Tackling social media in teen books

Gabrielle Williams is an an acclaimed author of young adult fiction. Her new novel, My Life as a Hashtag, is a funny, heartfelt read about rage, regret and the pitfalls of life in the digital age.

We recently asked Williams how she approached social media when writing for teenagers. Here is her response.

When I was at school, my friend’s boyfriend broke up with her via toilet paper. I imagine him sitting down one afternoon (hopefully with the lid down and his pants up), and simply penning his thoughts, the roll rattling against the holder as he explained exactly why he was breaking up with her. Listed all of her faults in alphabetical order. Detailed the things he found most annoying about her, followed by the things he found medium annoying, and then finally the things he found niggardly but still annoying enough to be worth writing down.

I would like to say his missive went for pages and pages, but it would be more accurate to say it went for squares and squares.

Fortunately my friend has an excellent sense of humour, so she found it both horrible and hilarious in equal measure. But the thing we all couldn’t believe, the most shocking thing to all of us, wasn’t that he used toilet paper as his paper of choice (although we all knew it was intended as the ultimate slap in the face). What shocked us to our collective core was that he actually wrote it all down. Every abusive thought. All the nastiness he could muster. He signed it. Dated it. He hid nothing. And the reason it was so shocking to us was that we had all been brought up with the conventional wisdom that you never put anything down in writing that could be used against you.

It always seemed sage advice to me.

These days anyone with ten fingers attached to the palms of their hands feels comfortable to vent, and then post it onto the biggest noticeboard in the world, for absolutely everyone to see. It’s one of the biggest changes over a couple of generations: ‘I think it, I feel it, therefore I am going to write it down and put the whole world on notice’.

It’s one of the reasons I’m not on Facebook. Way too much venting going on for my liking.

You’d expect therefore, the fact that I’ve written a book which is all about social media, and the internet turning the full force of its world-wide fury onto a 16-year-old girl in Melbourne, would have been problematic, to say the least. Seeing as I technically don’t know what I’m talking about.

But actually, my non-participation on social media, ended up being to my advantage. Because I made no assumptions. Instead, I interviewed teenagers about how they used the various platforms, asking them the finer points about posting; when they choose Instagram over Snapchat; what types of things they send; what they receive; times of day to post; the politics of blocking, or being blocked; how they reconciled not being invited to parties and then watching the night unfold on their feeds.

Some of the things they said surprised the hell out of me. Some of them I can’t tell you because I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But the thing that struck me most was how level-headed they all were about it. They were aware of the pitfalls, and were managing (as a general rule) to circumnavigate the treacherous waters of the internet. It occurred to me that maybe – because they’ve grown up with social media – they’re thicker skinned than I am.

But then, a couple of weeks ago, Yassmin Abdel-Magied posted a comment on Facebook. It was only a few words: ‘Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)’, and there it was, exactly like I’d written in my book: the hot and heavy breath of the internet panting furiously down the neck of a young Australian woman.

Whether you agree with Yassmin or not, what concerns me is this brutal, many-headed beast called the internet, turning itself on one person. And like the many-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, this beast is vicious and brutal, and almost impossible to defeat.

Yassmin is 26 years old.

When I was 26 years old, I wasn’t half as brave as she was. I wouldn’t have dared breach the waters of the internet and have my say, no matter how strongly I felt. I still don’t.

The internet is a fantastic place. I go there all the time. My initial source of research is always the internet. But I think everyone needs to start being a bit more careful about the public shaming and slamming they’re happy to participate in. Because when it’s thousands of people, against one solitary individual, it’s not reasonable. Actually, it’s completely not okay.

Charlotte Dawson was 48-years-old, and bowed tragically to the pressure. How is it that we haven’t learnt from that awful lesson?

We need to celebrate our smart, young people, not brutalise them. Even Atlas struggled to have the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. For one, single, young woman to be having to carry all that vitriol, is unfair and unjust. In my book, my main character is brought completely undone by the internet. I’d like to say I wrote a book of fiction, but with the recent example of Yassmin I wonder exactly how fictional it really is.

We’d love to invite you along to the launch of My Life as a Hashtag at our Hawthorn shop on Thursday 8 June. Find more details here.

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My Life as a Hashtag

My Life as a Hashtag

Gabrielle Williams

$19.99Buy now

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