When he joined Twitter in 2010, the author had no idea what a toxic force social media could be or that the publication of his sixth YA novel would trigger such an online backlash. Now he wants to understand what makes people tap obsessively at a little blue icon on their smartphones and scream abuse at complete strangers...
Towards the end of my new novel, The Echo Chamber, a character turns to his girlfriend and asks, “Seriously, have you ever heard someone say: my life is so much better now that I’m on Twitter?”
When I started writing the book, a comic novel about our relationship with a place more combative than the Gaza Strip, I knew already, for reasons which will become apparent, that the answer to this question was “no”, but wanted to understand why so many millions of people continue to use it.
My Twitter profile says that I joined the social media platform in October 2010 and, looking back at my calendar from that month, I can see that I was fairly busy. I published a novel and did the rounds of the radio and TV stations to promote it. I watched the new David Fincher movie, The Social Network, which should have served as a warning to me about the dangers of online engagement. Towards the end of the month, I undertook an eight-city book tour of Switzerland and Germany, and it was there, on a cold, rainy, ill-fated night in Cologne, that it all began.
I was participating in a literary festival and had arranged to meet another author in the lobby of the Wasserturm, where we were both staying, a mostly windowless hotel that had been converted from an old water tower in the 1990s. When he emerged from the lift, he was carrying a book and when I asked what it was, it turned out to be one of his own. “I was reading it on the plane,” he told me. “I’d forgotten how good it is.”
I said nothing. It was going to be a long night.
It was later, however, when we were having a drink, that the subject turned to Twitter. I’d heard of social media, of course, but had the same relationship to it as I did to heterosexual sex in that I was aware it existed, I knew there were plenty of people who enjoyed it, but it didn’t seem like something I wanted to devote much energy to. My colleague was very active on it though and persuaded me to create an account and so, there and then, I set one up.
“Right,” I said, when confronted by my new profile. “What should I tweet?”
“Something interesting,” he said.
“How about I take a photo of the two of us and post it?” I suggested and he shook his head.
“I’d rather not,” he replied, gnomically, I thought at the time. In the end, I tweeted something fairly innocuous like “Hello, I’m on Twitter”. And, with such simple but unexpectedly dangerous words, a new era began.
Years passed and life continued apace. I published more novels. I spent far too much time in airports, engaged in an endless cycle of book promotion, longing for something unexpected to happen in the world that might mean I could put my suitcase in the attic and stay at home for a year. I got married and I got divorced. There were good times and there were bad.
And through it all, there was Twitter.
It seemed a sensible enough place as most of my followers, and most of the people I followed, were engaged with books and you have to work quite hard to fall out when discussing which Jane Austen novel you like the most. I interacted with readers and writers, with schools that used my books as classroom readers, with universities who taught some of my adult novels on contemporary fiction courses. I must have answered the question, “Where did you get the idea for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?” several thousand times. The whole thing was swell. What could possibly go wrong?
It took until 2016 for me to recognise how toxic it could be, and I trace this blinding realisation to the moment when Donald J Trump came down his golden elevator like a perma-tanned Apollo descending from Mount Olympus to announce his unlikely run for president. Over the year that followed, I watched him use the platform to espouse racism and misogyny in a manner that seemed to go uncensured. I found myself arguing with his supporters, a group not known for nuanced debate. The more they defended their favourite demagogue, the more incensed I grew. When the unthinkable happened and Trump found his tiny hand planted on the Bible while he took the oath of office, I realised I was wasting my time and confined myself once more to talking about books.
And I stuck with that decision for a while, until a little something called My Brother’s Name is Jessica came along.
I won’t rehash the dramas that coincided with the publication of my sixth young adult novel. Suffice to say that, in the eyes of the self-appointed arbiters of morality, none of whom had actually bothered to read the book before condemning it, I was up there with the worst of the worst in the crimes-against-gender-politics stakes.
Simultaneously, rising from the depths, like Leviathan ascending from the Waters of Chaos, came The Stalker, ready to pour horrible and abusive vitriol on me almost every day for the next 15 months. An astonishing 1,134 tweets, in fact, almost all of which featured invented quotes and scenarios dreamed up in his febrile imagination.
Multiple apologies and retractions later, and
having admitted that he’d been engaged in a determined campaign of “relentless harassment”, this oddball slithered back to his subterranean cavern to lick his wounds and identify new, perhaps less litigious, targets. It had been an unsettling experience but an intriguing one. What would make a middle-aged man obsess over a stranger in this way, I wondered? It’s almost impossible to understand, but I suspect that envy played a large role in it.
Most writers take difficult experiences from their lives and attempt to make sense of them through fiction. I wrote A History of Loneliness to understand the sexual abuse I and others suffered as students at Terenure College in the 1980s. I wrote The Heart’s Invisible Furies to understand how Ireland had become the first country in the world to vote for Equal Rights Marriage. I wrote A Ladder to the Sky to understand my part in an unhealthy and manipulative friendship.
And now I’ve written The Echo Chamber to understand what it is that makes people tap obsessively at a little blue icon on their smartphones and scream abuse at complete strangers.
The family at the heart of The Echo Chamber, the Cleverleys, are not the brightest bunch but they did love each other once, before social media overtook their lives. When trouble comes, as it inevitably does, they have no one to turn to for support because their friends are essentially imaginary. Clusters of frustrated strangers, desperately hoping the world might pay attention to them, who are waiting patiently for others to mess up so they can pounce and gain a few extra followers. The dopamine hit must be quite something.
I wrote the novel as a farce because that’s what a life lived online is. There’s a good reason why Twitter became the platform of choice for Trump. It not only allows users to spread disinformation, it actively encourages it. When a tweet goes viral, no matter how ludicrous or dishonest it is, the social media firms profit. These companies have monetised anger. I look at people whose careers and reputations have been lost to obsessive or irresponsible tweeting and wonder, was it worth it? Could any of them, like my fictional character, seriously say that their lives became better the moment they joined Twitter?
Only a fool or an incurable optimist would think you can solve the world’s problems in 280 characters. You’re either preaching to the converted or antagonising an audience of apostates. The reality is, Twitter is to activism as watching the Olympic Games is to getting fit.
I don’t doubt that many of my regular antagonists will explode in competitive outrage when they read The Echo Chamber. But at 50 years of age, and with 20 books to my name, I’m afraid it’s all water off a duck’s back. Ultimately, I’ve been cancelled more times than the premiere of the new James Bond movie and somehow, I’m still here.