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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Is Twitter our Penal Colony?

I know that’s quite the inflammatory title, so I’ll explain it up front. I recently read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. If you haven’t read it, go do it. I liked The Trial and The Metamorphosis, but neither compare to the true horror that is In the Penal Colony.

I’m going to spoil the whole story so that it can be discussed. The story takes place around an execution machine called the Harrow. The main character asks questions about it. In a brilliantly paced set of revelations, the reader becomes aware of how the torture happens:

The condemned person is gagged and strapped to the machine. A bunch of tiny needles stabs them for six hours, repeatedly tattooing their crime on their body. They bleed a lot, but the machine is carefully designed to not let them die. Then they’re buried alive.

But it’s much, much worse than that. There is a collection of laws that must followed in the colony (it was unclear whether anyone had access to them to know what they are). When charged with the crime, you are not told what it is. You have no chance to defend yourself. You are convicted without trial. The first time you learn of any misdoing is too late, because it is from the words appearing on your body from the Harrow.

Unfortunately, this should sound all too familiar from Twitter shaming. People post jokes without knowing what the rules are for offending the wrong group. Then they get accused and convicted without trial. The first time they learn of their un-PC crime is when the words start flowing across their Twitter feed. By then it is too late. They will probably lose their job and have the next several years of their life wrecked.

Does the story give us any hope or are we stuck in this twisted sense of justice forever? The end of the story is hard to make sense of. The executioner turns the machine on himself and gets the words “Be Just” tattooed on him. By administering this punishment on others, the executioner has clearly broken the rule of being just. This machine and system is so clearly unjust that we don’t need the story to understand that. By analogy, I think the Twitter punishment is not just, but the people doing it have not realized this yet. They call it social justice the same as the executioner in the story calls the Harrow justice. This doesn’t make it so.

One interpretation in light of this analogy would be that when members of the mob become targets themselves, they will be dealt a sort of poetic justice and see how wrong they were. Although this is satisfying to see when it happens (think of the “dongle joke shamer” who lost her own job as well), it is a “two wrongs don’t make a right situation” and is unsustainable. An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.

Ultimately, I think the ending teaches us that we can only get out of this mess if the people instigating it take matters into their own hands to stop it. Outside forces won’t ever be enough. Unfortunately, these people will probably have the machine of their own making turn on them for this, and like the main character, they too will be a victim of this justice. But it has to be their own choice, otherwise the practice will continue unhindered.

Has 1984 Arrived?

Answer: No. This isn’t going to be some conspiracy theory post about living in a police state and carrying around devices that constantly spy on us even when they’re off: Big Brother is watching. That’s been done to death. This is a post about how many of Orwell’s predictions seem to have manifested in very unlikely places and ways.

One of the scariest and least likely predictions has to do with revising history to fit the current narrative. The reason this seems so unlikely in the novel is that it is such a monstrous task. Everything is physical, so every newspaper, book, and so on must be totally incinerated to put out a revised version. It is surprising Orwell even came up with this with how unrealistic and massive such an undertaking would be. Here’s a quote describing it.

“This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”

In today’s world everything is digital. It looks like pretty much all print media will be solely digital before too long (we’re talking years, but not decades?). This means no more newspapers or books to be incinerated. One quick click of a button revises every single copy.

It is true that the internet remembers everything, so it will be possible to find the older copy. But who’s going to do that? No one has the time or patience to sift through internet archives to find if something has been changed. I’m not saying any reputable news source does this (e.g. the New York Times post “Updates” at the bottom of an article that has been changed to notify the reader). But this unbelievable aspect of 1984 has become much more believable with how we get our information now.

Another disturbing aspect of Orwell’s dystopia is the concept of “doublethink,” and to a lesser extent, the formation of Newspeak where word’s are redefined so they can only be used to support a given message. Here’s a quote where doublethink is first introduced:

“His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, …”

A prime example of doublethink in our current world is in Twitter public shaming. These people claim the moral high ground while destroying an innocent person’s life over a politically incorrect joke. That is doublethink so extreme that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned it.

The examples that recur throughout the novel are “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” I have a new one from recent news. Our own politically correct coded language has hit such doublethink extremes that one cannot utter the phrase “all lives matter,” without a certain demographic hearing “black lives don’t matter.” To put it in the above terms “equality is inequality.”

The last disturbing point I’d like to address is something called the “Two Minutes Hate.” If it’s been a while since you’ve read the book, this is a moment in the day where everyone watches hate propaganda and gets all worked up about it. Winston, at first doesn’t totally buy it, but then as everyone around him gets angrier, he finds himself joining in, not even having to fake it. Then it ends, and everyone goes about their business as if it never happened.

It seems this is how a lot of people use Twitter. They go about their day. They randomly check Twitter. They see a pile-on hate mob trending. At first, the dongle joke doesn’t seem so bad, but after reading more and more hate comments, they start to get worked up. After about two minutes of this, they realize how insensitive this straight white man was to make a private joke to his friend (BB is watching). We have our own Newspeak. The word invented for this is “microaggression.” After getting worked up, this person doesn’t even have to fake their outrage as they tweet about firing him. Then they click off their phone and go about their business as if it never happened, just like the Two Minutes Hate.

In 1984 you can be accused of committing a thoughtcrime. The penalty is a public hanging. You don’t even have to act on it. Merely thinking the wrong thing amounts to a public death. It is scary how similar this is to someone like Justine Sacco, who dared to make a politically incorrect joke on Twitter. The mob tried to read her thoughts based on this and convicted her of a thoughtcrime against The Party. She proceeded to be publicly shamed for it. Her life was ruined.

Now there is no “Party” or “State” that is carrying this out like in the book, but the group that is doing this is politically motivated. The punishment isn’t as harsh, but the goal is the same: to incite fear in anyone that dares to think differently. I’m not sure if we should be more or less scared that it isn’t some Leviathan government forcing this on us. It is we the people who have imposed this on ourselves.