“Clearly the motivation to create posts can’t be all about the response … If I’m not getting much response, then I am losing the will to make the posts.”
An artist on my email list shared her frustration with the social universe, and its effect on her motivation to share her work.
She writes this about becoming disenchanted with Instagram: “Other people seem to be able to fart and get a thousand likes. I know Insta-jealousy is a losing game. But it just mystifies me why the good stuff I put out gets so very little response, anywhere.”
It’s hard putting your work out in the world. But it’s even harder when you hear nothing back in response.
When All You Can See is the Wake
We cannot see the people who encounter our work, or watch its effect on them. All we see are the digital signals curated and presented on online platforms. So, we search for indications that we have found an audience:
- How many people opened the email?
- How many comments or likes did a post get?
Likes, shares, and comments are the digital wake left behind by human behavior.
Like the wake left by a ship, they show us where a ship has been and where it might be heading. For example, if an email you send gets a high open rate, you can safely assume that the subject interests many of its recipients. If a post generates heated discussion in the comments, you’ll know you touched a nerve.
The negative case is not as clear. An email with few opens might have appeared at a bad time. If nobody likes a post, may the right people weren’t online at the right time to see it.
Some of the data is downright misleading.
LinkedIn or Facebook will tell you how many “views” your posts have. A high number is certainly good—you cannot connect with someone if they never see your writing.
Despite the name, this bit of data doesn’t mean that someone actually read, or even skimmed, the post. Instead, it means that your post appeared on someone’s screen as they were scrolling. A “view” doesn’t necessarily make an impression.
What Happens When We Chase the Wake
Positive notifications feel good. Research shows that social media “likes” stimulate the brain’s ‘reward circuitry’ in teens. It’s probably true of adults as well.
You don’t need a scientific study to tell you that seeing positive reinforcement for your content online feels good. It’s a nice dopamine hit, leading us to crave more.
We end up chasing those statistics and algorithms, focusing on the likes. We are drawn into writing clickbait—valuing data for its own sake.
As a result, we often lose our way and divert from our purpose.
Likes are Trailing Indicators
Clicks, likes, and opens are trailing indicators of human behavior, like the wake left behind an enormous ship.
In this case, the ship is a mass of popular opinion. Acting based on “likes” is like analyzing the ship’s wake and then setting your course and hoping to get in front of it.
If we want to change the direction of the ship, we need to contact the captain, or at least reach a bunch of the passengers. And when we chase the giant cruise ships, we lose sight of the smaller vessels that may carry our true audiences.
Perhaps your purpose is to make a deep impact on a few people who affect genuine change. Isn’t that more meaningful than having thousands of followers pressing a like button?
Find the people you want to influence, because they’re what matters. Focus on them. Treasure a personal interaction over a piece of data.