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I’ve been on Twitter for almost a decade and still am not convinced. If you tap on it, I would say I hate him more than I love him, and I’m far from loving him. It’s where I get most of my news as it arrives, but it’s also a cesspool of bad behavior. Over the years, I have seen death threats and threats of rape, widespread public humiliation and bad shots that honestly take my breath away.
Before opening up social media channels like Twitter, famous and beloved people undoubtedly had a little semblance of privacy in their daily lives, especially if their fame and adoration did not come from their famous faces. While some authors have reached the reach of global stardom and their photos are widely recognizable, most authors can fall a little below the radar. Even if someone has read all the words they have written, that person may not recognize them on the street. When I read all of Garth Nix’s work back to back and waited for the next Old Kingdom episode, the man could have knocked on my door and I wouldn’t have known him.
There was some safety and security in there – then social media was a game-changer, forcing writers to access the open internet to interact with fans. In theory, it sounds wonderful to be able to engage with the people who created our favorite words and characters. It should be a really nice thing, where the writers can get the support of thrilled fans, and maybe light up the creative process a bit. In practice, it is a very different ball game.
Lindy West, author of Acute, left Twitter in 2017, noting in The Guardian that it sounded like “a juice cleanse, a molt, a polar bear dive.” West pointed out that for half a decade she had posted jokes, taught feminism, and generated free political commentary on the platform – and what she got in return was abuse. “[M]and enjoy direct, unhindered access… so they can inform me… that they would gladly rape me if I wasn’t that fat. West concluded that she wasn’t gone because of the attackers: She left because Twitter refuses to do anything about them.
The authors left Twitter – and then returned – for other reasons as well. Sometimes people fall on their own swords and no one does it better than John Boyne. Boyne is well known for the bestseller The boy in the striped pajamas, and once had an argument on Twitter with the Auschwitz Museum when they stressed that his work should not be used as an educational tool.
When Boyne published My brother’s name is Jessica, the job was poorly received by the trans community. Many tweeters addressed the nature of the work politely, giving it mediocre but thoughtful reviews. Boyne wrote an article in Irish weather about her support for trans rights but refusing to engage with the term “cis”. A trans tweeter in Ireland wrote a polite and meaningful rebuttal for a different post – then received a letter from the author himself, stating that he “will protect his reputation by any means necessary”.
Boyne continued to receive tweets about his work, which led to him deleting his Twitter account and then writing for a national newspaper about how he had been “abused” online.
I find it hard to have any sympathy for Boyne, mainly because I watched everything that is going on in real time, but secondly because I don’t have time for the rich and powerful people who threaten to slap their heads. someone who dares to disagree with them. Boyne eventually returned from his self-imposed exile, deleting all of his tweets and starting all over again.
Author and teenage naturalist Dara McAnulty also took a Twitter hiatus following abuse he received for politely criticizing Kate Clanchy’s work about her students, in which she described autistic students as “Unconsciously strange” and “discordant company”.
It’s not the same for some of the other writers who have gone through horrific trauma on the platform. In June 2021, Author Tess Sharpe detailed a long barrage of abuse she suffered from her own fans. Having published Far from you in 2014, Sharpe received a question from fans about a character’s specific date of birth. Sharpe didn’t have a specific date – and that was enough to start years of abusive behavior of fans who “jokingly” threatened to break into her home and wished her death. Anonymous Twitter accounts using multi-tag approaches and a shared harassment lens have done Sharpe an incredible amount of harm and made him fear for his life. Sharpe is still on Twitter, but a quick glance tells me the abuse may still be going on.
We all want more diversity in publishing. We want more authors from a multitude of different backgrounds, and sensitive readers can help authors and editors spot harmful attitudes and tropes in planned work. Recently, HarperCollins announced that it would be removing a story from the next print of a David Walliams book due to “harmful stereotypes.” I’m definitely in favor of reducing harmful tropes, but I’m not sure how to feel about Laurie Forest’s experience in 2017 when she posted The black witch.
The black witch was highly publicized before its release, until a first review called it “dangerous” and “offensive”. The protagonist of the book is Ellorean, a girl raised in a highly stratified society focused on racial superiority. The book follows her as she questions her beliefs and begins to transform her thought processes. Of course, that requires the inclusion of characters who often express hate speech – but isn’t that what you would expect in a book that takes the approach of following a person on a deradicalization arc? Vulture called what happened next a “jumble of dog and drag fights, sub-tweeting and screenshots, voice mobilization and signal wars,” as members of Twitter’s book were becoming “culture cops.” Forest hasn’t left Twitter, but in his place I certainly would – not so much because of the reviews, but because of their magnitude. I felt overwhelmed just reading it and it had nothing to do with me.
So… is Twitter chasing social media writers? It’s not an easy question to answer, but if I risk an educated opinion, I would say “probably not”. The reality is that Twitter is an unregulated space, often defined by extreme opinions and assaults that wouldn’t happen in a coffee shop. Writers who left Twitter, like Lindy West and Caitlin Flanagan, noted the big issues: addiction to always be on and comment, poor governance, the platform’s parasitic influence on a lifetime. The authors specifically appear to be faced with a host of other issues, most of which seem to relate to the themes of power and privilege, diversity and inclusion. Many readers of the Internet generation are activists and express their literary thoughts and leanings – wonderful in principle, but if we’re being honest Twitter rarely attracts the best of its users. When Vulture set out to write about toxic culture in the YA books in particular, their reporter found that no one wanted to talk about it: the writers and agents were afraid to comment on the myriad of trails. “I’m scared. I’m scared for my career,” said one author.
I’ve reached out to a few writers to ask them specific questions about the impact of Twitter, what they think of social media – and if they’re afraid of ever being faced with a public judgment? Unsurprisingly, no one really wanted to talk.
Something is rotten, but I’m not sure it’s Twitter that’s keeping the perpetrators away.