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Twitter Isn't Real Life August 7, 2021

As an introvert who adores working from home, I weathered the 2020 pandemic shutdowns with my mental health mostly intact. But also as a California flower that thrives in warm sunshine, I struggle during winter in the Pacific Northwest. And this January was particularly tough, what with the never-ending precautions to avoid a horrific disease, and transitioning to a fantastic but very busy new day job, and wondering whether our country's anti-monarchial constitution would go up in flames less than 250 years after it was written.

Marian Keyes's free writing classes were a soothing antidote to the toxicity of January 2021. Her videos encouraged me to break through my fears and restart work on Our Little White Lie (which I still privately call Kagemusha.)

Watching one video, though, I disagreed with Marian's advice. She said she created the voice of a Millennial character in her last novel by reading a lot of Twitter. Marian said she's fascinated by the way younger women today express themselves, so she learns a lot from social media and emulates it.

A common meme on Twitter is, "Twitter isn't real life." Usually it means the population of Twitter isn't representative of the wider world. Twitter is a progressive bubble, so we shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking that because everyone on "this bird site" supports universal healthcare, Palestinian independence, and trans rights, the rest of society will follow.

But the meme can have other meanings, like reminding people that Twitter drama is less important than it feels, or that putting the Black Lives Matter hashtag in a bio isn't effective activism. Because this is a writing blog, I'll discuss another one: the way people speak and behave on the internet is not the way they speak and behave in real life.

I started lurking on Twitter a couple of years ago for the sake of Our Little White Lie. In the novel, the shy half-Chinese protagonist Rachel invents the social media persona of a confident white romance novelist to sell books written by her crush, an eccentric Persian man with an "unsellable" name. Twitter becomes an enormous part of Rachel's life and affects the way she thinks, so I needed to experience that too.

Nothing I say on Twitter is my natural voice. With a limit of 280 characters, tweets must be pithy and carefully constructed. I can never compose a tweet and simply hit "Tweet." I write what I want to say, and it's too long, so I have to make modifications: shortening sentences with contractions I don't usually use, swapping in the word "folks" for "people," employing ALL CAPS for EMPHASIS. A tweet has a lot of hyperbolic emotion stuffed into it simply because proper words won't fit.

The "brands" people present on social media are also extremely cultivated. Imagine it's high school, and you want to get in with the cool kids, but everything you say is recorded. When total strangers look at you, they see the complete transcript floating over your head. Naturally, you start sharing only the parts of you that will be "liked" by the people around you. You contort yourself to fit expectations of being fun and modern, or witty and cynical, but above all, absolutely flawless and beyond reproach at all times. If you slip up when you're tired and utter one sentence that's a little under-informed, a little selfish, a little of luck to you.

Reading popular novels published in recent years has often felt like reading Twitter. Twitter may be made up of millions of users, but it has a collective voice. A certain type of content gets liked, spread around, and emulated: cutesy, edgy moral indignation.

As a former college employee, I spent quite a bit of time around young adults, and I never heard a single one of them talk the same way in real life. But as a somewhat regular reader, I see fictional young adults talk like they're tweeting all the time.

Cutesy, Edgy Jokes

The brand of humor that succeeds on social media is mean. Twitter loves witty cracks that cut others down to size. They applaud snappy "burns" and tart comebacks that eviscerate a perceived enemy's intelligence, integrity, or physical traits.

In real life, people who often make cruel jokes at the expense of others are not well liked. People may tolerate them, and smile at them politely, but in private they condemn them. They certainly don't fall instantly in love with them because their insults are irresistibly alluring.

In a popular romance novel published last year, the heroine meets the hero while she's having a loud phone conversation with a friend. Unaware that the hero is within earshot, the heroine jokes that her friend owes her boss specific sexual favors. Then she notices the hero, who dresses her down for holding a private conversation in public and sarcastically offers directions to a sex shop, where she can air her deviance in comfort. The heroine snaps that there's no need for directions—she'll just follow him the next time he goes out. The hero laughs incredulously, and from then on he acts as if the heroine's retort was an arrow from Cupid's bow.

Imagine meeting a new neighbor, and the first words they say to you are snide digs about your sexuality. Would you think that person is cute? Or would you find them nasty and even threatening? The actions of both of these characters are unnatural. A well-adjusted man who overhears the embarrassing conversation of a woman he doesn't know would probably pretend he heard nothing or gently remind her how far sound can carry. A woman who's offered directions to a sex shop by a man she doesn't know would probably flee into her home, make sure all the doors and windows are locked, and call her loved ones to complain there's a crazy pervert next door.

Though people say all kinds of things to strangers on the internet, in person we filter our words and moderate our behavior to protect our reputations and personal safety. If writers emulate the kind of "banter" they see on Twitter, the resulting dialogue will be artificial.

Indignant Speeches

Twitter is full of angry proclamations condemning sexism, racism, ableism, and any other kind of -ism in existence.

But when the topic of -isms comes up in real life, the contents and tone of the conversations are different. People discuss specific controversial incidents or institutional policies that affect them. They share their personal stories and feelings. They don't simply launch into spontaneous break-room lectures about pronouns and the oppression of marginalized peoples.

Fictional characters, however, seem to be doing so with increasing frequency, and we end up with very preachy books.

Here's a piece of dialogue from a big emotional moment in another romance that was popular a couple of years ago. The speaker is a young prince whose family disapproves of his boyfriend because they're afraid of public criticism.

"What are we even defending here, Philip? What kind of legacy? What kind of family, that says, we'll take the murder, we'll take the raping and pillaging and the colonizing, we'll scrub it up nice and neat in a museum, but oh no, you're a bloody poof?"

Now I admit I don't know any princes, but I know that when young people feel hurt and wronged by their families, they don't deliver eloquent speeches about the harmful effects of imperialism. A boy in this situation might blurt out that he knew his family was backwards, but he didn't know they were this bad; that they're hypocrites who are obsessed with looking like good people who care about the country, but they really only care about themselves; etc. The leap from the natural feeling of "you all suck" to an enlightened rant about "raping and pillaging and colonizing" is too great to be believable.


Writers can learn many things from social media. You can learn about the experiences and concerns of people you wouldn't ordinarily meet, and even if you did they wouldn't feel comfortable talking about such things in person. You can learn about what kinds of trends and stories capture people's interest. Sometimes you can learn about useful things like resources for writers and recommended books on craft you hadn't seen before.

But social media can't teach us about natural human behavior and speech. Those are things we can observe only by living and working with real people. If social media becomes the primary way writers interact with others, the patterns they pick up can hurt their work, not improve it.


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