Writers Wrestle with Twitter: Do I Stay or Go (and Where?)
Jess deCourcy Hinds on the Literary Community’s Twitter Deathwatch
After Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter became official on October 27, Margaret Atwood tweeted, “Any truly viable alternatives to Twitter yet?” Atwood wasn’t the only writer looking for the next literary water cooler. In recent days, my feed has been flooded with authors lamenting the imminent loss of digital community.
One of the more emotional responses came from R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries (2018). Kwon’s campus love story, which explores religious fundamentalism, will soon be adapted into a TV series by FilmNation. I’ve long followed Kwon’s tweets for news of her career—but also because she’s an entertaining, incisive tweeter who elevates the form to a higher art of communication. More than anyone else I heard from, Kwon sounded stranded and saddened by the news. As she wrote:
feeling crushed. I love this words-based cesspit. Love the jokes & highly specialized literary kerfuffles & I really, really love eavesdropping. I’ve learned so much here from eavesdropping. I can go elsewhere & will, but probably staying as long as feels conscionable
— R.O. Kwon @firstname.lastname@example.org (@rokwon) November 5, 2022
Other authors in my feed posted photos of themselves with literary friends they met on the platform. Tara Stillions Whitehead, author of They More than Burned (2023), tweeted:
I have spent my life closing down the bars and being the last one to leave the party.
Twitter is like this neverending party at the biggest, most chaotic, sometimes problematic, but always open dive bar, which means I’ll be here until they condemn it.
— Tara Stillions Whitehead (@MrsWhitehouse74) November 6, 2022
Many other writers echoed Whitehead’s sentiment about hanging on for dear life to whatever was left of Twitter, even as they witnessed it becoming rotten and decrepit. It reminded me of the way artists might describe residing in a slumlord’s dump.
Another one of my all-time favorite tweeters is Deb Amlen, the crossword columnist and senior staff editor of the New York Times’ WordPlay section. Amlen shared with me that she uses Twitter to try out material, and connect with a vast spelling bee community for her addictive column, “Diary of a Spelling Bee Fanatic.” When I asked for her comment, she wrote, “The imminent changes to the app and the stress on the Twitter staff makes me feel sad. The app has always been a good place to try out jokes, and with no good alternatives, I’ll have to continue talking to myself.”
Ernesto Mestre-Reed, most recently the author of Sacrificio (September 2022), found humor in Twitter the way Amlen did. His experience there was full of “pleasant surprises” like feeling a kinship towards Stephen King. He never expected to learn “…what an amazing, kind, insightful and funny person” the horror writer could be, and now plans to read his novels. However, Mestre-Reed doesn’t view the platform as an emotionally healthy place. “It was entertaining to follow the literary spats and controversies, but likely no healthier for your writing spirit than watching your favorite telenovela.”
For many queer and trans writers, Twitter can be too drama-filled and hateful to stay there long, although it can be useful in particular, specific ways. Sophia Labelle, an author and cartoonist, uses @AssignedMale to collect a “catalog” of work since 2014. “As a trans woman, that place constantly shows me the worst mankind has to offer…and the most vicious and dangerous place to be for many years. The deficient banning and deleting system and ‘free speech’ absolutism mean that minorities and vulnerable, marginalized groups are often silenced by slander, defamation and harassment.” She mentions that mainstream social media has impacted her health, and in many ways, finds more appeal in platforms for comic strips. “I find Webtoon to be the healthiest and safest of them all: communities brought together by their love of stories, art, comics and manga.”
In a post-Twitter world, there may be a fracturing of literary community, one in which authors flock to genre-specific online spaces. The Horror community’s home, for example, is on Slasher. The Helicon Award-winning literary horror and suspense writer Jennifer Anne Gordon, whose most recent novel is Pretty/Ugly, says that Slasher reflects a community that is “supportive and funny and weird.” Her genre-specific site doesn’t go off the rails the way Facebook and Twitter can.
Her description of Slasher recalls Labelle’s description of a unified creative group sharing similar interests. Amazingly, politics doesn’t come up in this group, where people vote in many ways (a small miracle!). It’s refreshing, she says, to go somewhere without hate speech and sexually implicit messages from strangers. The dark side of media has offered Gordon rich material, though. Pretty/Ugly is about an Instagram influencer facing the end of the world.
One other interesting point from Mestro-Reed was that Twitter can be a fast, dependable way to learn about unfolding political situations. The poet and scholar Dr. Zohra Saed, a writer and supporter of Aghan writers in the US and abroad, uses social media to raise awareness about minority group issues in Central Asia and West Asia, and believes that for the Global South Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can be a lifeline. The co-editor of One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature, Saed is versatile and flexible online. When I reached out to her using Facebook messenger, she didn’t sound concerned about the idea of leaving Twitter. As she asserted, “a varied social media presence is good to maintain a community.”
However, many up-and-coming writers like Joshua N. Miller, expressed reluctance and weariness about making a change. Miller, a cultural critic who aims to dissect prevalent social issues through his analysis of comics, film and multimedia, shared his unease over a recent email interview. “I’m nervous about how creatives’ work will be affected in light of the current migration,” he wrote. “Twitter became a refuge for me after Instagram started prioritizing influencers; it’s relatively easy to connect with people who share your interests, and it’s also very helpful for sharing your work…” Miller has responded to editors’ tweets soliciting material before. As he said, “…you have to wonder how much harder it’s going to be for budding writers to find sites that’ll accept their work in spite of their inexperience.”“It already seemed like it was becoming junkified so I deactivated my account when the pro-Musk antisemites went to town a couple weeks ago.”
