Twitter Is The Worst Reader

Fonda Lee on 2021-11-02

I’ve been in my share of Twitter blow-ups. On six different occasions in recent years, I’ve had to step away from my computer after being buried by internet vitriol. Being on Twitter at all as a semi-public figure is like playing with plastic C4 explosive on a daily basis, but this still feels like a lot to me, and it’s accelerating, with two of those instances happening in the last month.

Of course, there are plenty of people who regularly take far more online heat — politicians, activists, celebrities, controversial figures, outspoken critics — but I am, at best, a medium successful author of science fiction and fantasy novels. So what gives? Am I in fact an inveterate shit-stirring drama queen? I would think that decades of working relationships in business and publishing would surface some tiny hint if that were the case. If anything, I’m viscerally allergic to drama. My instinct when I see shit going down is not to wade in, but back far away and hope for cooler heads to prevail.

To be fair, I did walk straight into controversy the first time I got dog piled online. Back in 2018, a tweet I made about Nike’s endorsement of Colin Kapernick got picked up and amplified by mainstream media outlets and caused Trumpists to sent a wave of racist abuse my way for days. Although I stand by that tweet unequivocally, the experience sucked a lot and I emerged thinking, Okay, let’s never do that again. From now on, I’ll avoid tweeting about current events or politics and stick mostly to books and movies and writing.

Unfortunately, that approach didn’t pan out, as my tweet dissecting JK Rowling’s retconning of Dumbledore and Nagini received a massive outcry from Potterheads who told me I was a shit writer who had no right speaking on the greatest fantasy writer of all time. Then my now-infamous observation of Barnes & Nobles Tolkien-heavy curation of its fantasy section at the expense of current SFF titles received, with the help of comicsgate influencers, not one, but two separate waves of harassment, two years apart, from people telling me I was a shit writer who had no right speaking on the greatest fantasy writer of all time. (Stating upfront that I was a fan of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings registering as nothing but the plaintive bleat of a dying lamb.)

At the time, I was a new author with less than 10,000 followers.

And yet, perhaps ill-advisedly, I remained on Twitter. I’m not a bestseller who can happily disappear from public life and ride on the swell of my publisher’s marketing support. I felt as if I ought to be online not only to promote my books but to stay connected to the writing and publishing community, and unfortunately Twitter remains the industry water cooler. As I published more books, it was also the easiest way for me to engage with my readership, something that truly does bring me joy on a regular basis. All those reasons became far more pronounced during the pandemic.

I tried to bring my comments down to more trivial subject matters. But that was ineffectual because a) my platform got bigger and thus increasingly more dangerous, and b) on Twitter, there’s no correlation whatsover between the triviality of a statement and the reaction it elicits.

Last month, I was roasted for nearly a week for being a gatekeeping anti-youth elitist because the TikTok section in bookstores made me feel old. My immediate clarifying tweet did not allay this.

I began to wonder if I could tweet about eating a burrito and somehow offend people.

Which brings us to last week. After being mostly offline the entire prior weekend at the Sirens Conference, the first thing I did when I returned home was go to a movie theater to watch Dune, a movie I’d been anticipating for years. I’d studiously avoided all discussion of the film, muting words left and right so as to avoid seeing any spoilers or other reviews. Eager to share my immediate love for the film, I got back online to find all my friends and colleagues in the science fiction and fantasy community giving hot takes on the adaptation — the look of the film, quibbles about its depiction of sandworms and ornithopers, comparisons to the 1984 David Lynch movie, and so on. And so I tweeted this.

And Twitter fell on my head. Ironically proving the truth of the tweet more conclusively than I could’ve ever expected, although I didn’t know about it until more than a day later. Because I have notifications turned off. Something you do when you’ve been harassed on Twitter before.

(For the record, I agree there could and should have been more SW Asian and North African representation in the film, in front of and behind the camera. Considering how deliberately and deeply Herbert drew directly from Middle Eastern culture and the religion of Islam, it’s valid that critics are pointing out the erasure. Will this be improved upon in the second movie, now that it’s been green-lit? I hope so. My feelings on Dune’s centering of a colonialist narrative are complicated. And to what extent is the fact that most movie-goers will see only the white saviorism of the first book mitigated by the subversion of the trope in the tragic arc of the series as a whole? I don’t know the answers to these questions, although I think they’re good ones.

I unashamedly love the film nevertheless and can’t wait to see it again.)

A lot has been said about the toxic environment created by Twitter, the ease and rapidity with which misinformation and misinterpretation spreads, the performative outrage masked as activism, the prevalence of bad faith engagement — all of which I’ve seen upfront and personally. Jason Sanford recently reported on the spate of authors leaving the platform and Twitter’s algorithmic timeline that actively encourages and amplifies anger and hatred. Kacen Callender’s essay on how social media contributes to the dehumanization of authors is distressingly on point.

