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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On Modern Censorship

I don’t want to wade into the heavy politics of things like GamerGate, MetalGate, and so on, but those movements certainly got me thinking about these issues a few months ago. A few days ago, I read a New York Times article about twitter shaming people out of their careers over basically nothing. This brought some clarity to my thoughts on the issue.

I’ll try to keep examples abstract, at the cost of readability, to not spur the wrath of either side. I haven’t done a post on ethics in a while, and this is an interesting and difficult subject.

First, let me say there are clear cases where censorship is good. For example, children should not be allowed to watch pornography (of course, there could be a dispute over the age where this becomes blurry, but everyone has an age where it is too young). There are also clear cases where censorship is bad. For example, a group of concerned Christian parents succeeds in a petition to ban Harry Potter from their children’s school.

Many arguments about censorship boil down to this question of societal harm. To start our thought experiment, let’s get rid of that complication and assume that whatever work is in question is fine. In other words, we will assume that censorship is bad in the sense that the marketplace of ideas should be free. If something offends you, then don’t engage with it. You shouldn’t go out of your way to make it so no one can engage with it.

In the recent controversies, there has been an underlying meta-dialogue that goes something like this:

Person A: If you don’t like the sexism/racism/homophobia/etc (SRHE) in this game/book/movie/etc (GBME), then don’t get the media. Stop trying to censor it so that I can’t engage with it. I happen to enjoy it.

Person B: I’m not trying to censor anything. I’m just raising social awareness as to the SRHE. It is through media that these types of things are perpetuated, and the first step to lessen this is to raise awareness.

What made this issue so difficult for me is that I understand both points of view. Person A is reiterating the idea that if you don’t like something, then don’t engage with it. There is no need to ruin it for everyone else. It is also hard to argue with Person B if they are sincere. Maybe they agree that censorship is bad, but they want to raise awareness as to why they don’t like the media in question.

The main point of this post is to present a thought experiment where Person B is clearly in the wrong. The reason to do this is that I think the discussion often misses a vital point: in our modern age of twitter storms and online petitions, Person B can commit what might be called “negligent censorship.” Just like in law, negligence is not an excuse that absolves you of the ethical consequences of censoring something.

Thought experiment: Small Company starts making its GBME. In order to fund the project, they get the support of Large Company that is well-known for its progressive values. In the age of the internet, news of this new GBME circulates early.

Person B happens to be a prominent blogger and notices some SRHE in the GBME. Note, for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter whether the SRHE is real or imagined (though, full disclosure, I personally believe that people whose job it is to sniff out SRHE in media tend to exaggerate [possibly subconsciously] SRHE to find it where it maybe doesn’t really exist).

Let’s make this very clear cut. Person B knows that they can throw their weight around enough to get a big enough twitter storm to scare the Large Company backer out of funding the Small Company’s project. Person B does this, and sure enough, the project collapses and never gets finished or released.

This is clear censorship. Person B acted with the intent to squash the GBME. Sadly, Person B can still claim the nobler argument given earlier, and it is hard to argue against that. I think this is part of what infuriates Person A so much. You can’t prove their interior motivation was malicious.

But I think you don’t need to. Now let’s assume Person B does all of this with the good-natured intention of merely “raising awareness.” The same outcome occurs. Your intent shouldn’t matter, because your actions led to the censorship (and also hurt the livelihood of some people which has its own set of moral issues).

If you write something false about someone that leads to their harm, even if you didn’t realize it, you can still be charged with libel. Negligence is not an excuse. I’m not saying it is a crime to do what Person B did (for example, the SRHE may actually be there so the statements Person B made were true). I’m only making an analogy for thinking about negligence.

You can claim you only were trying to raise awareness, but I claim that you are ethically still responsible. This is especially true now that we’ve seen this happen in real life many times. If Person B is an adult, they should know writing such things often has this effect.

To summarize, if you find yourself on Person B’s side a lot, try to get inside the head of Small Company for a second. Whether intended or not, Person B caused their collapse. It is not an excuse to say Small Company should have been more sensitive to the SRHE in their GBME if they wanted to stay afloat.

This is blaming the victim. If Large Company said upfront they wouldn’t back the project if Small Company made their proposed GBME, it would be Small Company’s fault for taking the risk. If a group of people who don’t agree with the content of the GBME cause it to collapse, it is (possibly negligent) censorship.

Under our assumption that censorship is bad, I think Person B has serious ethical issues and Person A is clearly in the right. The problem is that in real life, Person B tries to absolve their wrong by implicitly appealing to a utilitarian argument.

A (non-malicious) Person B will truly believe that the short term harm of censoring is outbalanced by the long-term good of fighting SRHE. If the evidence was perfectly clear about the causation/correlation between SRHE in mass media and real life, Person B would have a pretty good ethical argument for their position.

What makes this such a contested issue is that we are in some middle ground. There is correlation, which may or may not be significant. But who knows about causation. Maybe it is the other way around. The SRHE in society is coming out in art, because it is present in society: not the other way around that Person B claims.

This is why, even though, with my progressive values, I am highly sympathetic to the arguments and sentiments of Person B, I have to side with Person A most of the time. Person B has a moral responsibility to make sure they raise awareness in a way that does not accidentally lead to censorship. This has become an almost impossible task with our scandal obsessed social media.

For the debates to calm down a bit, I think side B has to understand side A a bit better. I think most people on side A understand the concerns of side B, but they just don’t buy the argument. Many prominent speakers on side B dismiss side A as a bunch of immature white boys who don’t understand their media has SRHE in it. Side B needs to realize that there is a complicated ethical argument against their side, even if it rarely gets articulated.

I’m obviously not calling for self-censorship (which is always the catch-22 of speaking about these issues), but being a public figure comes with certain responsibilities. Here are the types of things I think a prominent writer on SRHE issues should think more critically about before writing:

1. Do I influence a lot of people’s opinion about SRHE topics? For example, having 200K twitter followers might count here.
2. Do my readers expect me to point out SRHE in GBME on a regular basis? If so, you might be biased towards finding it. Ask someone familiar with the GBME whether you are taking clips or quotes out of context to strengthen your claims before making a public accusation.
3. Are my words merely bringing awareness to an issue, or am I also making a call to action to censor the GBME?