Helen Ellis was struggling to write. After publishing her novel Eating the Cheshire Cat to positive reviews and good sales in 1998, she hit a block. Six years passed before she was able to complete her second novel, which failed to sell. A third also racked up rejections without attracting an offer. To focus on her writing, she quit her job. It didn’t help. No one wanted her fourth book either. Her fifth was published but the sales were poor.
At that point, Ellis stopped writing. “I settled into what became a very happy life,” she told The New York Times. “You ask yourself, ‘What happens if I stop writing?’ First of all, nobody cares. And you put on 10 pounds. That’s all it is.”
She took up poker, winning nearly $20,000 at the World Series of Poker in 2010, then trained Colson Whitehead for his entry into the competition. But still she felt the urge to write. This time though, she turned first to Twitter. She created a Twitter feed called “American Housewife,” with the address @WhatIDoAllDay, and published witty lines from a cynical housewife. She kept track of the lines that were retweeted, collecting the tweets that struck a nerve. Two years later, she merged them into a book called American Housewife. One tweet shared more than a hundred times, “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster,” became the first line of the novel. The book was a bestseller.
That’s not usually how we think of social media. It’s less a tool for testing ideas than a time-suck that helps us to pass a few minutes when we should be doing something else. Instead of working on a presentation or beating the blank page, we scroll through Facebook or laugh at cats on Instagram. How are we expected to get anything done—let alone something creative that requires the development of a train of thought—when a click away is a world of full of pratfall videos and cute animals doing funny things?
It’s not unreasonable to assume that a world that contains social media is likely to have a negative effect on creativity. Workplaces that need their staff to generate and develop new ideas would do well to make sure that their team members aren’t sneaking regular breaks to read Tweets or twerk to TikTok videos.
But the content on social media is itself creative. Instagram contains carefully shot and edited photographic imagery. Video editing on TikTok demands both technical skills and the ability to tell a story. Twitter might contain plenty of dull trolling but it can also be a place where ideas are shared, discussed, and developed.
So does social media stifle creativity? Or does the sharing of opinions and the making of videos strengthen creative muscles and promote original thinking?
Selcuk Acar, Michelle Neumayer, and Cynthia Burnett distributed a survey to more than 400 users of social media. The survey asked the participants how much time they spent on different platforms each day, and what their primary and secondary purposes were in using them. They could choose from reasons including “expression of ideas/opinion,” “relaxation,” “passing the time,” and “entertainment.”
The researchers also asked the participants about the kinds of activity they performed on social media. Activity was divided into active steps such as making Facebook or Instagram posts, and passive activities such as reading Facebook notifications or reviewing other people’s Twitter posts.
Finally, the questionnaire included a Creative Activity and Accomplishments Checklist that contained 50 creative items across five domains: writing, math/science, arts, music, technology, and everyday creativity. Participants indicated the frequency with which they engaged in those creative activities, as well as the quality of their production.
The researchers had two hypotheses. First, they believed that social media would have a positive effect on ideational behavior. They expected to find that social media’s free market for ideas would allow people to share their thoughts, gain free feedback, and build upon their initial concepts. Social media would act as an open source sounding board for the start of creative development. It would encourage creativity.
At the same time though, the researchers also believed that time spent reading tweets or uploading Instagram images was time not spent on actually performing creative activities. Count the number of hours lost watching cat videos, and you might have been able to write the Great American Novel or shoot an award-winning indie movie. Or at least prepare a pitch for a marketing company. Social media use, the researchers thought, would also have a negative effect on creative activity and accomplishments.
When the researchers crunched the numbers, they did find a correlation between spending time on social media and the quantity of creative activities. The more we scroll the less we produce. But they also found that social media didn’t harm creativity itself. In fact, the researchers discovered that time spent using social media “is positively related to ideational behavior and the quality (but not quantity) of creative activity and accomplishment.” You might write fewer novels as a result of watching lots of cat videos on Facebook but the novels you do write will be better—or at least have better cats.
Social media use, they concluded, fosters creativity.