But I think there are a couple of other things going on here, too.

In most cases when I’ve taken heat on Twitter, what I actually said mattered far less than what I didn’t say but that others inferred. I wanted Tolkien removed from bookstores, I didn’t want youth to read books, I approved of whitewashing — all conclusions that, given who I am and what I believe, make me unsure whether to laugh or cry or vomit. I was accused, over and over again, of the sin of not being clear. Many detractors told me, “If people are making the wrong assumptions about what you said, then obviously it’s because you’re a shit writer.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of the role of the writer and of the act of prose writing. Fiction authors are not technical writers. We write fiction precisely because we don’t say things directly. Instead, we turn our complicated, messy ideas and observations into stories that are meant to be interpreted by willing, perceptive readers. We come at things obliquely. Hyperbole, metaphor, imagery, misdirection, and wit are the fiction writer’s tools. On Twitter, they might as well be donning antlers during hunting season.

“I’m going to crumble into dust” is more vivid, evocative, and amusing than “I feel a bit old right now.” It was a metaphor I’d seen used plenty of times before; under normal circumstances, I’d trust my readers to share the understanding, or if not, then to apply some thought as to the writer’s intentions when taken in context. We novelists extend trust all the time. And it’s fine if readers see things differently in the privacy of their reading experience; in fact, it’s to be expected. It’s why readers come out of books with wildly different interpretations about the characters and the meaning of the story that make you wonder if some of the reviewers on Goodreads even read the same book. Usually, there’s no harm done.

Twitter removes the trust between writer and reader by flattening meaning to the single most offensive understanding and proliferating that version alone. I realized after the furor over my Dune tweet that I had instinctively told a story in my allotted 280 characters. My tweet reads, “Here is a thing that you’re not supposed to do,” and then I went ahead and did it. It’s a classic writer’s trick, a sleight of hand with prose, a plot twist on a sentence level. The very skill that we writers work to cultivate — conveying even the smallest thought with a maximum of style — puts us at risk of being interpreted in one ungenerous way that cannot be argued, corrected, or withdrawn, only filtered through increasingly determined cycles of confirmation basis until it becomes truth.

For the most part, we authors write for a receptive, open-minded audience, an audience that has paid money for our work and wants to trust us. Twitter is the opposite of that, a twisted looking-glass version of reality in which the readership beyond our immediate circle is poised with hostile scrutiny.

There are plenty of my newly minted detractors who are going to say that the problem was not that I loved Dune, but that I was vague (in my use of the word “discourse”), dismissive (as a shrug emoji in my clarifying tweet was interpreted not as the sign of the helpless resignation I felt in that moment, but a sneer of arrogant petulance), and most of all that I refused to apologize. (Presumably, either for making the honest mistake of commenting on discourse that I did not know I was commenting on, or failing to rapidly address the former mistake with enough self-recrimination and acknowlegement of my inadvertant offense to affected parties, or both.)

Which I was never going to do because apologies on Twitter are like Sarlacc pits and daytime naps you think will make you feel better but instead make you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck. They are traps. Never in the history of Twitter have I ever seen an apology be accepted or actually reduce the abuse leveled. One hundred percent of the time, they are dissected for inadequacy and insincerity, held up as proof of the offender’s malicious intent all along, and used as kindling to further fan the flames. At one moment during the onslaught of calls to effect my cancellation, I wanted only, like a heretic dragged before the inquisitor, to give in to the temptation, to obey the increasing calls that I apologize for my unintentional transgression in the hopes that it would lead to reprieve and forgiveness.

Then I remembered that not more than two weeks ago, I’d seen another femme-presenting author of color who accidentally stepped into a race debate on Twitter with an ill-timed and ill-worded tweet provide a full and guilty apology, offer to make reparations, only to fall under a storm of exponentially worse and increasingly racist abuse until they deleted their Twitter account.

Nor do apologies ever extend in the other direction. There is a rule on Twitter that the diffuse harm of a single obtuse tweet to an entire vast population outweighs any personal distress suffered by the sole person on the receiving end of the backlash. Any attempt to talk about the mental pain that comes from being the butt end of thousands of people determinedly excoriating one’s character is only “playing the victim,” a further sign of fundamental disingenuity. Never have I witnessed a clarification or apology on Twitter lead to reciprocal outreach or reconcilation. The Twitter mob does not say, “Oh, thanks for clarifying. I’m also sorry about the misunderstanding and for jumping to conclusions. Shake hands and move on, shall we?”

