Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The internet is a huge part of modern life, making it an essential part of our depictions of modern life. But while most of us are familiar with our comfortable corner of the web, the internet as a whole is a vast, complicated space that has changed quite a bit since it entered public consciousness.
Some of the ways we used to think about the internet no longer apply, while many realities of online life go unacknowledged in our writing. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at five things authors should know when writing about the internet.
1. Social media has changed what it means to browse the internet
A key aspect of depicting the modern internet is the move from individual websites to social media. While websites obviously still exist and serve their own functions, the growth of social media has changed how ‘content’ (articles, videos, images, etc. designed to be experienced online) is designed and delivered.
For instance, a company producing video content might once have assumed that their work would be viewed primarily on their own site. Now, such videos are designed to be encountered on social media sites or through video-hosting sites like YouTube – the difference between expecting people to come to your store and hiring a stall at the local market so you can grab shoppers who are there for a more general experience.
Articles are still likely to be hosted on an organization’s own website, but there’s the expectation that a significant segment of readers will encounter them via social media. This is partially to blame for the rise in ‘clickbait’ headlines – headlines that use exaggerated or misleading language to tempt readers into reading on. While headlines have always been intended to grab the reader’s attention, clickbait headlines have even more work to do, since they’re often operating in a space that otherwise doesn’t benefit the writer in question – a headline on a newspaper’s website is trying to get you to read a given story, but a headline that a newspaper is sharing on social media is trying to get you to read that specific publication.
In effect, social media has successfully adopted a middle-man position between many internet users and the sites that want their attention. It’s a subtle change in how the internet ‘works,’ and it hasn’t been bloodless. Recently, there was a huge cull in online entertainment work, resulting in part from businesses who adjusted their business models to account for apparent social media trends that turned out not to exist.
In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported (and Facebook subsequently confessed) that the company had been seriously miscalculating multiple key metrics, including “Average Duration of Video Viewed.” The error: Facebook was only counting views longer than three seconds in its “average,” and thus completely ignoring the vast majority of people who were scrolling right past them.– Will Oremus, ‘The Big Lie Behind the “Pivot to Video”’
The rise of social media has also changed the feel of using the web. Where before users hopped between island websites, now most strike out from a central ‘base.’ This has resulted in more cohesion in terms of online discourse, and there’s an expectation that major sites are part of the larger discussion.
What does this mean for your fiction? First, that what it looks like to browse the web is different than you might think. A character who is using social media could be doing almost anything; talking with a friend, reading an article from the New York Times, or even making money. How a character approaches web content makes a statement about their age and outlook, and the finesse with which they pursue digital information has begun to matter in terms of believability.
Likewise, anyone working with online content is at least conscious of how it intersects with social media (including journalists, artists, and anyone selling anything online), and content generation comes with new expectations for engaging with the moment. In the aftermath of a major event, modern internet users might visit specific social media to get unfiltered information, then go to three or four trusted but differing sites to get a rounded account of what the event means or why it happened. This digital fluency is different from simply searching for the event on Google or checking one news source, and these simplified behaviors are beginning to feel more and more unrealistic to readers.
2. Social media has all the qualities of a setting
Another major thing to understand about the nature of social media is that while sites rise and fall in popularity, they fulfill different purposes and bring a different character to the interactions they facilitate. If you’re not engaged with social media, it can seem like these trends have little rhyme or reason, but there’s a logic to why some services live and others die.
For a useful case study of this logic – picking apart the differences between YouTube and Vidme, and why the latter failed to capture public attention – check out the video below, in which video essayist Dan Olson explores how a service seemingly identical to YouTube could still have found a place in the market.
Otherwise, it’s enough to know that if a social media site is popular, it’s for a reason – it’s doing something that tempted an audience away from other sites and, in doing so, it’s creating its own tone and atmosphere. Novelty plays a part in this, but social media requires investment, and ‘new’ is never enough to tear someone away from their digital home on its own.
What does this mean practically? Well, if your character’s art is taking off online, then it’s likely that’s not happening on Facebook (or your fictional equivalent), since it’s not a site that offers a lot of features relating to image sharing and therefore doesn’t attract as much of an obsessive art crowd. Likewise, if your character is being contacted by spies or courted by dangerous extremists, there are types of social media where that’s more likely than others. Facebook, for all its faults, is far less likely to be the place where young characters fall under the influence of a charismatic and dangerous cult, since it tends to focus on real-life associations rather than meeting new people. Likewise, Twitter, with its focus on brevity, is more useful for declarations than discussion. If your character wants to read a concise, well-argued set of points to understand a new concept (and therefore explain it to the reader), it makes sense that they’d go to Twitter, but if they personally want to discuss and debate a topic (to show how they feel in a dramatic way), it’s more likely they’re heading somewhere like Reddit.
