by Lydia Kakwera Levy
Is Social Media good for Contemporary African Writers? What are some benefits and drawbacks of using social media to publish one’s work? At a recent panel discussion celebrating the five-year anniversary of Writivism, the topic of social media was front and center. Participants in the Writivism project- which views writing as activism— noted that social media is an emerging issue for contemporary African writers. The discussion, which took place at SOAS University of London, was moderated by Marcelle Akita, co-founder of Afrikult; and consisted of panel members: Lizzy Attree- Writivism Board member, Nick Makoha- poet, Sumayya Lee, Writivism advisor and author, and Nancy Adimora—Founding editor of Afreada. These experts outlined the benefits and drawbacks of using social media – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – to publish one’s work.
For contemporary African writers, social media has become a critical tool to access the market. As the panel members pointed out, social media brings forth professional and monetary benefits. Professionally, social media is a tool that allows Africans writers to publicize their work without the standards imposed by western gatekeepers, who often hesitate to publish African stories. It has become an important avenue to engage the public and to speak on or promote issues that are happening in one’s community or home.
Publishing through social media can also bring monetary benefits. Lizzy Attree, who has advised writers in the Writivism workshops, finds that social media is an excellent tool for distribution of a book. In fact, it is a cost-effective way for an author to deliver their product to a targeted audience without the constraints of printing materials, finding a distributor and marketing one’s work. Also, in a location with few bookstores or libraries, social media allows an audience to access a book or poem on their phone. The more authors publish, the more they become respected voices in the field; thus, social media can help to reinforce a writer’s brand which helps to sell physical books. As Nick Makoha pointed out, traditional publishers also are interested in writers with an online presence; it is a sign of their clout. A strong social media presence can lead to recognition through prizes, grants and other professional training opportunities. In many ways, the benefits of social media are its ability to liberate a writer; as Nancy Adimora noted, it promotes “storytelling.”
However, we should not ignore the drawbacks of social media. For example, social media is not a place where emerging writers can receive constructive criticism. Writers need expertise—they need professionals who can review, edit, and advice them on how to improve a text. As one panelist pointed out, a serious writer cannot use likes alone to measure the quality of their writing; writers still need proofreaders, fact checkers, and content editors. They need people who are invested in their particular work and who can make sure that the text meets some level of standards. Another drawback of social media is that it often triggers immediate responses, both positive and negative, but the attention fades quickly without giving an author insight into the quality of their work. It can be a shallow place that does not challenge the writer to improve his/her work. Lastly, physical books are essential for emerging writers to see and learn how an author developed the plot or characters or the setting; without physical books, the craft itself suffers. To summarize, writers should take advantage of the benefits that come from social media, at the same time using the knowledge that come from conventional ways of publishing.