How to stop holding social media wrong and start holding it right, or: an awkward introvert’s guide to not feeling quite so unheard.
Today someone said to me
absolutely nobody ever reads what I write.
And that’s a sentiment I’ve heard a lot from people who call themselves introverts (I have a whole batch of opinions about how we’ve decided to construct “introvert” and “extravert” as a society. I think the concepts are more harmful than helpful), but I think it’s a common enough thing to happen given some combination of social anxiety, a tendency to think about things (even over-think) before speaking, and being sensitive to the perceived status of others.
But in 30 plus years of talking to people on the Internet, including both being one of and dealing with people who are struggling in exactly this way, I have some some strategies, as well as critical reframing to enable some healthier social media use. If this sounds like you, “nobody hears what I have to say”, this is for you, but it’s not going to be super easy, because some of this is about changing goals.
This won’t make you an influencer, it’s not a guide to getting a thousand followers (though it might do that), and it certainly won’t get you a million. I’m just not interested in social media where I’m performing for an audience.
Social media, like most human communication, doesn’t work well with goals approached head on: human attention is a limited resource, and where advertisers and people who want status are around (and that’s everywhere), naively seeking attention doesn’t work. This is not to say that wanting attention is in any way bad: this is a core human need, the care and attention of others is a key part of maintaining our psychological health, but going straight for it without developing the relationships to support it is anti-productive.
You’re not alone: I’d estimate about half of everyone on the Internet feels this way much of the time: unheard, wanting to express themselves, but mostly feeling like if they said anything, they’d be screaming (or whispering) into the void.
My advice is built for social media roughly the shape of Twitter: Mastodon, Twitter & Meta Threads, the sort of place where you can cultivate a relationship with other people existing in public, where things are relatively open, and there’s no strict idea of membership. Some of it may work in other platforms, but the public nature, equal footing, and conversational style are all aspects that I think help. They also have some particular dangers—you are talking in public, so if things veer toward things you wouldn’t want the public to know about you, it may break down, as well as the ever present specter of harassment, though I think relationship building is one facet of making the Internet a safer place to be in public.
The first order of business is to look at goals and reframe them: most people in this position want to be heard, and second to express themselves; this is actually a complicated thing. What that usually means is that we’re seeking human connection, we want response, and relationships forming based on things we find important to us. It’s not just about being heard, but listened to and included. Being heard and expressing ourselves, while they’re the things we’re lacking, happen best as side effects of relationship building, so the goal is not to be heard but to have good conversation over a timescale of weeks.
We’re used to conversations having a very functional purpose: to convey information, to make a request, to answer a question. This is actually an unhelpful thing, because good relationship building is open-ended: answered questions, requests accepted or denied, or information conveyed are end states, they are conversation enders. Instead, building relationships is open questions, persistent interests, and ongoing history. Not to say that those functional components don’t have their place, but they’re not the point.
We’re also used to conversations as they’re portrayed in media, and modeled spoken aloud. While short-form social media has a lot of similarities to these, they’re distinctly different: they’re asynchronous (replies can come hours or years later), they’re slow (even though they’re often quite timely), and they’re open-ended: unless we lock down our accounts or disable replies or whatever the platform allows, the conversation can usually continue in some form down the road, whether as direct replies or just picking up the topic again with similar groups of people.
One thing that all of these platforms have in common is that anyone can follow anyone (more or less; some accounts are locked). Brands want to be followed to disseminate ads and garner attention; influencers are also seeking an audience. Some people just feel compelled to have an account to announce what they’re working on. All of these are very asymmetrical relationships with their followers, and are not particularly likely to be people you form good relationships with. At best they will be parasocial, where the connection is one way and mostly imagined, and at worst they will make you feel like you’re shouting into the void.
Next, it’s very easy to discount someone who’s an expert or (in your mind) highly thought of about the topic you’re interested in. Don’t! There are times when they won’t really be open to communicating with you, but by and by large, experts in things—especially the sciences or anything niche—love to talk about their topic. The question is can you relate to them on a useful level? If you don’t mind listening to an expert be mostly intelligible but sometimes end up talking about nuances or specifics you don’t know, go for it! If they only talk about things that are completely over your head, or they’re mean about it, they’re unlikely to be a good match.
