How chaos on Twitter is affecting SF/F authors

The pitfalls of platform migration

How chaos on Twitter is affecting SF/F authors
Photo by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash

Earlier this year, Vermont Public's Marlon Hyde called me up to ask some questions about how well Vermont might fare in an apocalypse. It was an interesting conversation, and only a little bit of what was an hour-long conversation ended up in the actual podcast. I pointed out that apocalyptic fiction often is a reflection of what we're worried about.

What didn't make it into the podcast is something that's been on my mind ever since I had that conversation: an apocalypse isn't necessarily something as dramatic as an atomic blast or asteroid strike, but the destruction of community: the ties that bind us from person to person. Destroying infrastructure and human bodies can certainly do that, but those are things that are at the extreme end of the spectrum. It's the smaller ones that we don't always notice until it's too late.

This has been at the forefront of my mind, because of the ups and downs over the last couple of weeks with Twitter. Elon Musk took over the company, laid off a good chunk of the workforce, fired a bunch of others in the weeks that followed, and for a while, it seemed as though the site would imminently go down. That hasn't happened, but the uncertainty has prompted plenty of regular users to begin looking elsewhere, faced with the possibility that the communities and friends that we've built up over the last decade and a half could just vanish when a critical server goes down.

For better or worse, Twitter has been one of those tools that has been at the forefront of parts of the speculative fiction community. It's a place where agents, authors, editors, fans, publishing professionals, and everyone in between could engage with one another, swapping writing trips, muse about books they're reading, opine on controversies, promote their work, and generally befriend (or at least aquaint themselves) with like-minded people.

Twitter's been an ideal place for this: it's open and facilitates those sorts of free-wheeling conversations. I've personally made plenty of friends and connections with my time on the platform, kept up with cons that I haven't been able to make, and everything else. It's been an instrumental part of my career writing about science fiction, and despite its many systemic problems, the prospect of it vanishing is a troubling one.

I reached out to a handful of authors to ask about their experiences. One of the more prominant science fiction authors on the platform is John Scalzi, author of Old Man's War, Redshirts, and a whole bunch of others. He's spent a considerable amount of time using Twitter, and noted that lately he's "been thinking I want to focus more on an online presence that is in my control, rather than one that is largely at the whims of someone else, even if they are not, in fact, a petulant, incompetent billionaire."

Scalzi's spoken often about the value of maintaining one's own presence online, even as social networks like Facebook or Twitter often appear to be more important for establishing an online presence. In 2011, he wrote on his blog Whatever that "it’s best to have a site that isn’t at the whims of stock evaluation, or a corporate merger, or an ambitious executive’s “content strategy,” or whatever. Ultimately, your online home should be something you control, and something you can point the people at Facebook (or MySpace, or Friendster, etc) to."

Charlie Jane Anders, author of The City in the Middle of the Night, Victories Greater Than Death, and Never Say you Can't Survive pointed out that she's been evaluating the time that she's spending on Twitter. "I've been spending less and less time on there because the service had become too unpleasant to use," she explained. "So many design decisions seemed optimized to increase bullying and pile-ons: the algorithm, the quote tweets that you can't opt out of, the burying of tweets that link out for more context, the ability to embed tweets elsewhere, and a few other things."

Ring Shout and A Master of Djinn author P. Djèlí Clark told me that since Musk's takeover of the service, he's mainly been in observation mote, "noticing lots of questionable content popping up in my feed, by folks I do not follow nor would ever follow," while also "looking at how others are being treated [and] supporting voices I think need boosting."

Anders explained that she's "been functionally not on Twitter any more," since the takeover, but noted that she has been using it to promote and crosspost from other platforms. "I also just took my account private out of an abundance of caution. It's just not worth spending time and energy on a platform that is so abusive."

"I don't think his takeover has changed my relationship with my fans on the service," Scalzi added, "but it has shifted the overall tenor of the place, and I think that's weighing on folks." He noted that the short format of microblogging was something that he really liked, and will miss aspects of it, but "I won't miss devoting so much time to it; I have other things I need to do. I will miss relationships I've built/developed there, both personal and professional, but many of those will continue in other places, including real life."

There are other unique elements that Twitter offered that the wider SF/F community, Clark pointed out: "reading and interacting with a broad swath of people from varying cross sections of the global environment, and the ability to interact/respond/critique with persons in power (journalism, politics, entertainment) that was simply not possible before." As audiences jump from platform to platform, one might migrate with folks they're familiar with, but as different communities end up in different places, some of those connections just won't come across as before.

