Sunday, August 26, 2012

Facebook? What's that?

Many people reading “Fifty Shades of Gray” for the first time are shocked and disbelieving when they discover that Anastasia Steel, a student in 2011, has neither laptop nor an email address. To a reader trying to evaluate the work on its own, it’s confusing. However, this makes perfect sense if you remember that Bella of Twilight only used her ancient computer to do a Google search on vampires back in 2006.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think that YA writers are being intentionally anti-tech or trying to imbue their works with subliminal messages about The Important Things in Life. But when was the last time a YA hero or heroine had an active blog or vlog, or used the Internet for something other than a quick Google search?

It’s really ironic, considering the role social media plays nowadays in book promotions, that writers neglect it so much in their works.

Clarification: I’m not talking about YA books set in a dytopian/post-apocalyptic/alternate universe/historical/high fantasy/sci-fi settings. Those books have their own world-building and technology has a different role. This post is entirely focused on Contemporary and Paranormal YA set in otherwise regular old Earth.

So how do writers go about depicting technology?

Well, there was once the plot device of the Almightly Google (see: Twilight), where the protagonist finds out what paranormal creature their beloved is (I wonder if anyone created a cross-reference site where you just type in the weird traits and get an answer?) Special mention goes to Alexandra Adornetto’s “Halo”, where Facebook is used to deliver a plot-point.

Then we have the book where social media is placed in the middle of the plot, a.k.a. “The Future of Us” by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, “Awkward” by Marni Bates, “dancergirl” by Carol M. Tanzman and “In Too Deep” by Amanda Grange. We also have books composed entirely of tweets, such as Lauren Myracle’s “ttyl” series. Also, let us not forget John Green’s “Paper Towns” where a Wikipedia spoof was created (and made the centre of the quirky behavior of one character), so that it would make sure the climax happened. Could be given to the first column, but I’m giving Mr. Green props for creativity.

Finally, there’s the book where social media is treated as something relatively normal, and its role in the lives of the protagonists is clear. Adorkable by Sarra Manning is, apparently, a good example. We also have Hannah Harrington’s “Speechless”, where heroine Chelsea follows fashion blogs. Hannah Moskowitz had a character obsessively checking his emails (I hear you man!) in “Gone, Gone, Gone”, and that book was set in 2002.

Those seem like a lot of examples, but I have to ask: Why should I even have to look for examples? It’s 2012. People hardly ever use regular mail anymore, and a great part of our daily interactions happens online. Whether we like it or not, the ways we communicate are changing and, more importantly, those interactions shape us as much as we shape them.

So this is where I bring your attention to Megan McCafferty’s “Bumped” and “Thumped”. And yes, those are satire/dystipian books, which I said I would not mention, but I need to go back on my word to make this point.

McCafferty’s world is one where teens are experiencing constant societal pressure to reproduce at a young age. The majority of that pressure comes not from parental figures (I think there are only two scenes in the first book where Melody speaks to her adoptive family), but from pop culture, peer interaction, and social media known as MiNet (a very interesting thing you access through your eyeballs).

The social networks in McCafferty’s works are fascinating, and not just because you operate them by rolling your eyes and blinking a lot. Not only are her characters constantly messaging each other and following celebrities on line, those things are impacting their lives. They’re influenced by the things they see literally 24/7, and, more importantly, that’s treated as a normal part of their day.

The really fascinating thing about “Bumped” in my opinion is not the plot, but the world-building. The reader in 2012 laughs at the juvenile lyrics and shakes their head at the weird social media, until they realize that this is not funny at all, and that this is what a desperate society looks like. Taken to its most logical extreme, social media here is used as a brainwashing tool which nobody can escape.

And while this is not our reality, it’s worth asking yourself – with the hours you spend on Twitter, Facebook, youtube, etc – why is Google is the only thing that this heroine uses while on the Internet? Authors, you’re missing out on a great opportunity – your MC’s tumblr is a characterization goldmine!

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