Social Media’s Negative Effect on Prose Style

I’ve noticed this strange trend in the prose style of novels, and I’ve wondered why it’s happening. I finally realized that the prevalence of social media is almost certainly the culprit.

I won’t try to write a whole thesis on the history of this type of thing, but I think it’s pretty commonly accepted that social trends can be a big influence on prose style.

Dickens was wordy because of how serialization worked. The modernists produced intentionally difficult and confusing writing to show how difficult and confusing the world was after the world wars.

And so on.

Here’s the old rule that’s been changing:

Show emotions using subtext.

Stating emotions outright is considered a bit of a faux pas for a reason. It’s a special case of the “show, don’t tell” rule.

When I first started working on my fiction, this came up everywhere. There’s a time and place where it’s acceptable to write: “Joe was mad.” But mostly, this is the result of lazy or untrained writing.

One can show so much more nuance with subtext. Why is he mad? How mad is he? How is it affecting his actions and choices?

Not to mention, showing the emotion makes Joe more human and three-dimensional, because there will be complexity and confusion about the answers to all the questions. It can also turn a passive statement of fact into action.

Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.

The reader can interpret their own emotions into this. Most of the time when I see this rule violated, it’s because the writer doesn’t trust the reader. It shows up in addition to the action:

Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She wanted to upset Joe by flirting with someone else. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head, because he was mad.

Yeah. All that telling can be read into the scene given the context of the rest of the novel or story. Here’s what it sounds like removed:

Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.

In real life, I’d try to flesh it out a bit more, but you see the point. Now, I obviously can’t prove that social media has caused this shift, but it makes perfect sense. As a culture, we’re inundated with people’s status updates.

Most of the stories we read are people blatantly telling us their emotions with no subtext. I did a search for the word “mad” on Twitter. Here’s the most recent one:

This is pretty typical. Social media posts tend to be a raw, unfiltered dump of how someone feels. Most social media posts are accompanied by a picture or video. This does the hard work of apt description for the writer.

I don’t want to come off as saying this is “bad.” Social media posts are a completely different medium and serve a different purpose than long-form writing. It’s okay to have different conventions.

What I am saying is that these conventions have started to bleed into longer writing merely because it is what we’re used to now. Very few people read blogs or books or magazines or newspapers these days.

Almost all reading is now done from social media posts.

I have no statistics to back up such a claim, but leisure reading is at an all-time low and the average American spends over 2 hours a day on social media. So I’d say it’s likely true.

I know what you’re thinking: 99% of everything is crap. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about trends in case I’m reading a string of crap that no one thinks of as good. Well, the inspiration for this post came from reviewer trends.

Many prominent reviewers in the genres I follow have written that certain books have “good writing” when these blatant “mistakes” are all over the book. It got me wondering why reviewers have been desensitized to the emotion dump and have even come to think of it as good writing.

Unfortunately, I blame social media.

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Google Play’s Music Radio Station Review

Before I get back to some math, I’ve been testing out Google Play’s new music service. In particular, I’m going to review the “Radio Station” feature. If you listen to as much music as I do, then the main service of paying a small monthly fee to play anything as much as you want is great. The service will probably save you hundreds of dollars a year. It is also quite a reasonable selection. The albums I’m looking for appear the day they actually release, and it seems that only big name people I’m uninterested in listening to are the ones that block their music from appearing.

On the other hand I have so many complaints about the radio feature that I’ll probably forget to mention some of them. I can’t figure out how to tell Google how ridiculous some of these features are. I think if they heard these complaints and thought about it for five seconds, they would see the problem and start trying to fix it. So up front, I recommend getting this if you only plan on using the service like you would use Netflix (go online, play through an album, be done). But if plan on exploring new music through the radio feature like you would Pandora, then stay far away from this for awhile.

Disclaimer: These complaints are based on a small amount of experimentation. Maybe there are ways to get around this stuff, but it is not at all obvious which in and of itself is a complaint.

Complaints:

1. There is no way to add variety to a station. You set up a station like you would on Pandora by picking a song, album, or artist and then it will play similar music (mostly, we’ll get to that later). But once a station is set up, there is absolutely no way (to my knowledge) to add variety. To me, this was the best part of Pandora because I could put two bizarre genres in the same station and find bands that were combining them.

2. On the subject of variety, you don’t get a ton with the radio station. I want to use it periodically to find new stuff, but if you start a station based on a band you’ll get a cycle of essentially the same five obviously related bands. I’m not going to find something new without some more tangentially related stuff. Some people might really like this, because your nice predictable station won’t play random unrelated stuff, but it is useless for finding new things.

3. In the other direction, it is difficult to remove variety. There is a feature called “remove from queue” which is way too literal. It allows you to remove a song that is going to play down the line (you can see a list of the upcoming songs). It literally removes the song from playing in that spot, but not from the playlist. It may play later on! What? Also, it seems to taunt me by always putting a removed thing near the top when I restart a radio. Why would anyone want to skip the song now, but play it later?! I just don’t want it in this station at all. There doesn’t seem to be a way to do this without downvoting it and getting it to not play at all in any station.