Lindsay Merbaum echoed Miller’s worry about how new or indie authors might fare without the promotion assistance of Twitter. The author of The Gold Persimmon (2021) has used the platform to find calls for submission, and has had editors message her. She also uses Twitter to conduct an independent study with other women writers. She said that they use Twitter DMs and threads to communicate. But social media, as a whole, is always operated by morally questionable people, she notes: “Facebook and Instagram [are] both also owned by an inarguably evil company that actively promotes misinformation and conspiracy theories for the sake of financial gain.”
The news about Twitter leaves a lot of groups casting about for new ideas—from informal writing groups like Merbaum’s to well-established, distinguished literary nonprofits like Pen Parentis, whose mission is to provide resources for writer-parents. When I spoke with M.M. DeVoe, Pen Parentis’ Executive Director and the leader of Zoom and in-person accountability groups for writers, she shared Saed’s notion that being active on many forums is a positive thing. DeVoe doesn’t mention immediate plans to leave Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn because they each reach different audiences of parent writers across the country—and world. However, she is contemplating a move to Mastodon. “It’s a non-profit owned company so at least they won’t be tooooooo worried about earning out 40 billion dollars.”
When I asked DeVoe for guidance in joining Mastodon, she explained that you have to choose a server, which may be confusing for newcomers. Her best advice is to follow friends who are already on Mastodon to their servers, and to do hashtag searches to connect with kindred spirits. She notes that the forum has “an inordinately large number of astrophysicists,” but that authors are finding it too.
DeVoe has been building community for parent writers since 2009 with downtown Manhattan author salons featuring such luminaries as Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Julia Phillips and Bushra Rehman. Its online presence has always been vital and necessary as creative writers who are consumed by the demands of child-rearing may not always be physically present at salons or meetups. Still, writers can become title members for less than the cost of two cappuccinos, and join in monthly support and networking groups online.
DeVoe relies on social media to advertise the first and most famous fellowship specifically for parent-writers. “I’m not leaving Twitter,” DeVoe concluded. “…but I’m starting to look around. Like a lover in a relationship they sense is going sour: you hope for the best but your bags are packed.”
Many writers’ bags have been packed—or they have left long ago. One of the people I noticed who seemed quiet on Twitter lately was Luke Dani Blue, whose debut short story collection, Pretend It’s My Body, was described by Bustle as a “must-read” about people “torn between the bodies they have and the bodies they want.” When I asked Blue for an update about their relationship to Twitter, they said, “It already seemed like it was becoming junkified so I deactivated my account when the pro-Musk antisemites went to town a couple weeks ago. I reactivated at the behest of a friend who thought I was abandoning a space to promote my book but I don’t have much desire to go scrolling there.” When I asked what was next for Blue, they said, “People are talking about Mastodon so I’ll probably check it out but I also remember when we all got excited about Ello!”
Amanda LeDuc, a disabled writer, novelist and the author of Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space (2020) shared that she left Twitter in May of this year. “I left specifically because Musk had floated the idea of purchasing it, so it’s all a bit funny (and horrifying) to me to see everything shaking out now.” She has considered hopping on Mastodon, but decided to stay away for the moment. “One of my intentions for the year was to really develop a sustained sense of focus on things I was interested in and loved.”
Elisa Albert concurs. When I reached out to this caustic, funny writer and highly enjoyable human being, she reminded me that “the physical realm” still exists and that Twitter isn’t real—even if people are deluded enough to think it’s a “place.” In her novel Human Blues (2022), her rock-star protagonist Aviva also finds little use for social media. As Aviva muses:
A steady stream of happy orange/red/yellow/blue validations. Likes begetting likes. Being into each other being into stuff. Being happy about each other liking each other’s liking. You have to keep it up (“it”: reminding people of your existence, or “it”: reminding people how cool and accomplished you are, or “it”: reminding people how funny and self-deprecating you are, or reminding people how sexy and alluring you are, or reminding people how happily ensconced in familial life you are, or reminding people how woke you are) in order to continue being the object of the orange-red-yellow-blue bling-blong ding-dongs.
When Aviva puts it that way, social media does sound awfully silly. When Albert and I emailed, she fired out several missives in a lower-case deadpan: “tweeting is a helluva lot easier than writing a good book. tweets are cheap. ‘tweeting’ is literally a reference to the sound birds make en masse. as in the most simplistic group behavior… which is the actual opposite of what a good writer does.”
I agree with both Albert and Aviva (even if Aviva, like Twitter isn’t “real,” she’s still a person to me!). As for Kwon and others who are in mourning, I’m not sure what consolation I can offer. How will these writers take coffee breaks? Picking up the phone to call other writers is a taboo, and scrolling news sites without anyone to commiserate with might be too lonely.
With the entrance of the evil villain, Musk, some spell has broken in writers’ online kingdoms. As Kwon tweeted:
so many curses upon the pale billionaire goblin trying to lay waste to the closest thing I have to a town square