The loss of Twitter is inspiring grief in the literary world. It should also be inspiring a reckoning with the inequities that preceded it.
Not long after Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, another exodus of site users began—and with it, discussion about the people who aren’t ready, or able, to leave. Transitioning to a new platform isn’t easy for everyone: for many disabled people, for instance, leaving Twitter means learning all the ins and outs of yet another system not designed with accessibility in mind. And then rebuilding community elsewhere. Starting all over again.
Another demographic openly grieving is science fiction and fantasy (SFF). Is this an unusual group to be anxious about technological shifts, or exactly the right one for the job? I’d say my genre’s not extraordinary in either way: humans who produce speculative lit are just as likely to panic about their livelihoods as anyone else.
We’re in an odd position, though. SFF is a fragile ecosystem, as are many other literary industries. At the same time, the ability to dedicate even some of our lives to creative output makes us rare human beings. In a world where many industries are struggling, where burnout is painfully real for medical staff and first responders, where families are just barely scraping by, where there’s a literal European war and escalating climate change amid pandemic, what’s the point of worrying about the fate of arts and culture online? Where does the potential loss of Twitter as a tool for SFF writers register in the grand scheme of democratic discourse?
Well, funny thing, that: we’re an excellent litmus test for a range of other problems.
The state of publishing in general
Just this past week, we saw a rare, mostly positive verdict in a critical antitrust case as US courts ruled against the merger of Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster. If the ruling had gone the other way, North America’s “Big Five” mainstream publishers, which already represent a profoundly-limited playing field after the PRH merger in 2013, would have become the “Big Four”.
The existence of such monopolies matters, because industry majors are already able to throw around significant financial resources to crowd out smaller presses. They essentially decide who gets to be published and in the spotlight, and their decisions are made through extremely narrow geopolitical perspectives of what “sells”. To folks outside the industry, this might seem a tempest in a teapot, but we’re talking about a critical component of any country’s democracy: the manifestation of a thriving cultural discourse, and who gets to set its terms.
With fewer parent companies behind all our presses, there’s also less competition for book acquisitions, which means even lower advances for the authors. Does such streamlining at least help the staff in publishing? Not at all: publishing is a notoriously low-paying industry for press workers as well—and the pandemic only exacerbated the burden caused by burnout, downsizing, and reshuffling. Very few people, anywhere in the chain, actually get to make the choices they’d prefer.
Then there’s the complicating factor of our digital realm. I’m from the last generation of writers that sent out print manuscripts, sometimes with international reply coupons clipped to return envelopes, to magazines and potential book publishers. That meant budgeting for printing and delivery costs. That meant living in a place with reliable mail systems. These were perhaps inevitable structures that nevertheless closed off the industry to many people from different contexts.
With the digital age eventually came a shift to online submissions—and with it, a lot less care in the content being submitted by authors. Yes, suddenly “the world” had a better chance of being considered by Western publishers. But also, inboxes were flooded with work showing no attention to press guidelines. Newer writers would routinely tell me they assumed they weren’t get accepted because of nasty old gatekeepers, then admit that they hadn’t actually read the publication they were submitting to. Or, if they had, that they didn’t like its work. Why seek to publish there, then? Oh, for the reputation. For the money. For a foot in the door. First X press, then an agent, a book deal, and a film or TV option in Hollywood!
Was it any wonder that editors became even more closed off? Or that presses that had once been open to anyone enterprising enough to send them their novel in a shoe box were now listed as “no unsolicited submissions”? That publishers now expected agents to do a lot more of the work of filtering through writing for them?
We’ve also undergone a shift in reader expectations for free content. I’m certainly no stranger to it myself; I get as frustrated by paywalls as the next person. But it poses a serious conundrum. There’s more of an expectation than ever of online availability for our content, and yet, it’s difficult to get people to pay what’s required to compensate authors adequately for their work, while keeping lit magazines funded, too.
Indeed, most publications do not pay all their staff—they rely heavily on volunteers—in order to provide decent payment to creators. And they do this in an online climate ready to put them on blast for any perceived missteps along the way.
In a bad-faith field, a marketing plan of constant desperation
It’s no wonder that Twitter’s acquisition by Musk, who hasn’t quelled the concerns of advertisers and users, would deeply upset those who’ve tried to change this formula.
Make no mistake: literary publishing is still a field that favors people with strong networks in specific US cities, with specific class and racialized backgrounds.
But social media, like so much else in our digital era, has given the impression of leveling the playing field. And that’s what’s causing so much pain and frustration now, among those who’ve tried their best to craft careers in a field that was always biased, always small, when it came to its allocation of real power.
Uncanny Magazine, for instance, is a product of the social media era. When this now multiple-industry-award-winning SFF venue first launched in 2014, it did so on the back of a Kickstarter campaign and its editors’ existing industry cachet. Annual fundraising drives play a critical role in its ongoing sustainability: as they do for many other SFF publications this century. Once a year, staff, writers, and readers will take to forums like Twitter and Facebook signal-boosting fundraisers, often asking for one-time donations to “keep the lights on” and help the publication grow.