4. There is a “My Library” feature which is nice, because it is like temporarily owning the album. Unfortunately, if you start a radio station using something in your library (even if you get to it from the search feature outside of your library!), then you accidentally tell it to only use things from your library. Effectively it is just taking your library and playing it on random. It totally ignores playing related things and just picks from everything. This is terrible. Why not just have a button that allows you to play your library on random (like every other music player on the planet)?

If we want to get advanced, then add a way to choose the percentage you want from your library vs stuff outside your library (I love this idea and think this type of feature could make this service better than something like Pandora where you don’t have your own library). At the very least, it should try to pull things from your library that are related to the station you started. Is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue really related to technical death metal?

5. There doesn’t seem to be any documentation about how these things work. For example, I built a big library at first and kept starting stations from stuff in there. It kept just playing my library on random (it took awhile to figure out this is what it was doing and the reason why it wasn’t playing related things). I had to figure out on my own that I had to either remove the thing from my library or start from something not in my library to get it to actually do the radio feature it claimed to be doing. It would be nice to not have to figure this type of thing out on your own (my guess is that there are people using this that still haven’t figure this out).

So there are some of my complaints. I’m not sure what Google was thinking when they made this with these design flaws, but hopefully someone will point someone with power to this blog so that they can be fixed.

Music 2010

What a fantastic year for music. I was so disappointed last year. I didn’t like very much last year, but this year time after time I kept being pleasantly surprised. I couldn’t believe how high the quality was. Everything in the top ten this year is probably better than any of the top 3 from last year.

Without further delay here is my top 10:

1 Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
2 Dillinger Escape Plan – Option Paralysis
3 Owen Pallett – Heartland
4 Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz and All Delighted People
5 The Whiskers – War of Currents
6 The Head and the Heart – Self-Titled
7 Dirty Projectors/Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca
8 Kayo Dot – Coyote
9 Land of Talk – Cloak and Cipher
10 Moonface – Dreamland EP

Honorable Mentions:
The Tallest Man on Earth
Xiu Xiu
Arcade Fire
Jonsi

The stuff that was pretty good, but just had a enough things I didn’t like that made it hard to listen all the way through:
The National
Corinne Baily Rae
Interpol
Antony and the Johnsons
Kanye West
Gayngs

The bottom 5 in order:
Stars
Band of Horses
No Age
Spoon
LCD Soundsystem

Now for a few words. I’ll start with the bad. Honestly, I’m really disappointed about Band of Horses. I really loved their previous release, but this one consisted of some songs that became annoying after a few listens or were just plain boring. There were a few gems on it, but overall I can’t listen to it. Spoon was horrifyingly bad. It is filled with cliche riffs and progressions. The lyrics are childish and petty. The repetition is annoying. I truly dreaded listening to it again to put into the list. Same goes for LCD Soundsystem. I liked their last album, but this one the repetition exceeded Philip Glass and wasn’t as interesting.

For the good, I’ve posted many times about Joanna Newsom. She is one of the greatest musicians alive right now. This album is so intricate and perfectly put together. The songs reference eachother and repeated listenings are constantly rewarded. This was the first year I’ve had to deal with single artists releasing more than one album. Sufjan Stevens and The Tallest Man on Earth both did this.

The Sufjan album is so good. If you’ve liked his stuff in the past, then don’t miss this. If you only want to get one of them, get The Age of Adz. It is full of heartwrenching ballads and electronic hip-hop and full orchestra arrangements and just him and his acoustic guitar. Basically it the most diverse album listed here.

Now for my favorite tracks:
1 Impossible Soul or All Delighted People – Sufjan Stevens
2 Tornado – Jonsi
3 California – Joanna Newsom
4 Marsh Blood – Whiskers
5 Lewis Takes off his Shirt – Owen Pallett
6 Gold Teeth on a Bum – Dillinger Escape Plan
7 Color Me Badd – Land of Tallk
8 Afraid of Everyone – The National
9 Down in the Valley – The Head and the Heart

If you don’t want to get a whole album listed above, and only want the best song on it here’s my best guesses. Impossible Soul is just an epic song. It is over 20 minutes if I remember correctly and pulls you through every style imaginable. It is something everyone should hear once. My jaw was dropped the whole time my first time through that he could actually transition through all these styles in a single coherent song.

Another mind blowing song is Tornado. I’ve never heard someone so perfectly make the form of the song mimic the content. Tornado refers to some internal struggle Jonsi has with himself. The lyrics refer to two competing parts of himself to get control. He uses two different time signatures that are both always present. When the one side is winning the one is more prevalent and the other is only background, but then the other comes to the front. It is truly mind blowing how well this gets pulled off and it isn’t even noticeable the first few times you listen. It is also just a really moving song overall with a great powerful climax.

Lastly, I listened to several more albums than listed above, but they were just blah and didn’t fit the above lists. I also didn’t get around to lots and lots of stuff that looked really good. As always if your list is similar to mine and you think I missed something awesome, please leave it in the comments. I’d love to hear more. Also, if you disagree with anything I’d like to hear that as well.