Francesca Baker

Is Social Media Killing Literature?

Social media is the root cause of all evil. You would be forgiven for thinking so at least. It has been blamed for breaking up relationships, destroying careers, disintegrating family connections, reducing attention spans, driving obesity rates, causing violence, and proliferating unemployment. That’s quite a CV.

Let’s not start on its effect upon literature. Critics state that people are turning away from reading, preferring to can see an image or play within it, rather than imagine one from carefully crafted words. A diet of abbreviated words and short sentences render them incapable of reading and writing, stunted from employing language to its full capability, and unable to use vocabulary and grammar correctly. Few bother reading or writing a book when they can transmit the same message in only a few lines. We ‘like’ and ‘favourite’ our way through the day – does this mean we can no longer like literature?

To position social media and literature in opposition to one another, with some kind of Manichean unsurpassable divide between them, is to misunderstand the use of literature. In itself it is media, a tool for messaging, communication, and art, and more often than not is social, reliant upon an interaction with at least one other human being (let’s focus upon shared and published literature rather than that confined to writers’ notebooks for eternity – and even that most would share were it not for feelings of inadequacy or concern as to its reception.) Casey Brienza, sociologist and Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media at City University London, says ‘All media are platforms of human communication and expression, and in this sense, all media, including literature, is social.’

Novelist and editor Goldstein Love spoke at the first Twitter fiction festival at the New York Public Library, saying that ‘People say that Twitter is ruining people’s attention span — but what if we harnessed that through serialized fiction?’ The first festival was held in March 2014, and invited users to create their own stories in 140-character instalments. It was an effort to revive literature and explore the social media site’s capabilities to facilitate dialogue between writers and their audience. Audiences were creative – the Greek myths were told in 100 tweets, one author wrote epitaphs for existing gravestones with the help of reader input, Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw was reimagined in in today’s White House, and some tweeted bits inspired by Italo Calvino’s ‘Italian folktales.’ It’s one thing to create new literature in this fashion, by reducing Shakespeare to a tweet or Austen to a Youtube video we may be reducing their work to a fraction of its intended worth. But, with libraries closing and art budgets decreasing, perhaps this the best way to get more people engaging with the arts. After all, ‘Books are social. We share them, we discuss and debate them, we cite them, and we gather in places like libraries and bookstores that collect them.’ (Brienza)

Voices of protest tend to come from the Western world – those attuned to a certain canon and rules as to what makes ‘real literature.’ The December 2013 Taj Literary Festival explored the influence of social media, and technology as a whole upon the perception of literature, and its democratisation of the medium. Literature does not have to be classic, and the ability to self publish means that days of ‘stifled creative expression’ have given way to an age when ‘each person can now be his own editor, writer and publisher,’ according to Piyush Pandey. This may be a little rose tinted, and publication in a ‘proper’ form is harder than ever – but everyone does have the ability to speak their messages and give them an opportunity to be heard, albeit in a new form. We use social media to disseminate public health messages and advertising, why not creative messages and expression?

It’s not just about reaching more people – there are vast benefits for writers. There are now a number of collaborative writing sites that enable people to work together, such as We Are Smarter Than Me, a community book writing project or Watt Pad, a cooperative platform. Social writing enabled by new technology if you will. One Twitter user, known as JunkDNA has been writing fiction on Twitter, and working up an audience by disseminating his work on other social platforms. He said, ‘I reach out to one guy, he reaches out to his buddies, they reach out to theirs… that’s how it’s worked for me’. Word of mouth is the most ‘classic’ form of media of all. Miranda Dickinson used Twitter to get suggestions from her followers on everything plot developments to character names in her latest best seller Take A Look At Me Now. Jennifer Egan’s story ‘Black Box’ appeared as a series of tweets before being published in The New Yorker.

Affordable technology such as micro blogging platforms enable people to publish snippets and get instant feedback. This is exactly what serialized publications allowed our classic authors to do. Dickens wrote his most famous novels in instalments, with Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Bleak House going through several plot changes according to the responses in Bentley’s Miscellany, and Phiz respectively. According to Graham Law in his book Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press (2000) ‘serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution.’ These are all trends being seen in today’s society.

The brevity of social media messages, and the lack of formalised grammatical structure could well be considered to be proof that it cannot be a form of literature. Haikus are famously succinct, most fitting within a tweet due to their minimalist use of words. Concrete poetry completely breaks away from standard form, and you only need to consider the work of E. E. Cummings, or even James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to recognise that lack of perfect structure does not mean no literary worth. The fact is that most people do have busy lives and an expectation of short form and immediate entertainment rather than length and depth. It’s also a fact that novelists tend to reflect, in both style and subject, the society in which they and their readers live in and engage with. We muse and mumble about the sanctity of language, but this is how people talk and think – the modern day stream of consciousness. Or as Scott Hutchins who used photographs to tell his San Francisco noir thriller at the aforementioned Twitter fiction festival, said: ‘Useless verbs fall away on Twitter.’ Everyone loathes a useless verb.

Social media may not be ‘proper’ literature. But it does offer innovative and attractive possibilities for people in terms of expression, creativity, collaboration and participation. Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider our use of language and expression, what media and creativity is, and our definition of ‘proper literature,’ in 2014 rather than that of a nostalgic and sentimentalized canon of the past.

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