Does using social media interfere with creativity?

Using social-media tools like Twitter, Facebook and blogs has become almost a necessity for musicians, authors and creative professionals of all kinds, as a way of both promoting their work and connecting with their fans. But can doing all this get in the way of the creative spark that makes them artists in the first place? Singer John Mayer raised a warning flag about exactly that in a recent presentation to young musicians, telling them to avoid social media and concentrate on the music. Fellow musician David Usher, however, says that while he agrees Twitter can become addictive and distracting, young artists still need to do it.

Mayer, who has won several Grammy awards for his music, told students at the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts that using social media — including his blog and a very active Twitter account that at one point had more than 4 million followers — got so distracting that he started focusing on that rather than creating new music. According to a Berklee blog post about his presentation, Mayer said that he started asking himself questions like “Is this a good blog? Is this a good tweet?” instead of “Is this a good song title? Is this a good bridge?” Mayer added:

I realized about a year ago that I couldn’t have a complete thought anymore. And I was a tweetaholic… I stopped using twitter as an outlet and I started using twitter as the instrument to riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and smaller. And I couldn’t write a song.

Mayer’s struggles with Twitter have been well publicized, thanks to his former relationship with actress Jennifer Aniston, which made him a target of the tabloid press. He quit Twitter in late 2010 — after reports that his “obsession with Twitter” caused problems in his relationship with the actress — and he has spoken out before about how he believes that no one who participates in Twitter has created any “lasting art.”

To see if Mayer’s views were shared by other professional musicians, I asked David Usher for his thoughts on the topic. Usher, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose former band Moist had a number of top 10 hits in the late 1990s (and someone I consider a friend, in the interests of full disclosure) has been an avid user of all forms of social media in his successful solo career, including his blog, Twitter account and Facebook page. He even helped develop a digital-media tool called DEQQ that allows fans to talk with him directly and get updates about songs.

Usher, who is currently on tour, said that he has also struggled with the impact that social media has on his life as an artist — primarily the effort and time that it takes to engage in all of those forms of communication, but also the psychological distraction that always being connected brings. While Usher said he loves to “play with all the new shiny social media toys” when they come out, and loves the fact that Twitter and Facebook provide “a new way for us to communicate and connect,” he also finds it a distraction.

The addiction to the endless interruption and engagement does make it hard to find the flow of creation. The endless ping of your phone makes it harder to live in the moment, to be present. Observing life is so much a part of the creative process for me that the constant distraction of social media has become problematic.

The singer said that while he has not cancelled Twitter or shut down his blog the way Mayer has, he is trying to scale back his involvement more. “I want to try to figure out how to stay connected without being the guy who is always looking at his iPhone — it’s not an easy balance,” he said. Some of that involves trying to connect more aspects of his social-media world together, such as syndicating his blog through Facebook and Twitter, and connecting Facebook comments into his blog. “I’m really trying to limit the pages I need to look at to stay connected,” he added.

One thing the singer disagrees with when it comes to Mayer’s views on social media, however, is the necessity for young artists to use these tools to promote themselves and their work. In his Berklee presentation, Mayer said that the constant urgency that some artists feel to update their blogs or YouTube channels with new songs or clips was also a distraction, and that musicians should focus on writing good music and let the promotional part wait until later. Usher said this wasn’t a realistic approach:

I actually don’t think it’s great advice to tell young artists not to bother with social media. It’s like saying don’t use the telephone. That’s fine if you have a huge machine that will do all your talking and promotion for you — but most of us still need to let people know we are playing. You can have the greatest songs in the world but if the room is empty, it still sucks.

In the end, the singer-songwriter said, artists of all kinds, whether new or well-established, have to find their own “social media voice,” and then manage that in such a way so that it doesn’t become too much of a distraction. I think this advice extends beyond just the artistic world. Anyone who has spent much time on Twitter or Facebook or even Google+ knows that such networks can become a “time suck” that threatens to overwhelm other aspects of your life. Some of that — and some of the talk about Twitter “addiction” — might be explained by the chemical changes in the brain that research shows take place when we engage with others through social media.

The bottom line, however, is that while managing the use of these networks may be difficult, it is becoming a skill that we all need to master, whether we are famous musicians or not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Alessandro Reginato and Social Sidekick