Social Networks in Fiction

I’ve been reading more contemporary fantasy recently, as well as some crime, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: Modern stories that don’t feature social networking feel out of date. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a massive part of the average person’s life.

When asked why they don’t use social networks in their fiction, a lot of authors answer, “Because they’re so quickly out of date. We don’t know what’s coming next.” This is both true and utter rubbish. There are aspects of social networking that remain constant, while others are transient at best. It would be prudent to avoid describing the user interface, logo, strapline or platform specific features. These can change in the blink of an eye and, as Facebook has shown (much to the ire of many), regular re-designs in the name of a better user experience are the norm.

Then there is the branding question. Some authors dislike naming specific brands, choosing instead to either make up their own or just describe the service being provided. If you do choose to mention brands, it’s probably sensible to use those that are best known. I think also think it’s a safe bet that (share prices and privacy related controversy aside) Facebook and Twitter are not going away any time soon.

So what should you feel free to write about?

  • Updates – Small pieces of text attached to a specific user.
  • Replies/Conversations – Updates that reply to or expand upon other updates.
  • Media (pictures, videos, audio) – A feed or stream of images attached to a specific user.
  • Avatars (profile pictures) – Pretty much every service has this feature.

The best way to write about social networks is to simply describe a short-form, multi-user conversation tool that has the ability to attach rich media. Come up with a generic format for updates and replies using either indents or italics to distinguish it from the rest of your prose. For example, I could write the following:

[SamStrong] -> Morning, all.

[ANOther] -> [SamStrong] Morning!

[YetANOther] -> [SamStrong] [ANOther] Indeed it is the morning!

[SamStrong] -> [ANOther] [YetANOther] Did you see this? <MEDIA>

Sure, the formatting and styling of the posts could be improved, but, in terms of describing a conversation that is clearly restricted in scope and is distinguished from normal dialogue, it could work.

Short of inventing your own formatting, you could just make it clear that a specific chunk of dialogue is communicated online. Writers describe stuff all the time. Social networks should be no different.

Whatever you choose to do, and however you choose to represent the way your characters communicate, just don’t ignore social networks. They aren’t going anywhere. The world is full of wonderful, scary, fun technology that humans love to exploit. Many classic novels are still loved, despite the fact that they got their vision of the future horribly wrong. By misrepresenting the present you do yourself a disservice.

p.s. The same goes for phones. They haven’t been just phones for quite a while now. Use that.