A while back, my former editor and excellent author Annalee Newitz made an interesting observation about the state of Twitter, referring back to their excellent book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. The service had become one of the lost cities they wrote about. Those cities (Çatalhöyük in Central Turkey, Pompeii in Italy, Angkor in Cambodia, Cahokia in East St. Louis) didn't vanish overnight: they were vibrant metropolises that grew, peaked, and then declined as events or circumstances pushed their residents to new homes.

Their observations were pretty on point: "While Twitter’s leadership wobbles, all those social infrastructure problems are exacerbated...If the pattern holds, and it likely will, we’ll see more people quitting the platform and the company over the next year...Imagine that Twitter is a city whose corrupt government and potholed streets are pushing residents out. Slowly you’ll start to see more “for rent” and “we’ve moved” signs in shop windows. As city workers leave and budgets are slashed, the potholes will get worse. Water quality will go down. When power lines are damaged, it might take weeks to repair them. The more people leave, the worse it gets, in a spiral of loss that speeds up as time goes on."

Fragile Infrastructure
What does Twitter’s messy takeover mean for the SF/F community

Scalzi noted that over the years, he's made it a point to make an account on whatever the latest new service was, if anything, to make sure that he has control over a recognizable username. "I don't necessarily want anything from them; what the key is, is figuring out what they're good at and working with that. I do want to be somewhere friends are, but it's up in the air at the moment where that will be."

No service completely replicates what Twitter offered up. I've been thinking of other platforms like Mastodon, Hive, Post.News, and others as new houses that we're thinking about moving into. A new home has a different configuration than the old: you have to figure out where to put your furniture, bookshelves, cooking supplies, and chairs in a configuration that works for that new home. Clark pointed out that he didn't "see any other platform that replicates [Twitter's] elements–at least not in full. For instance, the quote tweet is so important. But I am testing and experimenting."

Anders concurred: "Honestly, I've liked the conversations on Mastodon, but none of these services seems likely to replace Twitter, for good or ill. I am currently wondering how best to try and communicate with a lot of people at once, and all the options seem flawed."

As people jump from Twitter to other social networks, they face the likely possibility that the people they've followed and connected with there likely won't all follow in the same way: the makeup of the community will be different. As I've jumped from Twitter to Mastodon and Hive, I've realized how much I've tailored my habits to Twitter's particular quirks and features: I follow a small number of people and turn off retweets on most everyone because it's overwhelming otherwise. As I've jumped to newer platforms, I've followed a different configuation of people because I'm still getting my bearings and trying to figure out where the edges of the community are, while also working to deal with the limitations of these new platforms. It's a process that will take time to settle out.

Anders explained that she thought that "the slow implosion of Twitter is going to be hard for authors," and hopes that with everyone looking for new ways to connect people to one another, "maybe someone will manage to create a book-focused platform where authors and readers can hang out in a non-horrible way. I think a platform that hosts really good book discussion and gains a large user base would be invaluable."

As we look to new platforms, Scalzi points out, Twitter wasn't the high point in community interactions. "Musk-era Twitter sucks but we need to be careful not to put on rose-colored glasses about the service prior to Musk," he said. "It sucked a lot before him, too. Twitter was a great concept with a usually poor-to-middlin' execution; what made it work was the ferment of the users. Without that ferment, Twitter might as well be MySpace, and at this point, may well become it."

Currently Reading

What have I been reading recently? It's been a while since I've done a roundup. I finished Ducks by Kate Beaton, Even Though I Knew The End by C.L. Polk, and The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin (which I really enjoyed). I also picked up and read Frank Miller's Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, which I really enjoyed.

I've since put The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse on the DNF pile: I just stalled and couldn't get any further in it.

Currently on the to-read list? I've made something of a change of pace and have been reading through Maggie Haberman's Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, which is equal parts frustrating and fascinating. I've had a couple of others on the list that have been there for a while, but one that I picked up for work that I'm enjoying is Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen, which I'm finding fascinating.

Further Reading

A handful of these entries are the short news updates that I've been sending out each morning. I think this format works, and if you are looking for a good way to keep up with some of the news, consider subscribing: these posts are just a paragraph or two, enough to point you to a link, provide some context, and start a bit of discussion.