One other thing to watch out for: don’t ask for people’s services for free. Don’t ask for specific health advice from doctors, legal advice from lawyers, art from artists. That’s what being a paying client is for. Now if you want to ask them their opinion about the world instead of about your situation or interest or desire, go for it.
But what you really want is to find a group of people who are interested in things you want to talk about in a similar way: do you want to hear other learners talk about the basics of a thing? Experts in the field? People passionate about the thing? People who want to talk about the ways their work connects to the world? People who created the thing and what they think about what they made? Or people with a similarly fannish interest?
If you want to talk fan theories about a work, follow and talk to other fans. If you want to hear about the creation of a work, follow its author, editor, publisher or people interviewing them about that. In some fields it will be a close and mixed circle. In some it will be very different groups, maybe not overlapping at all. (Authors often hate to hear what fans—and haters—are saying about their work!)
What do you want to connect with other people over? What things do you care about? What sorts of things do you wish you could express yourself about, but nobody around you does?
It’s also best if you can find something that people don’t all agree on. The goal all of this isn’t to be correct, to have the right opinions and gain status that way, but to usefully explore the variations of the topic with other people. For me that’s social justice and how social media should work, and communities (which leads into politics and labor organizing pretty naturally); but it works for tech things too. I prefer author spaces to fan spaces. I’d rather hear how an author thinks about stories than what plot holes fans can identify. I want to hear how fan fiction writers are thinking about their stories, too, and not just people talking about last night’s episode of whatever it is. Your mileage may vary, but do think about what kinds of conversation you want to have. And again: the goal is not to be heard, don’t evaluate that, but to connect: are these people you want to listen to as well?
Find the people talking about that stuff, and get up in their replies. Ask probing questions sometimes. Nothing super invasive or fast paced annoying, but the kind of thing where over the course of a few weeks, you’d have a few repeated interactions with the same people. Follow those people, and the best of the people replying to them. Don’t just hound a single target, look for and join existing conversations: find the things people say, and let them know you heard them. It feels strange that feeling heard involves making others feel heard, but that’s relationship development for you. It’s very reciprocal, even while it’s not transactional.
Then when you find an opinion you have a unique take on, say it! Ideally they’ll be following you by then, or at least some of them. A boost from them gets you into the group you’re hoping to participate in, but if not, don’t worry. This also becomes a history when people look at your profile when you reply to a conversation. They may see something related or relevant to them, and follow you for it. Having an opinion rather than waiting until it’s safe makes that so, so much more likely. In any case, you’re first starting as a nice and kind ‘reply guy’ and eventually maturing into ‘community member’ of that little subgraph. You don’t need to prove your knowledge, and trying to do so will be harmful. Instead, ask good questions, fave posts that are insightful. Boost things that you think are particularly neat. If you have a related thing in an adjacent discipline or fandom or whatever, link them up! That’s the gold that makes other people feel seen. And if you do it, it will start happening to you. And a thread of four or five thoughts is a good length. You don’t need to do epic mega-threads of everything you know, but if you start thinking “this could be a blog post” but not a long one, you’re probably on the right track. Especially if you are intrigued by what you’re writing, not doing it for the attention. Your own care about your own communication shows when others read it.
My rules are basically “spread out the load, across people and time”, “never fight” and “disagree freely when it matters”, but in the end it’s relationship building, not “expressing yourself”; but ideally those relationships are places where expressing yourself is natural and happy. Relationships don’t need to be strictly equal, but ideally you’ll become a peer of others. You may not have credentials, but you can grow a reputation for caring about something and some people. That’s all that matters.
This should get you started building relationships online and in public. It won’t get you a hive mind of people to give you advice, it’s not how you build a circle of besties (though it might give you some tools and confidence to do so, and the advice to give what you want to get definitely works there too.)
And for what it’s worth, feel free to @ me on Mastodon, especially about this stuff.