To make things simpler, think of social media sites as physical places – bars, neighborhoods, or cities. They have a character of their own, and while surprising things can happen, the type of site you depict brings with it assumptions about what’s likely and what’s possible. If your character gets into a fight in a dimly lit bar, the scene is dramatic but the reader isn’t surprised, but if they get into a fight in a classy wine bar, the scene is dramatic and the reader needs some kind of explanation as to how things got out of hand. The same is true of social media sites, so if you’re going to depict your characters interacting in these spaces, treat them like any other setting and research their vibe beforehand.
3. The internet has its own rules of language
Even aside from the many nationalities who suddenly find themselves interacting in the spaceless confines of the web, the internet has its own language.
‘Internet speak’ tends to skew young for a variety of reasons, but even outside of being the new frontier of slang, online discourse rewards different aspects of communication than are desirable in real-world speech.
The most obvious reason for this is that the majority of online communication – and certainly most real-time, peer-to-peer communication – is in the form of text rather than speech. There are many more complex reasons at play (for instance, imagine if in a real-world conversation you could hear what the other person said multiple times before replying, and even quickly research your response), but the key point is that if your characters just type their usual dialogue, they’re likely to feel either dated or unrealistic.
So, what are the qualities of realistic internet communication? Well, those parameters are often shifting – terms and practices used today will soon be outdated, which is why it’s important to understand the ends they serve rather than just the means of the moment.
First, written text lacks the context of gesture and tone. Long-form writing addresses this in multiple ways, but the ultra-short-form of immediate internet communication lacks many of the same tools. One solution is ‘emojis,’ simple pictograms that often accompany text.
Thinking of emoji as gestures helps put things into perspective if we’re tempted to start thinking, “If words were good enough for Shakespeare, why aren’t they good enough for us?” We can pause and realize that plain words weren’t actually good enough for Shakespeare. A lot of what Shakespeare wrote was plays, designed not to be read on a page, but to be performed by people. How many of us have struggled through reading Shakespeare as a disembodied script in school, only to see him come to life in a well-acted production?– Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet
The most widely familiar emoji is the smiley face; an icon which can communicate many types of happiness but is most useful in adding a cheery tone to text which could otherwise be read in other ways. Like any form of communication, emojis are constantly expanding in number and evolving in meaning. Famously, the ‘eggplant’ emoji has become loaded with innuendo – partly because some found the pictogram suggestive, but mostly because the innuendo is more useful in online communication than the ability to quickly reference an actual eggplant.
If your characters are communicating online, it’s likely they’ll encounter emojis, even if they don’t use them. More importantly, emojis can make it easier to depict online communication – they exist in real life because they serve a need, and that need doesn’t disappear just because you ban them from your fiction.
Then, there are memes. The modern idea of a ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins, positing a way of understanding units of thought analogous to how we discuss genes. In common internet parlance, the term is used more specifically (though it still emerges from Dawkins’ ideas.)
Internet memes are images which carry a contextual meaning outside of what they literally depict. For an example, let’s take the ‘Is This a Pigeon?’ meme, which utilizes a subtitled still from The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird.
The intent of the meme is to suggest that someone is misidentifying a simple concept to an unreasonable degree. To this end, aspects of the image are changed; ‘pigeon’ becomes a term relevant to the situation in question, while the butterfly is either replaced by another image or else labelled in the style of a political cartoon, as below.
Here, the critique is that television shows about teenagers often cast too far outside the age range of their supposed characters.
Memes tend to catch on because they (arguably) perfectly embody an idea or emotion and, again, they tend to stand in for the complexity of gesture and expression. A huge part of a meme’s utility is the context in which it exists, and it’s normal for memes to change their meaning as the internet at large discovers, normalizes, and then subverts the intended meaning. Memes also tend to have a lifespan – some are forgotten in a day, while others survive for months or pass into semi-permanent internet parlance.
Were memes just a common form of amusement online, they might not bear mentioning, but they’re often at the vanguard of the most insistent and polarized discussion, since they combine humor, information density, and critique. If your characters – especially young characters – are involved in online disagreement, memes will be plentiful. Some of them will be abusive, some amusing, and some pretty insightful.
Memes are part of the churn of internet discussion and are incredibly dating in fiction, sometimes to the week or month. If you want to believably depict online discourse, you’ll need to at least understand when memes are likely to be used, but you’ll probably also have to invent your own. Memes tend to be obsessively documented by various sites, so researching what makes a meme popular is relatively easy.
