Essays

Is Twitter Chasing Authors Off Social Media?

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Editor’s note: we’ve updated the line “Boyne wrote an article in The Irish Times about his support for trans rights but refusal to engage with the term ‘cis’. A trans tweeter in Ireland wrote a polite and meaningful rebuttal for a different publication — and then received a letter from the author himself, stating that he would ‘protect his reputation by any means necessary’” to correct the fact the rebuttal was published in The Irish Times as well.

I’ve been on Twitter for almost a decade and I’m still not sold on it. If pressed I’d say I hate it more than I like i,t and I’m nowhere near loving it. It’s the place where I get most of my news as-it-happens-and-always-breaking, but it’s also a cesspit of bad behaviour. Over the years I’ve seen death threats and rape threats, public shaming on a grand scale, and straight up bad takes that honestly make my breath catch.

Before open social media channels like Twitter, the famous and adored arguably had a small semblance of privacy in their daily lives — especially if their fame and adoration didn’t stem from their famous face. Though some authors have hit the range of global stardom and photos of them are widely recognisable, most authors can lie a little below the radar. Even if someone has read every word they’ve ever written, that person may not recognise them on the street. When I was reading all of Garth Nix’s work back-to-back and awaiting the next Old Kingdom installment, the man could have knocked on my front door and I wouldn’t have known him.

There was a certain safety and security in that — and then social media changed the game, pushing authors into the open internet to engage with fans. In theory it sounds wonderful, being able to engage with the people who created our favourite words and characters. It should be a genuinely nice thing, where authors can get support from delighted fans, and maybe shine a little light into the creative process. In practice, it’s a very different ball game.

Lindy West, author of Shrill, left Twitter in 2017, noting in The Guardian that it felt like “a juice cleanse, a moulting, a polar-bear plunge”. West made the point that for half a decade she had posted jokes, taught feminism, and generated political commentary for free on the platform — and what she got in return was abuse. “[M]en enjoy unfettered, direct access…so they can inform me…that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.” West concluded that she didn’t leave because of the abusers: she left because Twitter refuses to do anything about them.

Authors have left Twitter — and then returned — for other reasons, too. Sometimes, people fall on their own sword and nobody does it better than John Boyne. Boyne is well-known for the bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and once had a Twitter spat with the Auschwitz Museum when they pointed out that his work shouldn’t be used as an educational tool.

When Boyne published My Brother’s Name is Jessica, the work was poorly received by the trans community. Many tweeters engaged politely with the nature of the work, giving it poor but well thought out reviews. Boyne wrote an article in The Irish Times about his support for trans rights but refusal to engage with the term ‘cis’. A trans tweeter in Ireland wrote a polite and meaningful rebuttal for the same publication — and then received a letter from the author himself, stating that he would ‘protect his reputation by any means necessary’.

Boyne continued to receive tweets about his work, leading to him deleting his Twitter account and then writing for a national newspaper about how he was ‘abused’ online.

I find it hard to have sympathy for Boyne, mostly because I watched the whole thing happen in realtime, but secondly because I have no time for rich and powerful people who threaten to SLAPP 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.

Teenage author and naturalist Dara McAnulty also took a break from Twitter following abuse he received for politely criticising Kate Clanchy’s work about her students, in which she described autistic students as “unselfconsciously odd” and “jarring company”.

That’s not the same for some other authors who’ve experienced horrendous trauma on the platform. In June 2021, author Tess Sharpe detailed a long running barrage of abuse she’d experienced from her own fans. Having published Far From You in 2014, Sharpe received a question from fans about the specific birthdate of a character. Sharpe didn’t have a specific date — and that was enough to start years of abusive behaviour from fans who ‘jokingly’ threatened to break into her home and wished death on her. Anonymous twitter accounts using multi-tag approaches and a shared harassment goal caused Sharpe an incredible amount of harm and made her fear for her life. Sharpe is still on Twitter, but a quick glance tells me that the abuse may still be ongoing.

We all want more diversity in publishing. We want more authors from a multitude of different backgrounds and sensitivity readers can help authors and publishers pick out harmful attitudes and tropes in planned work. Recently, HarperCollins announced that it would remove a story from the next printing of a David Walliams’ book because of ‘harmful stereotypes’. I’m definitely all for a reduction in harmful tropes, but I’m not sure how to feel about the experience Laurie Forest had in 2017 when she published The Black Witch.

The Black Witch was much hyped before its release, until an early reviewer called it ‘dangerous’ and ‘offensive’. The protagonist of the book is Ellorean, a girl raised in a very stratified society focused on racial superiority. The book follows her as she questions her beliefs and begins to transform her thought processes. Of course, this necessitates the inclusion of characters who often express hate speech — but isn’t that what you’d expect in a book which takes the approach of following a person on a de-radicalising arc? Vulture referred to what happened next as ‘a jumble of dogpiling and dragging, subtweeting and screenshotting, vote-brigading and flagging wars’ as members of book twitter became ‘culture cops’. Forest didn’t leave Twitter, but in her shoes I definitely would have — not so much because of the criticism, but because of the sheer breadth of it. I felt overwhelmed just reading it and it had nothing at all to do with me.

So…is Twitter chasing authors off social media? It’s not an easy question to answer, but if I’m hazarding an educated opinion I’d say ‘probably not’. The reality is that Twitter is an unregulated space, often defined by extremes of opinion and aggression that wouldn’t happen in a café. The authors who have left Twitter, like Lindy West and Caitlin Flanagan, have noted the big picture issues: the addiction to always being on and commenting, the poor governance, the parasitic influence of the platform on a life. Authors specifically seem to face a multitude of other issues, most of which seem to come down on the topics of power and privilege, diversity and inclusion. Many readers of the internet generation are activist and expressive about their literary thoughts and inclinations — wonderful in principle but if we’re being honest, Twitter rarely draws out the best of its users. When Vulture set out to write about the toxic culture in YA books in particular, their journalist found that nobody wanted to go on the record: authors and agents were scared to comment on the myriad draggings. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my career,” one author said.

I reached out to a few authors to ask them specifically about the impact of Twitter, how they feel about social media — and whether they’re scared that they might one day face a public reckoning of their own? Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody really wanted to talk.

Something is rotten — but I’m not sure it’s just Twitter that’s driving authors away.