Writing and online experience

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?

my heart
(Photo credit: *Psycho Delia*)

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?

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37 thoughts on “Writing and online experience”

  1. Mobile phones are a problem, too. There are so many situations in fiction and other media, where the simple solution would just be to use your mobile or call someone else’s mobile and all the misinterpretations/uncertainty would disappear. Unless the author’s put them somewhere with no signal. Or killed their battery.

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  2. Great post, but I do think those old stories can be achieved today, especially among older people simply because many are not internet savvy. Also, I have cousins that live way up in the mountains, they don’t use the Internet. What?! I know it’s hard for some people to imagine that. My 50 year old cousin has never even experienced the Internet even once. She’d very much enjoy an old fashion romance. But, in my opinion, you are definitely correct in how social media has opened a whole knew world for fiction, just like e-mail did so many years back. In fact, from just reading your post, I came up with a good idea…maybe for my next book! Thanks!

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  3. I did try creating a whole fiction around a blog, using the semi-daily updates to flesh out a year-in-the-life styled journal narrative. Ended up with lots of things going on at once, with lots of things to say and not saying any one thing very clearly. Strangely, still finding it interesting to read as a whole.
    Didn’t get many readers tho since I really didn’t know how to actually share the whole thing out.

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  4. What an interesting post. I’ve wondered if the flood of online communication will deaden readers’ senses to the unique, the exquisite in what they read, as well as in the tenor of the fictional relationships. Speed creates its own kind of distance for readers and characters alike. Thanks for affecting my thinking today.

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  5. Great write up and some good questions for considering content, never thought of it in the these terms. Certainly makes me think about my own writing, the audience, content and context. Thanks!

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  6. Blog writing is an easy fit for me, as well as helping others write about their lives. Short and to the point. Perhaps our world is changing so much with “living online”, but it works for me and allows new windows into the world to be opened without the pressure of longer, more formal pieces.

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  7. I loved your post and the discussion it has brought about. Thanks for making us think. I write novels that are set in the 1940’s, the time the entire world went to war and communication was limited to censored letters. I sometimes wonder how my characters would have felt if they really knew what their loved ones endured through television on-the-spot reports, Skype, texting, satellite cell phones, and the Internet. I think the communication they had saved them from the horrors of war, but it also kept them in limbo, which can be harder than realizing the truth.

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  8. I often think about the people who are being left out of everyday conversations, especially when it comes to marketing. Look at how many TV shows and even entire advertisements mention Twitter hashtags. I know my in-laws have no idea what this pound sign is on everything, and if an entire ad centers on Twitter, they are totally lost. I’m sure it’s only going to get worse and more stratified.

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  9. I enjoyed reading and pondering this! I have always had a sour idea of online dating simply for the fact that the “how we meet” story is thrown under the bus completely. Generally, I have a love/hate relationship with technology but ironically enough, I am currently seeing an “I.T. guy.”

    Ha!
    Great subject, Thank you!

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  10. Though the online tools to stay connected might be available, I’m not certain that everyone always uses them in such a way as to obsolete the good old years-of-separation story. It’s possible to imagine that the years of ‘willful inattentiveness’ despite online opportunities might make the separation that much sharper. I think a case can be made that on the topic of separation these online devices kind of re-localize distance from being primarily spatial to more of being on the plane of attention and thought.

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  11. I’ve been reading so many books/essays like “The Shallows” etc. that examine all the many ways technology impacts our brains and friendships, but I’ve yet to read something about how love and love stories (in all their forms will change). As Wordsworth so hopefully insisted, I hope we receive “abundant recompense” for the glorious agony of time (waiting for love letters, etc.) and all the other things we’ve lost through technology.

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  12. Very intriguing and provoking suggestion. The nature of old-fashioned relationships is so different from today’s virtual cat-and-mousing. And yet the goals, emotions and purpose are the same. You tempt me to write…

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  13. email and instant media robs us of the chance to suffer gloriously in anticipation….

    In a way it’s like beauty and the beast. perhaps the other person will fall for your fantasy projection, the person you wish you were – and can be in a world without bitter limitations.

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  14. hummm… this was interesting… I am now wondering as relationships are easier and shallower with the invent of the internet will future romances (genre) become shallower and follow suit… as someone who is writing a romance (that is not a romance) by installment on WordPress I took my story back to the stone age literally so I can give my characters more depth than a world with technology would permit.

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  15. It makes me think of that book, Accelerando. The idea that technology leaps forward at an accelerated rate until we reach the singularity. At which point, will we even tell stories? Great post, lots of good stuff to mull over.

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      1. At a certain point we’ll meld with technology. The singularity is the idea that technology will continue to accelerate in development until we can upload our brains to machines and achieve immortality. Several centuries out (probably) but it makes me wonder what form story-telling will eventually take.

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  16. Would it be possible to write a story as a timeline where people start at the end and scroll down through messages, photos, etc., to discover the beginnings?

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        1. Yes. It worked because people knew the story. Also, the intention was simply aiming for novelty value and a fun effect rather than any serious attempt at storytelling. What you’re suggesting is far more serious.

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  17. At heart, those old stories still exist… because the universal truths and simplicity of what lies beyond the construct of various plots will always be human. But you’re right – the world evolves (or at least changes!) and so our stories do change with it.

    Without wanting to drag the conversation in to the gutter, I recently came up with a story idea that involved two people meeting on an internet hook-up site, while watching each other on their web cams. Sleazy, yes. But a fun way to introduce two characters to each other!

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