4. The internet is bigger than we can understand
One already cliché idea in fiction is that any embarrassing event, once committed to the internet, automatically ‘goes viral.’ ‘Going viral’ is a term referring to a piece of internet content gaining mass attention by passing from person to person like a virus (this would be in contrast to, for example, footage of a major world event that people seek out online – here, lots of people are watching the same thing, but it’s not spreading by recommendation or word of mouth, it’s just of mass interest.)
So, what’s the issue? Well, ‘going viral’ has a connotation of scale that often feels false when misapplied. The internet is a worldwide resource, and something of that vast audience carries over to the idea of viral popularity. The idea that ‘the world’ has noticed footage of your character falling over or saying something embarrassing doesn’t read as if a huge number of people have watched the video in question, but that the author doesn’t really understand how many people are online. Likewise, having a character exclaim that something has ‘gone viral’ usually falls flat, both because there’s no objective arbiter for this state and because it implies not just mass attention but the nature of how that attention was achieved.
That’s not to say that things in your story can’t believably ‘go viral’ – the internet latches onto all kinds of nonsense – but that the believability of such an event hinges on your own understanding of what internet virality involves and how it works, particularly in terms of scale.
Just to make life harder, there’s no agreed definition on what counts as viral, with estimates given between 100,000 views and 5 million, even before timeframe is considered. As with all things internet, the standard changes along with the technology involved and the society using it.
The most useful thing to take away from the idea of virality is the sheer scale of the internet. Another example is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Often criticized for its submission standards and vulnerability to vandalism, the English-language Wikipedia currently features 6,102,014 articles overseen by 39,289,497 editors, the vast, vast majority written and edited on a volunteer basis. Since the internet is ethereal, it can be hard to conceptualize any accomplishments made within it, but while the merits of any given achievement are debatable, it’s important to understand that online communities often involve thousands of people committed to staggering goals, often without commercial incentive or pre-existing leadership. So many people co-operating to work on a single project would be newsworthy if they physically gathered, but when they’re scattered around the world, it’s easy to overlook the scale of accomplishment that the internet can facilitate. Especially at the current moment, huge amounts of money are raised daily online, and political movements are shaped, organized, and powered by connections only possible through the web.
It’s not just that the internet lets us think big, but that it allows us to work at a scale that the human mind literally can’t conceptualize, and to both creative and destructive ends.
As explored in Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, every user thinks of themself as an individual, but the effect of many individuals agreeing can, even accidentally, create moments where a person is caught in a typhoon of attention they’re incapable of processing. As Ronson says, ‘I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.’
The scale of the internet allows for almost unparalleled accomplishments, but it also allows for unparalleled devastation. This is an idea that we are still adjusting to in a cultural sense – victims of mass online abuse report their experiences being misunderstood by those who tell them to simply log off, despite situations where a) they make their living online and b) there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people picking apart their life, discovering their personal information, and seeking to cause them discomfort or even harm.
While many writers grasp the idea of the internet’s permanence – that once something is available online, it is incredibly difficult to erase – there is less understanding of its scale. Being abused online can be a matter of having a stalker who contacts you via your private messages, but it can also involve years-long harassment campaigns involving larger teams and more committed hours than are involved in most major construction projects. Whether your characters are experiencing achievement or trauma online, keep in mind how amplified these experiences can be.
5. The law has not caught up to life online
Technology moves at lightning speed, and the behaviors that result have to be described, understood, and studied before they can be legislated. While lawmakers around the world have begun responding to the internet with specific, tailored laws, the process is still very much ongoing, and the world has not yet ‘caught up’ to the internet in a legal sense.
For example, it took years of discussion and multiple scandals for officials to start discussing legal standards for how social media sites deal with deliberate misinformation. Likewise, legislation on pornographic materials has so far proved ineffective in removing non-consensual materials from video-sharing sites. Copyright laws are often used to silence critics whose method of presentation didn’t exist when the laws were written, and legislation around the press has left major news organizations legally unable to report on topics that are being freely discussed on social media.
Such laws are still being written and adjusted, so if your character is caught up in illegal behavior online, remember that the law they’re breaking (or the protections available to them) may not be at all what you think. In some areas, common sense is no guide at all, so it’s worth looking up whether you need to address any unexpected obstacles or, in happier circumstances, whether you have any easy solutions you weren’t expecting.
The internet is a vast, complicated place we’re still figuring out, not so much one tool as a thousand of them strung together, but it’s also a huge part of modern life, and its influence isn’t going away anytime soon. While you don’t have to know the hottest new social media sites or be able to recognize every variation of the ‘this is fine’ meme on sight in order to write convincing online behavior, you should have a working understanding of this place that, like it or not, so many of us spend so much of our time.
What details about the internet do you wish all authors knew? What online topics are still unclear? Let me know in the comments, and check out our social media archive for more articles on this ever-evolving topic.