Some of my friends give me a funny look when I tell them I’m on Facebook and Twitter. This look is often followed by the disclaimer, ‘Oh, I don’t have time for any of that stuff.’ I completely understand. I don’t have time for gardening. Or, rather, I don’t wish to make time for it. That’s fine. Except at least I’ve tried gardening whereas they, on hearsay alone, have not only dismissed social media from their lives, but labelled everyone who chooses to indulge as time wasters.
“But I don’t want to read about what so-and-so had for breakfast.” Neither do I. And there are other more sinister sides to social media that I don’t want to get involved in either; like sending hateful tweets to Tom Daley, or conducting personal vendettas in public. I also appreciate that not everybody suffers from the same bizarre compulsion as I do to publish photos of their feet on their journey through life.
But let’s think for a minute about Cousin Brian. Ever wonder what happened to him? You used to exchange Christmas cards but that petered out a while back. If you’re on FB and he is too, why not send him a friend request? He doesn’t have to accept. But if he does, you get to say hi and to get a little glimpse into his life. And he gets a glimpse into yours.
You don’t have to give up vast swathes of your day to do this. You don’t have to travel to his home in Nova Scotia, or compose a letter, or run up the phone bill. In this way, far from being a time waster, Facebook can be a great time saver.
And that glimpse into his life is fascinating, isn’t it? Yes, of course it is, and all the more so if you’re a writer. It’s not that you want to exploit Cousin Brian for your next novel. But the stuff of human existence is your bread and butter. You are intrigued by people and how they live, how they change over time, who they live with and what’s important to them. Sure, it’s voyeuristic. Most human beings, particularly writers, are voyeurs. But it’s voyeurism by invitation. People only reveal about themselves what they choose to reveal (although, given human nature, they actually reveal a whole lot more without realising it – manna from heaven).
Of course, Cousin Brian could turn out to be a big disappointment. He could be one of those tedious parents who only ever post about the achievements of their genius offspring. Or, he could have a teenage daughter who befriends you and then subjects you to one hundred photos a day of her pouting at the mobile attached to the end of her arm and her friends’ endless comments of, “Soooo gorgeousssss babes,” and “Go get ugly bitch.”
Like gardening, you’ve got to sort out the weeds.
So what else, apart from securing a portal into other people’s lives, have I gained from being on social media? Well, I’ve taken part in many lively debates, I’ve followed links to some fascinating articles, books and films, I’ve had a short story taken up by an online magazine and I’ve received help with researching my novel and many other things. In fact, sometimes it’s like having your own personal help desk. Here are some crucial questions I’ve had answered by FB friends in the past week: a) can anyone recommend a good chimney sweep? b) how should I approach a herd of bullocks straddling my regular footpath? And c) is 6.42 pm too early to partake of a glass of wine?
Twitter I tend to use more exclusively for writing matters. It took me a bit of time to get to grips with Twitter. For example, don’t go thinking you must read every single tweet of the people you’re following. Otherwise you really won’t have any life at all.
I follow a lot of people on Twitter I don’t actually know, but who sound interesting from a writing perspective. Twitter has led me to some great blog sites, of which I have made a Twitter list (needs updating) from where I can access all these writers’ most recent tweets.
Then there’s #sentenceaday. My own (and @ClaireDonaldson’s) little hashtag which continues to attract new contributors, where people tweet a sentence from their novel in progress every day. My own contributions have become haphazard to say the least, but I keep them going when I can. One fellow writer remarked how her sentences were invariably too long for the Twitter character limit and I too have found it necessary to pare down my sentences to meet this restriction. So far this has resulted in nothing but improvements. That’s not to say I think the whole novel should be written exclusively in sentences of less than 140 characters. But it does go to show how less is often more and how, strangely, Twitter can help you to write better.
Everyone says if you want to be a writer nowadays you have to build a social media platform. But, were I published tomorrow, would my modest social media presence actively result in greater book sales? I think not.
Is it not, then, a waste of time after all? Well, yes, it can be. Like going on Wikipedia to look up the whereabouts of Nova Scotia and resurfacing three hours later with an in depth knowledge of the history of the Passamaquoddy peoples; it can suck you in.
However, if I stopped being a writer tomorrow, I wouldn’t close down my FB and Twitter accounts (or Goodreads or Pinterest for that matter) because I’m having too much fun with them. At their best, social sites are just nice places to be, where people are witty and warm and polite and supportive. For example, I posted a status recently asking, for the purposes of research, “How do you say ‘Shut your mouth!’ in Italian?” A Welsh friend came back with his own nation’s version which translated as “Whose round is it next?” Apparently does the trick every time. 😉