And why that title should give you pause.
I don’t like the word “hate.” But I’m starting to hate social media and how it’s subtly changing the way we tell and share creative works, particularly stories. In this article, I’ll share some thoughts on how social media “reviews” and how the mass distribution of opinions might shape creativity. And while it’s not all bad, it does pose significant challenges for artists of all types, most especially storytellers.
Let’s dig a little deeper, and then I’ll throw out some thoughts about subtle changes we might be able to make to turn the tide of the onrushing “mob mentality.”
Reviews, Opinions, and Nonsense
Opinions and “reviews” used to be — and often still are — incredibly valuable for decision-making. I’ll read through dozens of Amazon customer reviews before buying a product. But as social media transforms the way we make decisions, how can we prevent public outrage or cultural adoration from influencing the way we tell stories?
First off, though, let me describe what I’m seeing…
Great Scott, Marty! It’s time to hop in our Delorean and travel back to the early 90s. Back then, information was harder to obtain, and people with expertise or experience gave us valuable opinions and insights that we used to make better decisions. For example, when I was a kid I watched Siskel and Ebert to see what new movies I might be interested in watching. Their opinions shaped how I spent money on movies. My dad would also purchase thick books full of movie reviews, and I would read those books like they were novels to try and discover movies I’d never seen before.
That’s because, prior to Al Gore inventing the Internet (apologies for the 90s humor), we had a limited number of sources for information-gathering. Another profound example: we rarely knew how our friends felt about the movies they’d seen. Why? Because in order to find out, we’d have to talk to them in person or over the phone. Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist and weren’t shoving opinions at us yet.
[Side note: it was also WAY easier to avoid spoilers…]
But in 2021, opinions are prevalent, pervasive, and even profitable. Anyone can express their opinion at any time, publicly, with as little nuance or critical thought as they desire.
On one hand, that’s not a terrible thing. I might trust my friend’s opinion more than I trust a complete stranger’s, and I appreciate knowing what my friend thinks. Except, there’s also a dark underbelly of rampant opinion-sharing, and I believe it impacts creators and storytellers. And I think it might pose a significant threat to artists, creators, and storytellers.
What if “reviews” (particularly public opinions about creative works) have gone beyond helping us make better decisions? What if these “reviews” (i.e., the shared opinions of the masses) are being used for something far more insidious.
Here’s my take: “reviews” and opinions are being used less for decision-making and far more often for tribe-building.
The Last Jedi and Tribal Warfare
Let’s take The Last Jedi as a prime example: Were most of the social media posts being shared about that film trying to help others decide whether or not they should see it? Of course not. Instead, The Last Jedi nearly broke the Star Wars fandom by creating two factions: those who loved it, and those who hated it. Those who loved it often cited how well it broke the Star Wars mold and added layers to the saga (even spawning a sub-tribe of “Reylos”). Those who hated it focused on how it didn’t feel like classic Star Wars (with some sub-tribes even calling it too “woke” and declaring that it proved Star Wars was being led by a Leftist agenda). Even Ben Shapiro — a political commentator — used The Last Jedi controversy to help build his tribe.
Were these “reviews” and opinions being shared as a critical response to a creative work? No, of course not. They were being shared to get follows and likes. They were being shared to build tribes that could band together to fight a common enemy: those who disagreed with them about the given creative work.
But hey, so what? Humans have always formed tribes. What’s the big deal?
For me personally, as a storyteller, those tribes represent the potential for a rift in the basic creative process itself.
The Good and the Bad of the Rampant Tribalism Found on Social Media
It should be noted that tribes and power structures have always existed relative to the production of creative works. And the breakdown of those tribes can also be a welcome change. Without the breakdown and re-building of power structures in Hollywood, we may never have made strides for improved diversity and representation in our stories (and we still have plenty of room to grow). My point isn’t that I’d like to go back to something that was broken. Not at all. My goal is to identify potential issues and try to find ways to solve them or work around them as we look to the future.
If society has turned “reviews” and opinions into tribe-building exercises, what does that do to the creative process?
Before I turn to the negative and express my concerns, let me acknowledge two positives (I’m sure there are more, but these two stand out):
- New creators and artists have a chance to shine. This can be amazing. If a producer/publisher refused to resource an artist’s work, the artist could find their tribe and use that to sell their work and build an audience. That’s awesome, and far easier to do in 2021 than in 1991 or earlier when social media platforms were not available.
- Bypassing the gatekeeper is easier than ever. Systems always have gatekeepers. They used to be actual human beings. And those human beings had preferences. Now, gatekeeping has been democratized, which means that artists can find a tribe and let them “vote” on whether or not they like the creative work.
Those two positives shine. They’re great. Maybe they occasionally even outweigh the negatives. But in some cases they don’t. Let’s take a look at those negatives:
Previously, gatekeepers formed bonds within the production system. When a gatekeeper accepted the creative work, it meant something. Producers then brought experts in to guide the creative work to completion. That generally resulted in changes to the creative work that weren’t always welcome by those involved. Editors, directors, and producers changed the writer’s intent, for example. But they also took the brunt of the audience’s eventual reaction. The risk, so to speak, was diluted and shared across the team. The original vision of the artist (in this example, the writer) was altered, but not during the creation of the work. In other words, the writer’s intent was pure when he or she was putting words on the page. It was only altered after the work was sold.
Now, producers aren’t just looking at the opinions of gatekeepers. They’re looking to see whether or not artists and creators have integrated themselves into tribes. Have a tribe? Perfect. That means you might have something worth producing.
