Getting Social - The use of Social Media in your novel (Part 1).
Welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip. For the next two blog posts, I am returning to the use of modern technology in your writing, focusing on Social Media. I previously looked at mobile phone technology (Tips 34 and 35) and these articles can be seen as a companion piece to those posts.
This week, I intend to discuss the pros and cons of using this technology in your book and then, below the cut, bring together a list of some of the more common social media platforms with key facts to help you avoid easy errors. I will be focusing on the Facebook-owned platforms this week.
Next week, I will look at other services such as Twitter etc, as well as more niche apps and darker issues such as End-to-End Encryption and cyber stalking, and the narrative opportunities these present.
Given the rapidly changing nature of this, topic, I may find myself returning to it in the future!
Should you use Social Media in your books? If you are writing modern crime novels, then the chances are you will have to address this issue. Criminals are like any other member of modern society; unless they are especially savvy professionals, they probably stumbled into committing the murder or other heinous act that your book investigates, and so up until then they will likely have been using mobile technology and social media the same way that you or I do.
Leaving aside the massive increase in workload from idiots using Twitter to commit hate crimes etc (which then have to be investigated), social media is becoming more and more useful as an investigative tool to police and intelligence services. Rightly or wrongly, both prosecution and defence lawyers have used interactions on social media in court, especially for cases such as rape that may rest on the believability of the parties involved.
If your story hinges around social media, then it is important to accept that it will date your story to some degree. A book written twenty-years ago with copious references to MySpace, can be somewhat inaccessible to modern readers. Try to avoid that and future-proof your books.
Don't assume that future readers will know what Facebook etc are. There is a fine line between over-explaining what Facebook is for the current reader, and reminding future readers of the inexplicable urge of people in the first three decades of this century to share everything - from what they had for dinner, to their online banking password hints - with total strangers and future world President Mark Zuckerburg. Perhaps slip a few subtle lines into the prose: "Check his Facebook to see if they know each other?" ordered DCI Jones. Hardwick opened the social media app on her computer, pulling up the victim's profile page. She navigated to his Friends List. "Yes, they were friends on Facebook. He liked some of the posts that he shared." There is still a need for the reader to be familiar with the concept behind social media, but even if Facebook suddenly disappears, its ubiquity today is such that hopefully this will be enough to jog memories.
Make sure that the platform existed when your book is set! You may be surprised just how recently they appeared; and often they started as niche applications, only available in the United States.
Make sure that the application had the features you are writing about at that time. The applications and services are constantly being updated and new features introduced. For example, WhatsApp didn't fully implement End-to-End Encryption on all devices until 2016, having started trialling it in late 2014/2015.
Be mindful of the workload on your detectives! Dedicated Social Media Units are becoming more common, but the sheer volume of data from these services is over-whelming, with an increasing backlog in its analysis. How will you match the narrative demands of your story with the need for realism? Could the time taken be used as a means to delay key reveals? If Suspect X and the victim were otherwise unconnected, then somebody stumbling across an online interaction between them halfway through the book could flip your investigation on its head!
Thank you for reading this far. I hope that the information was useful.
Given that you probably came here via a link on social media, I have decided to place the detailed look at different social media platforms below the cut, so feel free to skip if you are short of time.
Next week, I am going to explore End-to-End Encryption and the darker side of social media, such as cyber stalking. I am also going to look at non-Facebook services, such as Twitter and other more niche applications.
Then pop back on Tuesday 22nd for a special Christmas edition...
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media!
Take care, Paul
Click Read More for detailed information on different Social Media Platforms.
A Brief Outline Of Popular Social Media Services (at the time of writing!)
Note that some of these services are banned or blocked in some countries.
Facebook-owned Services. Facebook Facebook wasn't the first 'social networking' platform, but is the one that people are perhaps most familiar with. Although it started as a way of rating college students' attractiveness at Harvard in 2003 (rather embarrassing origins!) it only really became popular by about 2006. I was aware of it when living in Canada in the second half of 2006, and joined it in the UK in 2007. To play safe, I wouldn't make much reference to it prior to 2007/8, unless your characters are 'early adopters' of new technology.
