Thanks to Twitter, Writers Are More Influential Than Publishers
A few years back, my path to pop culture enlightenment was blissfully simple. I would open up Grantland and read whichever stories piqued my interest. The same way my daily routine relied on a cereal of choice (Honey Bunches of Oats) and a toothpaste of choice (Crest Pro-Health), I had developed a relationship with a publisher of choice.
But over time, my habits changed, and not just because Grantland died prematurely (RIP, you are missed). On occasion, I still browse the homepages of Slate, The Atlantic, and New York magazine, but my loyalties have shifted from publishers to writers. Why search for any old cultural opinion when I can seek out Wesley Morris? Why scroll endlessly for a select few morsels on a site when I can just find links on Rembert Browne’s Twitter feed?
At the heart of this shift is social media, or, more specifically, Twitter. It’s where writers, previously veiled behind the curtain of a parent publication, can construct their own sphere of influence. Twitter is more than just a tool to show off the person behind the prose—it’s where writers become their own brands.
My loyalties have shifted from publishers to writers.
“Finding writers through Twitter has been less due to specific writers tweeting and more due to other people I respect tweeting out a writer’s work,” said Amos Barshad, senior writer at The Fader (and formerly of Grantland). “I feel like you can be a great self-promoter, but ultimately it’s the quality of your work that leads people to share your stuff.”
When a writer you admire shares someone else’s article, it feels like a recommendation from a friend, an endorsement that likely aligns with your own preferences for style and topic. I’m now a fan of the work of Jason Parham, senior editor at The Fader, all because Rembert Browne tweeted a link to one of his stories.
“Every reporter’s Twitter feed is an ego-driven vanity project, and mine is no exception,” conceded Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor at The Verge. “But it has absolutely expanded my readership, particularly to other journalists, many of whom only noticed my work once they followed me back. And Twitter has introduced me to tons of great writers and media personalities. Aminatou Sow, Caroline O’Donovan, James Hamblin, Katie Benner, Jessica Misener, and Max Read all come to mind.”
A few years ago, Shea Serrano, who wrote for Grantland and now contributes to The Ringer, taught middle school science in Houston while dabbling in the city’s hip-hop journalism scene on the side. Now he’s a New York Times best-selling author—read The Rap Year Book—with a legion of Twitter followers so passionate in their fandom that they might as well be a cult (don’t worry, the good kind of cult).
In fact, when Serrano took a brief hiatus between his Grantland and Ringer gigs, his fans were so voracious in their clamor for new content that he created a weekly email newsletter, focusing on basketball and other things, and featuring funky illustrations from frequent collaborator Arturo Torres. After two weeks, over 14,000 people subscribed, serving as an interesting case study into potential opportunities for writers looking to thrive on their own.
“Twitter has helped a bunch,” Serrano told me, “because it allows for me to be a presence in a space without having to hit people up directly.” In essence, as social media shrinks the world and streamlines mass communication, it’s easier than ever for an individual to develop a substantial readership.
Of course, Twitter doesn’t always work as a pedestal for amplifying writers. The downside to giving everyone a voice is, well… now everyone has a voice. There are plenty of people who don’t know how to use it, or abuse that privilege.
When a writer you admire shares someone else’s article, it feels like a recommendation from a friend.
“I made a joke once like, ‘All Twitter can do is convince a stranger that you’re a genius or an idiot,'” said Jeremy Gordon, associate editor at Spin. “There are writers who I think greatly of because of their writing, and then I’m happy to find them intelligent, funny, and incisive on Twitter. And then there are writers who I’m skeptical of, and I find their Twitter personality is basically the same—self-aggrandizing, uncharitable, and defensive.”
Despite the fractured media landscape and its boundless (and overwhelming) potential for expansion, the role of social as a platform for building writers into personal brands isn’t going anywhere. Two years ago, a leaked New York Times report showed that homepage visits to the Gray Lady had decreased by almost 50 percent, even though overall traffic had largely stayed the same thanks to social media referrals.
“My sense, as someone who has been involved in online content for twenty years, is that the previous system people constructed to keep informed of the things they care about—’I’m going to go to sites on a regular basis and see what they have for me’—is a behavior diminishing over time,” explained Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “I think, at most, there are now two or three sites people make a habit of visiting, and the rest of their media consumption is driven by their social streams.”
Or, as Barshad put it when asked if content sharing will increase on social media: “I feel confident that the internet will continue to exist.”Image by Unsplash / Creative Commons, Zero Nadezhda Shlemina / Shutterstock, Didora / Shutterstock