This approach also prioritizes the development of some SFF as perks, for better and for worse. For instance, if a publication gets funded to X level, the magazine promises to produce a special issue around a given theme or demographic. This is a complex promo strategy, because even if it does ostensibly help to “bring in the world”, it does so by sometimes further commodifying authorial identities.
Not that mainstream publishing doesn’t do likewise. Traditional publishers are no strangers to viewing geographic, racialized, gendered, trauma-informed, disabled, and neurodivergent labels as seasonal trends, and many writers are pressured to put those personal identities forward to optimize their own chances for advancement. Whole movements, like #OwnVoices—which started as the simple, good idea that, while anyone can write on anything, the industry should elevate folks writing from personal knowledge—have been brutally distorted via social media into forcing authors to “out” themselves to defend against charges of appropriation.
And therein lies the bigger problem. Social media platforms like Twitter invite us to think that the whole world is now able to take part in literary discourse on a more equalized footing. Problem solved! They’ve cultivated the idea that individual success can be achieved, irrespective of institutional biases, by hustling as hard as one can for online popularity.
Unsurprisingly, then, one of Uncanny‘s editors, Michael Damian Thomas, recently argued that “the death of Twitter would decimate the science fiction and fantasy short story ecosystem”: the argument being that these models for interaction are essential for finding folks willing to pay for new fiction. Without these platforms, around which many creators have built their funding and growth strategies for years, how will such presses and projects keep going?
And other prominent industry figures agreed. L.D. Lewis, for instance, founded FIYAH, a publication and convention for Black SFF that also yielded The IGNYTE Awards, as a direct response to the failings of existing industry institutions.
As Lewis notes in the thread below, FIYAH was so exceptionally successful via social media that it hasn’t needed to actively fundraise since. That makes it an outlier in an industry where most magazines relying on social media still have to generate funding through campaign drives once a year, but it also speaks to the promise that so many fellow SFF creators have seen even in problematic forums like Twitter.
The dismay of such creators is not to be taken glibly, then, even if social media hasn’t actually been all that lucrative for many; even if follower counts aren’t at all the same as reliable investors, or subscribers. Many individual authors and venues have built their livelihoods and successes around being able to crowdfund and self-promote on Twitter, and they will be hit hardest if the SFF world there scatters to Mastodon, Counter.Social, Discord, and other such venues.
Mind you, it’s not that there won’t still be people to hit up for funding in all these other places. It’s just that Twitter and Facebook made it easier to build momentum around any given financial ask: a key component of successful fundraising drives.
Everything about site functionality, after all, was shaped around spectacle, and drove people to want to contribute to whatever was trending. Yes, this often meant latching on to the outrage of the day. But when it came to fundraising, the same behavior applied: Look at all the “likes” on that post! Look at all the other people signal-boosting! Look at how much the platform itself prioritizes this magazine based on prior interactions and follower count! I need to be part of this wave of support!
Earlier this year, SFF shook its collective head at the literary economy that allowed Brandon Sanderson, an already wealthy and well-networked creator, to fundraise $41 million for four new books on Kickstarter, a platform ostensibly meant to help smaller ventures and artists. But the two phenomena are related, on a human behavioral level: it’s normal for people who are already popular, or at least perceived to be trendy, to continue to get the lion’s share of further support. We love celebrities. People we can put on a pedestal and later tear down.
Twitter and Facebook just made it easier to quantify “deservedness” in this way.
Against having all one’s eggs in one basket
Much more difficult is building sustainable models that don’t replicate mainstream media’s most exploitative practices. But it’s also necessary—and not just for SFF writers, but for human beings in general trying to build a better discourse.
Meredith D. Clark (no relation) recently highlighted the broader deception of Twitter for Black creators in “Elon Musk’s purchase is not Black Twitter’s problem”, which explores the racial capitalism that’s existed for Black community members on this platform from its outset. I use different terms when I talk about the commodification of identity by media industries, but Clark puts it beautifully when writing:
Musk’s purchase of Twitter forces the public to reckon with its tendency to essentialize Black existence—to make the work of being Black online into an enterprise rather than recognizing it as a matter of self-expression, self-representation and agency.
Black Twitter itself is unconcerned about the implications of our absence from one social media site where our activities made for curious headlines and fun feature stories; we’re looking for opportunities to create without our work and play being extracted for value by media and creative industries.
As Clark notes, that “work and play” will go on elsewhere, because the actual people doing it aren’t going to vanish in a puff of smoke.
But what of the creative efforts built here and now, on this forum?