The frequency and nature of the social media use matter. The researchers found that writing, though not reading, Facebook posts improved creativity. As did reading and writing Tweets, creating Instagram posts, and even watching YouTube videos. Creativity was higher among people who use social media primarily for “expressing their ideas and opinions,” “gleaning topics and information to talk about,” and for “self-education and learning.” Even excessive use of social media does not appear to have a negative impact although creativity was lower among people who reach for their phones mostly for entertainment or relaxation.
So using social media can increase the creativity of your work. Making the most of that creativity though depends on understanding why social media can help and on using the right platforms in the right way.
Why Social Media Makes You More Creative
The study’s result are surprising. Social media use feels like a time-suck that gets in the way of other creative work. Despite the researchers’ hypotheses it doesn’t obviously follow that using social media improves creative skills. Previous research has found that time spent on Facebook and other platforms reduces original thinking.
A paper published in 2015 had warned that people use social media too much and are too willing to subject their ideas to social judgment. Instead of thinking for themselves and developing their own thoughts, they look for “likes” and adjust their creative output for the crowd. Instead of producing for the intrinsic satisfaction of making something they like, they seek the extrinsic satisfaction that comes from a share or a retweet. Social media encourages people to work for a notification ping instead of the joy of creation. The paper described the loss of societal creativity generated by social media as a “crisis.”
The researchers’ survey findings refuted that negativity. They put the creative benefits of social media down to a number of reasons.
First, they say, social media serves as an accessible platform for the exchange of ideas and personal expression. Instead of having to persuade a gatekeeper to publish their photos or their short videos, anyone can now upload their creative work and receive an instant audience. “From this perspective, SM provide an egalitarian and democratic context for creative expression,” they argue.
And that creative expression is entirely free. Because social media platforms are open, everyone has complete freedom to post whatever ideas and creative works that they want. “Shortly put,” the researchers conclude, “SM seems to ‘democratize’ creativity.”
While creators might produce works in order to win likes and shares rather than for their own satisfaction, that feedback and support can improve creative output, helping creators to adjust for a market. And the presence of an engaged audience can act as a motivational force, encouraging even more creativity. There’s little point in editing movies, shooting beautiful images, or writing witty one-liners if there’s no one to see them. The risks of conformity that the tastes of a social media audience can present are outweighed by the opportunity that audience offers.
How to Use Social Media to Improve Your Creativity
For anyone prone to open Twitter every time they hit writer’s block or browse through Instagram when they should be editing images, those findings are good news. You can fire up social media to give your creativity a boost. But there are a few things that you should be doing to make the most of social media’s creative potential.
First, you should be creating, rather than just consuming. While the study did find that passive use of Twitter correlated with higher creativity, Facebook and YouTube required active participation. Twitter can deliver new ideas and prompt new ways of thinking but you need to create posts and upload videos to make the most of the other platforms.
Second, you should pay attention to the responses those posts generate. Helen Ellis didn’t just use her Twitter stream to publish her witticisms. She also used the platform to understand which of her witty ideas resonated the most.
That’s less easy—or free—than the study’s authors suggest. Building an audience on social media large enough for any feedback to be worthwhile takes time and effort. Social media platforms provide a place to publish free of gatekeepers or permissions. But they don’t deliver the audience ready-made. You have to create that yourself. Before you can land the creative benefits of feedback on social media, you first have to deliberately invest time in following people and participating in their conversations. You still have to earn social media’s creative benefits.
But you shouldn’t overdo it. One concern that comes up again and again from experts exploring the effects of social media on creativity is that creating for likes stifles innovation. Instead of producing work that makes you happy or developing ideas in original and surprising ways, social media risks pushing people towards the familiar and the expected: another shot of an extended hand leading someone through an exotic location or more pictures of a laptop on the beach.
Instead of aiming to please as many people as possible just a little, targeting the engagement of a niche audience a great deal will do more for your creativity. You’ll have fewer competitors and a better chance of standing out with more original content.
It might not land you a book deal or a place on the bestsellers lists but it could just give you the kind of boost you need to encourage your creativity, develop it further—and not feel too bad about opening up Instagram one more time.