There is something else going on as well. Women, minorities, and members of other marginalized groups in media, from Zoe Quinn to Kelly Marie-Tran, are already the preferred targets of bigots. But when marginalized creators misstep or are simply not savvy enough in a given random moment to clear the arbitrary tests of progressivism leveled by their followers, they are often taken down by the very same loud online voices that shallowly purport to be on their side. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

It’s difficult and scary to deal with attention and ire from real racists and bigots — trust me, I know. Not that I believe Twitter is where the real battles for justice are fought, but I imagine it’s satisfying for some of those who feel voiceless or overlooked to lash out in ways that falsely feel productive simply because the punishment actually lands. BIPOC and other marginalized creators who disappoint you are not going to fight back. They have no weapons. I’m not going to doxx you, hit back with racial slurs, or set my legions of asshole friends with Pepe the frog avatars on you. All I can do is take it. BIPOC creators are just trying to keep our heads up.

If you want proof of the “Who is safe to attack?” mentality, consider this: none of the alt-right trolls I’ve blocked over the years have ever expressed surprise at being blocked. Why would they? But when I began to block people willfully putting words into my mouth over Dune, there were shocked ripples of, “I can’t believe she’s blocking us instead of apologizing!” as if our adjacent marginalization obligated me to accept bad faith arguments, aggression, and abuse that white men with far more controversial opinions of Dune would not. Which is…kind of telling, isn’t it?

I can already hear the cries and quote retweets of “Don’t play the victim,” and “Being a POC doesn’t excuse you being racist to other POC!” That is absolutely true. If I wrote a novel full of shitty racial stereotypes, if I got on a soapbox to espouse such views, if I displayed toxic or prejudiced behavior to fellow POC authors and industry colleagues, I would expect to be strongly and rightfully taken to task for it. But diffuse offenses unknowingly caused by one-off tweets don’t justify online dog-piling when nothing about the underlying structures of power or representation are actually changed and the only real result is exhausted creators withdrawing.

I’ve seen scores of marginalized writers exit Twitter recently or move to an updates-only presence. (See Jason Sanford’s report for a few examples.) I’m sure that at this moment, there are up-and-coming writers viewing me as a cautionary tale. “Geez, did you see what happened to Fonda Lee? I sure don’t want to end up like her. That’s why I’m getting out / only ever posting cat pictures.” In writers forums and chat groups, I’ve heard over and over again, people say, “I’m afraid to say anything on Twitter.” I don’t blame them. At this point, I’ve been thoroughly dunked on by both extremes of the political spectrum, which leaves…I guess, just reasonable people and people not on Twitter as my potential readership.

Which I’m fine with, honestly.

So where does that leave us? Because in this regard, I agree with my critics: I’m not a victim. I’m not blameless; I own my cardinal sin of occasionally being an opinionated woman of color on Twitter who fails to show adequate public reverence for everything from Tolkien to Tiktok to criticism of a movie, although if you’ve read this far without pre-judgment, I hope I’ve at least made you consider that perhaps the cost paid is far disproportionate to the crime (which ideally wouldn’t be such a crime if the world was better, and Twitter were not Twitter, neither of which is poised to change.)

But I have been left mulling the Catch-22 that creative professionals now face, where Twitter is both obligatory and terrifying, the equivalent of a dysfunctional family reunion you’re forcing yourself to attend even though you’re going to be swallowing the blood of your own bitten tongue the entire time. As the pandemic persists for the indefinite future, what can those of us in the writing and publishing communities do to move our online water cooler conversations out of the cesspool of Twitter into better, safer, more inclusive spaces (without creating private islands of Cool Kids Tables)? For those of us who stubbornly and masochistically stay on Twitter, what can we do to gatekeep our mental health and our important conversations from the toxic rage algorithm? How do we reconcile our participation on Twitter with the fact that the platform is a societal scourge? What role do publishers have to play with regards to moderating their ever increasing social media expectations of authors? What can be done to claw back the trend of constant author accessibility so that creators who withdraw from social media can do so without fear of hindering their careers?

I don’t know the answers. I’m going to be trying to make some changes in my own approach. At the end of the day, Twitter bullshit notwithstanding, I feel grateful for the support of friends who reached out to me individually, for the readers and followers who judge me by my pattern of behavior and the content of my work rather than the outrage of the moment, and the fact that I’m in a position to, if not materially change anything, at least shed light on the issue and act as a warning example.

I’m writing this as I fly home from a weekend at FanExpo Denver where, for the first time in over two years, I was able to hang out with other writers, meet readers face to face, have conversations with people, and sign their books. It was like emerging from the Matrix and suddenly remembering what’s real. The virtual reality feels like the whole world when you’re inside it, and the people inside of it are real people, but the whole thing is designed to fuck with you, and the injuries you receive still hurt. If I’m going to spend my emotional energy inside a make believe world, I’d rather it was my own.

illustration credit: John S. Dykes