When Neil Clarke, editor of prominent digital-era publication Clarkesworld, argued for the importance of diversifying our fundraising strategies in the wake of Twitter’s depreciation, he did so on the back of many years of industry research that he shares through his editorials, anthology introductions, and on other forums. His SFF publication, itself only 16 years old and the result of a great deal of personal hustle and investment, pushed early on for international writing in translation, with full pay for translators, at a time when venues were avoiding international SFF precisely because it doubled costs when done right. Clarkesworld is now opening in January to Spanish-language submissions, to continue to bring in the world.
Nevertheless, smaller and newer venues were frustrated by such advocacy, which some took as dismissive of the loss that Twitter represents. Anathema, a five-year-old SFF magazine for queer BIPOC writers, is still operating on a token payment model in its drive to create more space for marginalized writers. Its editors subtweeted against such advocacy for diversifying funding by pushing back on the presumed underlying argument that everything will be “fine” if Twitter falls apart. As they argued, “[t]he POC- & queer- & disabled -led mags that blossom in environments fostered by forums like Twitter … don’t recover.”
Talking at cross-purposes is normal online, of course.
But lifting from the current tempest in SFF to the world outside its teapot, it bears noting that the underlying investment question matters far, far beyond our field.
Historian and tech strategist John Bull, for instance, recently offered the following insight into why Musk was struggling in his first days as Twitter’s CEO. In the following thread, he gives the anecdote of “Trust Thermocline”: a metaphor from the sudden shift in a natural phenomenon after the build-up of many preventable pressures, to explain how consumers can “suddenly” lose confidence in a product or service. Strikingly, too, he’s not just talking about Musk’s failings here; he’s talking about the ways in which “digital and regular content publishers” in general can quickly lose everything, if they don’t recognize the existence of tipping points.
That’s really where we’re at right now—and not just with SFF. In our pursuit of more robust democratic discourse in general, we’ve failed to address the behind-the-scenes build-up of lost confidence in shared political and cultural ecosystems.
Now, even the systems we developed ostensibly to “resist” an unjust status quo are contingent on private markets that do not care about us, and will abandon us in a heartbeat. But, oh! Twitter was a good, compelling lie for a while, wasn’t it? In politics, as in art? And so the grief in having to leave it and invest in a new lie is very strong for quite a few creators, along with other dreamers of better dreams.
What comes next?
Building a better world for creative practice
Social media like Twitter and Facebook provided a false counterpoint to the trad-publishing status quo: a way of pretending that we’d arrived at a more globalized discourse than we actually had. Living in Colombia, I see firsthand how our financial systems lock out creators who don’t already have Western banking accounts. How quickly a monopolizing player, like Amazon, can wipe whole countries from the field and take its authors’ profits from them, too.
We have not ceased to be an industry, or a world, with strong geopolitical biases. SFF, like most of our discourse communities, is still guided by people from the “right” class standing, living in or connected to the right cities. The “best” work is not intrinsically the same as the work that gets privately solicited by career-making venues with no open calls. Nor is it always the work that “earns” the sort of promo campaigns that build a sense of inevitability around any given author’s current success.
Are there ways around this system? To an extent. Indie authorship, which has also been made possible by our digital era, grants many robust careers—but usually far from major award circuits and other perks of being an “insider”, and often with huge upfront investment in ad campaigns before seeing any real returns.
But the real way around this status quo is to remember that what’s happening in literature is by no means removed from broader politics. Why is everyone struggling so hard to make it big, to do well, to be stable in these industries? Simply put, because many folks see few other options. There are fewer redundant if not entirely unethical jobs to go around, so why not try for existences where writing—a fairly harmless pursuit: even a constructive one, perhaps?—provides sufficient income?
It’s not a perfectly fair comparison, because Iceland is a small, homogeneous society, but it does bear considering how this one country has managed to count published authors as one tenth of its overall population, and 25 percent of its citizens in creative fields. Unsurprisingly, the country’s success, when it comes to optimizing the creative capacity of its residents, lies with first ensuring that other needs are met. As Emily Iris Degn optimistically writes,
Slow living, governments that discourage “hustle culture,” and engaged learning all help cultivate an environment that allows art to thrive—especially writers. Writing is one of the more time-consuming arts, and if we want to create a world where it is more possible for more people, we have to make space for it. … If countries want to make space for more rewarding and enriching art and literature, they need to allow their citizens to open their minds. They need to ensure that they have their basic needs met, and they need to encourage slowing down and living in a hands-on way. Otherwise, it will continually be an uphill battle and a land of “starving artists,” while in Iceland they thrive.
And if I’m a bit hard on my SFF industry, as it struggles complexly with the depreciation of Twitter as a promotional platform? It’s because we all have “being in the room” privilege: seats at the table to discuss the future of a highly specialized creative practice, and to make decisions that will shape participation for everyone to come.
The arts will continue. The question is, will we dreamers of better dreams learn from all of social media’s failures to yield equity, as we imagine better worlds ahead?