In its most basic form, it’s a popularity contest where people rank the other players from last to first in terms of how much they like them. The second season is more strategic, but the first season speaks more to how we use social media and the para-social relationships we form through it.
I also read two articles in the past month: one in The Guardian and one in Los Angeles Magazine that are pertinent to journalists’ use of Twitter. Allegra Hobbs wrote in The Guardian about how respected, well-known writers eventually become Twitter influencers. Peter Kiefer wrote in Los Angeles Magazine about the influence of journalist (?) Yashar Ali and how he uses Twitter for personal gain. Although all of these disparate cultural references unearth something different within writing and social media, they point torward a common thread. Twitter and writing share a symbiotic relationship. They feed off of each other.
Remember when I said I spend more time on Twitter than I spend writing? That’s exactly what this means. It’s a cycle that seems like it can’t be broken unless you have an established platform where Twitter becomes obsolete on an individual level. In The Circle, the winner receives $100,000 for being well-liked. Although the relationships formed on that show could be altruistic and genuinely meaningful, the end result indicates that monetary gain is why everyone is there in the first place. Writers can be sincerely genial with one another on a platform such as Twitter, but the main reason we’re there in the first place is because it’s beneifical for a writing career. We’re not exactly winning $100,000 (very, very far from it), but the point remains relevant.
With the piece in The Guardian, Hobbs unveils how journalists market themselves as influencers for professional advantages. To me, it’s honestly funny. Influencers are rich and popular. Journalists are … not. Influencer culture requires a pictorial foundation and loads of conspicuous consumption, but writing is simply words on a page. Who even knows what we all actually look like?
This is also germane to The Circle and the feature on Yashar Ali in Los Angeles Magazine. It’s trite to say that we curate our lives and, occasionally, outright fabricate them. But it’s still true. That’s how some “catfish” make it far into both seasons of The Circle, and it’s how Ali has become a Twitter and journalistic (???) behemoth. Also, the two most popular contestants on each episode of The Circle become influencers, a status replete with a blue checkmark next to their profile pictures. Influencers perform a gatekeeping role on the show, dictating who should be blocked and who can continue into the game.
It reflects the journalistic world of Twitter where the most prominent writers knowingly or unknowingly function as gatekeepers, allowing some writers into the ambiguous confines of “Journalism Twitter” while barring others. It perpetautes the journalist-as-influencer role that Hobbs so compellingly describes in The Guardian. Many writers also have a blue checkmark, which fortifies this construct.
I don’t intend to end this on a completely cynical note, but Twitter and writing depend on each other. It’s become a deeply entrenched sphere where Twitter operates as a stepping stone toward bylines in larger, more prestigious publications and in greater numbers. The internet is a bizarre place, but just as it has bled into nearly every facet of modern life, it has also transformed into a de facto network that helps writers make a living for themselves.
Anyway, follow me on Twitter @grantsharpies.