What effect does that have on the creator? It means the creator must create for the tribe. Now, as someone who has started several businesses and coached dozens of startup founders, this is a foundational principle of business. It’s often stated in some pithy saying, like: “the customer is always right” or “give the people what they want.” And despite the simplistic nature of those sayings, there’s a lot of truth to them for someone looking to make money by meeting customer needs and wants.
But that leads us to the core issue: do we want artists to just “give people what they want”? Wherein lies the case for creativity? What if the audience doesn’t want a tragic ending that the writer feels is necessary? What if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged by an alternative viewpoint that the writer feels needs to be expressed?
At what point does the artist look more like the YouTube algorithm than he or she resembles someone who’s really attempting to portray truth?
My second concern is a natural progression that comes out of my first concern, because what follows attention? Money. As much as journalists decried the actions of Donald Trump in his quest to paint many of them as “fake news,” guess who benefitted from that? The producers of media, both the mainstream media (each outlet its own tribe) and all the additional tribes that rose up to combat the mainstream media tribes. And guess what, where eyeballs go, so do advertisers. Despite Donald Trump declaring war on mainstream media, he created demand for it (as well as the smaller outlets).
What’s the point? Creative outlets are no different. Attention drives revenue. And now, as tribes demand content, storytellers have to pause. Do they produce content the tribe will love and take the payday more eyeballs offer? Or do they pursue the best possible story, even if it means the tribe itself might reject them?
Monetary rewards or societal rejection? That’s quite a carrot and quite a stick.
Rejection from a lone gatekeeper was a hit to the artist’s self esteem, but it was just one person. Caleb Monroe, my co-host on the Impactful Writing Podcast (part of The Story Geeks Network of shows) and fellow writer of things, said (in relation to gatekeepers): “If you write something terrible, that person probably won’t even remember it.” He’s right. Being rejected by a gatekeeper sucks, but it’s not being rejected by an entire tribe.
Being rejected by a tribe is something else entirely. It threatens the very nature of the artist’s ability to achieve future success. It means being ostracized by a collective group of people who had formerly helped the artist build a foundation for their career.
Combine societal and monetary pressure and… well, that’s a lot to overcome to stay true to the creative art.
My Encouragement to Artists and Creators
Temptation abounds! Fame and money sit at the feet of the artist like potential Holy Grails at the fingertips of Indiana Jones. But unlike in The Last Crusade, the shiny object sitting in front of artists may provide actual success — the tribe’s adoration and worship. And money may follow.
And maybe that’s the goal for some artists. Maybe they would engage with my thoughts and say: “Why not give the tribe what it wants? Why challenge their thinking or their emotional state when I could just appease them as my worshippers and reap the benefit of their adoration? That sounds pretty good to me.”
Why indeed. My question back to the artist is simply: What is the point of art if not to reflect the human condition? What is the point of art if not to encourage conviction or inspire the audience to change? Entertainment has a place, but it’s a pretty shallow place upon which to build a legacy.
I’m not of the opinion that fan service is a bad thing. Fan service can be a thrilling audience experience. I love The Mandalorian and it’s full of fan service. But I don’t want pure fan service. I want to be surprised. I want to see artists take risks. I want to see creators swing for the fences. But most of all, I want to engage in stories that force me to consider the truth. Not the lies I’d like to tell myself, but the actual, sometimes painful truth of being a human.
So, fellow audience members and creative geniuses… what shall we do in response to this challenge?
I’ve got a couple ideas. One, I think it’s imperative that artists and storytellers should find ways to address the truth in ways that the audience can still be receptive to. In other words, rather than avoiding tough subjects, artists and storytellers can approach the truth with nuance and care. Still challenging the audience, but not attempting to create a rift. I used Donald Trump and the media as an example earlier. Don’t be a Donald Trump by declaring war on a tribe. Rather, maybe take an approach that’s more similar to Barack Obama (careful and winsome) or even George W. Bush (endearing and humble) in addressing a topic that may put a tribe on the defensive. (In the other example I used, The Last Jedi, I think the old guard Star Wars tribe was put on the defensive because the movie almost assumed that what they liked about Star Wars was “stupid” or “bad.”)
Take care to challenge the values of a given tribe, but do it with love, care, and humility.
Secondly, we have to address the way we elevate conversations about art and stories on social media. That goes for artists and storytellers and their audiences. What if, before we share our strongly held belief about a creative work on social media, we stop to consider these questions…
- How did this story impact me?
- What did I find uncomfortable about it?
- What did the work make me feel?
- How did it change or challenge my perceptions? And how did I respond to that change or challenge?
Answer those questions, and then write the social media post. Because those questions may just lead to more meaningful discussions. They might break down tribal structures as opposed to building them up. And they most certainly will encourage creators to produce better, more meaningful stories, not just stories meant to give the tribe what it wants, but stories that truly attempt to find the shared human experience.
Oh, and we probably also need to ignore the trolls who don’t want to mentally engage in more complex conversations. If we identify a person who has transformed into a troll, we can make one attempt at trying to bring them back into a healthy discussion, but if they refuse the invitation, we can probably just ignore them.
What do you think? Am I onto something or have I gone completely off the rails? Leave me a comment down below. Let me know if you’ve already experienced the concerns I’ve put out there, or even if you’ve reaped the benefits of this new norm. I’d love to hear about your lived experience! Thanks for reading!