Twitter: Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Embracing Social Media

2006 Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sends the first tweet on March 21.

The truth is that I joined Twitter because of Judy Blume. It was September 2012, and Blume had just tweeted for the second time that she was a fan of my work. (Yes, I’m name-dropping here, but if Blume announced twice that she liked your writing, wouldn’t you?) I wanted to acknowledge these compliments, and the simplest way to do so seemed to be by signing up.

However, due to the online equivalent of shy bladder syndrome, I didn’t send a tweet for 10 months. Yet not being part of any form of social media—I also had joined Facebook but was similarly inactive on it—was starting to feel absurd, even precious. For one thing, I sent joking texts, sometimes with pictures attached, to my husband or siblings or friends, and wasn’t that all Twitter was, except public? Plus, if I didn’t use social media, did that mean that at some fundamental level I didn’t understand how a lot of people were leading their lives?

Then of course there was the matter of selling books, which is one of the things that, as a writer, I was supposed to do. When my fourth novel was published in June 2013, I noticed that in various cities, significantly fewer of the young female readers who’d accounted for most of my audience in the past showed up at my readings. I suspected that these women were no longer hearing about book events in “traditional” ways such as bookstore e-mails.

And so I started tweeting, mitigating my wariness by establishing rules: I would not tweet about my children; I would not be mean; I would not respond to anyone who said something rude to me. I would tweet twice a day every weekday and take weekends off.

More than a year later, if I haven’t broken all my rules, I’ve come awfully close, and except for when I hate Twitter, which is 10 percent of the time, I love it. I love its silliness and its arbitrariness and its sense of community. I see tweets as somewhere between writing and talking, and if I felt pressure to deliver a bon mot every time I spoke, I’d be mute. Not each tweet I send is hilarious or wise; there are some I’d revise, if Twitter were a medium in which revision made sense. And though I’m not “on” Twitter while writing fiction, Twitter has undeniably affected the way I work. In the past, I’ve tracked down friends of friends to get details right for novels, but now I ask the Twitter hive: How many new ER residents would there be per year in a 400-bed hospital? What’s a Cincinnati restaurant where two preppy, spoiled young women would meet for lunch? Yes, I could find the name of a bistro on Yelp, but would it really be considered trendy by locals or would it just be pretending to be trendy? Trust me, Twitter knows the difference.

I’ve definitely realized my goal—perhaps to a fault—of understanding the role social media plays in people’s lives: when they (now we) check it, and what it means to favorite or like something, and what prompts someone to post a picture of an experience they’re having. It’s fun to joke around with others about a TV show you’re obsessed with. It’s fun to see pictures of two people in the same field hanging out—which is why I’ve tweeted photos of myself with other novelists, including Yiyun Li and Mohsin Hamid. And it’s surprisingly fun to connect with total strangers, at least when they’re witty and smart. As one saying goes, Twitter makes you like people you don’t know, and Facebook makes you dislike people you do.

As a St. Louisan, I’ve closely followed Twitter in the months since Michael Brown’s death—tweets come from people on the ground in Ferguson, rather than in studios in New York or Washington. Although I recognize that information hasn’t been checked for accuracy, I’m not alone in relying on Twitter. The day of Brown’s death, in August, when I started following a St. Louis city alderman named Antonio French, he had fewer than 4,000 followers; when I last checked, he had 120,000.

I used to have an unscientific theory that the Internet has changed our mental metabolism, offering us countless micro-updates on countless topics yet in the process only stoking our appetites and making us more jittery and hungry. I believed my friends who obsessively checked social media were doing the equivalent of filling up on junk food. While I haven’t renounced this theory entirely, I now see Twitter quite differently, as a preview of what will be discussed in the mainstream media. These days, it’s usually Twitter where I’m first exposed to breaking news, pop culture, and people who are about to become famous. More than once, I’ve read someone’s musing tweets and, days later, read a formal article by the same person on the same topic; they were, whether knowingly or not, brainstorming on Twitter, or testing the waters.

I’ve also realized that I was vastly overestimating the number of people on Twitter. When I’d see a commercial for JCPenney, say, with that little @ sign, it felt like everyone besides me—Penney’s shoppers the world over—was on Twitter. But if I visit a 12-member book club in St. Louis, typically one woman is on Twitter, one doesn’t participate in social media, and the other 10 are all on Facebook. I’m pretty sure this means that, despite its special standing among journalists and writers and its resulting outsize influence, I’ve embraced something relatively quirky and peripheral—the artisanal pickle of social media, if you will.

I’m actually skeptical about whether being on Twitter has caused more of my books to sell, but I’m enjoying myself enough that I’m in no hurry to leave. Not long ago my brother P.G. told me, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed that you like Twitter. Everyone does.” Naturally, I tweeted that.

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