Imagine a moment in a story in which the protagonist finds his ex-girlfriend on Facebook. Imagine a story in which a woman falls in love with a guy through chats and comments and pictures and fantasizes about the rest of her lover in her mind. Imagine a story involving an online stalker who is everywhere and nowhere. Imagine a story of artistic melancholy where life feels fragmented and fake like a Facebook wall.
Would these stories be comprehensible to a reader without any online experience? As Lloyd Alexander has said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” While our fantasies stretch beyond our imaginations, their raw materials have to have their foundation in experience. The sensibilities that the above stories depend on can only exist because our online worlds exist and we have some experience of it. These experiences can hardly be separated from the form and content of these stories.
Writing for an online audience or an audience familiar with the online social experience has differed in many ways from traditional approaches to writing. Many of these differences have to do with form. Simply put, we read differently online than in print. Much has been discussed about this aspect of writing online.
But what about content? If we write an e-book or a blog, we know for sure that the person reading it will have experience of the online world. What changes in content are coming about because of the difference in experience both reader and writer are bringing to writing because of their mutual existence online? Are we approaching similar content differently because of the change in the medium we are meeting at? Are we choosing our subject matter differently to cater to a different audience if that audience will surely be online? Are we handling this change in potential content effectively?
Thinking of different content for our stories and narrative experiences in terms of events and examples is relatively simple. We fall in love differently if we date online than we used to do. Hence, our love stories will be different although the general subject, love, will still remain popular a long time. But have our sensibilities changed with respect to how we interact and experience love?
We don’t wait for love letters to reach us by snailmail via ship anymore. Hence we have forfeited opportunities for savouring romance while we wait. We don’t write the long billet-doux anymore nor need to light the funeral pyre of love of our love letters when disappointed as Alexander Pope’s character did. The evidence of our old relationships remain undeletable in the electronic age so perhaps our sensibilities about old relics become more hardened? Our fiction perhaps needs to reflect that.
Our stories will need to accommodate fundamental changes in the way we feel about things should such a change have come about in the way we experience emotions. The way that we feel distance, for example, has undergone a sea change as well. Someone at the other end of the world can’t seem so far away anymore even if we try thanks to social media. Compare this to characters in, say, Jane Austen’s world feeling sharp pangs of separation because they are simply moving to a different county (not country).
Some moments have simply disappeared. Those beautiful stories about friends or lovers separated for years and then meeting accidentally in coffee shops or bookstores and recognizing each other despite the grey hair and the matured dispositions just won’t be possible anymore. Those moments cannot be turned into climaxes simply because their potential have been destroyed by constant information that is ubiquitous online about people.
Yet, new stories are bound to emerge. While we cannot be separated for decades, we might remain dormant “friends” on social media observing each other’s lives as passive spectators through years and years. That might call for a subtler and more difficult-to-pen story.
Or a more difficult-to-type story actually.
What do you think?