The response has been pretty good so far: I've gotten quite a bit more emails / text / Slack discussion for these posts. As a reminder, subscription rates are marked down this month (currently $40/year $4/month, usually $50/year / $5 month.)

Thanks in advance for considering: subscribing really helps: Ghost charges a flat rate for its hosting (as opposed to Substack, which takes a percentage of each transaction), and I'm looking at going into a winter season where oil prices are through the roof.

Okay, here we go:

Aldrich Library talk

Earlier this week, I stopped by the Aldrich Public Library in Vermont to talk about Cosplay: A History! It was a fun time, and if you missed it, you can watch here. I'll have another talk at the Manchester Public Library next week on December 7th.  

Andor recaps

Andor recently wrapped up its (excellent) first season on Disney+. I have some thoughts that I need to put together at some point, but in the meantime, I've read some excellent takes from around the internet. Here's one from Vanity Fair on how its serious storytelling impacted its audience, and another about geopolitics from The New Republic.

Astrolabe Gift Guide

Aidan Moher released a gift guide for his newsletter Astrolabe, and there are lots of neat things on it, including Cosplay: A History! The whole thing is definitely worth perusing if you're about to start your shopping for the holidays. (I'll have my own recommendations next week)

December books

In case you missed it, here's my December book roundup.

13 new sci-fi & fantasy books to check out this December
A last batch of books to add to your TBR before the end of the year

Going Meta

I read John Scalzi's Redshirts earlier this year when I saw that it hit its tenth anniversary in print this summer. It's a fun read, and a recent episode of Rick & Morty got me thinking about how the series and the book approach meta narratives.

Going meta
John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a decade on

First Trailer for Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 3

I've always found Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy films to be fun entries in that larger universe, and this final installment is supposed to be the end of this particular team, which seems like it might bring something of a heartbreaking end to these heroes.

Here's the first trailer for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Not gonna lie, I got a lump in my throat when they dropped the theme song on this. I'm ready to get hurt again after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (although I'll admit I like that one a lot more than I do Temple of Doom.) This looks like a ton of fun.

Kindred trailer

FX on Hulu is launching an adaptation of Octavia Butler's novel Kindred in December. The network just released the first full trailer for the project, and it looks fantastic.

Libraries vs. eBooks

Publishers and Libraries used to go hand in hand, until eBooks arrived on the scene: the technology has caused a rift between the two institutions.

Libraries vs. Ebooks
Clash of purpose

Licensing the Empire

ANOVOS might have squandered its goodwill with fans, but a new company, Denuo Novo, has taken over the license for high-quality Star Wars cosplay items.

Licensing the Empire
An update on the ANOVOS/Denuo Novo switch

More November books

Here are 18 more SF/F books for you to check out this month. Lots of good ones!

18 new sci-fi and fantasy books to check out this November
18 new SF/F books to check out in the back half of November

Remembering Greg Bear

The science fiction community lost a giant the other week: author Greg Bear passed away after complications from surgery, and leaves behind a long, distinguished legacy.

RIP Greg Bear
A titan of science fiction

The Return of Willow

A followup to the classic fantasy Willow has arrived on Disney+, and I enjoyed watching the first episode.

The return of Willow
A sequel 34 years in the making

Sci-fi AI and the Future of Armed Conflict

Back in October, I took part in Norwich University's Military Writers' Symposium, where I interviewed August Cole about writing realistic artificial intelligence and science fiction. That video is now online, and you can watch it here:

Terraforming Mars: the TV series?

This may or may not actually make it through the production pipeline, but apparently someone's working on an adaptation of the board game Terraforming Mars. Neat, but can we just get an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy instead?

Tor snaps up Sanderson's secret books

Remember Brandon Sanderson's massive, record-smashing Kickstarter for four secret novels? Tor just snagged the reprint right for them, and they'll be launching next year.

Tor snaps up Sanderson’s secret books
A newsletter about science fiction, reading, and the future

Transfer Orbit's Gift Guide

In case you missed it, I put together a gift guide for Transfer Orbit: there are a bunch of neat books and items on it that I'd recommend!

Transfer Orbit’s 2022 holiday shopping guide
The coolest items to pick up the nerdy book people in your life (or for yourself)

Z-Library seized

The US Justice Department charged two Russian nationals who ran Z-Library, a massive ebook piracy website, and took down it domain. This was a big site, and it's certainly cause publishers and authors numerous headaches over the years it was in operation.

That's all for today. Have a good weekend,