It has added many different features over the years so check when they became available before referencing them.
Its key features today are: A user profile. There are several privacy options for this. It can be private or publicly visible. You can be entirely invisible to strangers searching for you. You can be fully visible, or have a partial profile visible so that strangers can find you if they search for you, but they can't see any of your content. You can also be fully visible only to people you have chosen to be Friends with, or whom you share mutual acquaintances (Friends of Friends).
You make contact with someone by means of a Friend Request, which can be accepted, ignored or declined. Users can also choose whether or not to place friends into specific groups that may limit what content they can see.
The police and Intelligence Services can use a person's Friends List to identify possible connections between persons of interest. Could this be the only link between a victim and a suspect?
Content is posted to Facebook on a person's Feed (or wall) or Timeline. Those who see it can Like it or Share it, or add their own Comment to the thread of other comments, if the privacy setting allows them to. If you are commenting, your post will be visible to anyone else with access to that thread. In 2016, the blue thumbs-up Like button was supplemented by 5 additional (and more appropriate!) reactions. Users can tag other people in their posts and even post content directly to somebody else's wall.
In addition to an individual's timeline, there are Pages, often popular with businesses e.g. www.facebook.com/dcijones and groups. These can be public, and joined by anyone, or closed - you can only join if a group moderator approves you. You can post to these groups, and comment on existing posts; again your post may or may not need approval by a moderator. Crime Readers Book Chat, run by the Crime Writers' Association is a closed group. Anyone can ask to join, and most requests are approved immediately, but it allows us to keep an eye on posted content and keep the group focused on its intended subject. Other groups are fully closed, accessible only by members of the CWA.
Closed groups can be used by criminals to allow them to communicate out of the public gaze. They can also be used legitimately, for example by Human Rights organisations or support groups. The police and Intelligence Services can gain access to these groups with a warrant, or by having 'under cover' officers join as members and reporting back. There are sometimes legitimate questions asked about why groups of terrorist sympathisers and hate preachers are allowed to remain active for lengthy periods of time. Presumably, at least sometimes this is to allow intelligence gathering on group members, including the identification of otherwise unknown person of interest.
Facebook Messenger Originally called Facebook Chat in 2008, Messenger allows direct communication between people with Facebook accounts. If you are friends with a person, they can message you directly. If they aren't a friend, you will receive a notification and can choose whether or not to accept it. These days, you can take part in group chats, share pictures, videos and other files, make voice calls, videocalls and conference calls. Although still linked to the Facebook app, it requires its own app to make the most of its features. It can be used on a desktop computer, either by a dedicated app or a webpage.
Since 2016, users can have secret conversations using End-to-End Encryption as well as 'self-destructing' messages that are permanently deleted after a set time period (pop back next week for more on this).
Group chats can be used for many purposes - good and bad - with concerns expressed about paedophiles sharing child abuse images etc. The encryption can make it very hard to access these groups and identify members.
Instagram Instagram was originally launched as a photo-sharing app, capitalising on the increasing popularity of camera phones in the early years of the 2010s. It was available for iOS (iPhone) in 2010 and Android in 2012. A key feature in its popularity - especially with teenagers - is the ability to apply filters to photographs or videos. These range from affects such as mimicking sepia-toned photographs, to improving skin tones and enhancing 'attractiveness' (a feature that some worry is leading to mental health issues from its presentation of unrealistic goals) to cartoon bunny ears. Users have an account, their usernames referred to with an @ symbol placed in front. My Instagram account is @paulgitsham. Their stream consists of posts of pictures or short videos in chronological order, with up to 10 images/videos per post. The images can be accompanied by text, and the posts are searchable with hashtags, for example #AuthorsOfInstagram. Users can tag other Instagram accounts, such as persons who appear in the image or businesses that they are associated with. You can follow an account, meaning that you will see their new content in your own feed, and like posts. A limitation of Instagram is that you can't add weblinks to a post, so can't click through to an internet page.
The account can either be publicly visible to anyone, or can be private, requiring the owner to approve anyone who wishes to see their content. There is also a direct messaging function for private conversations between individuals or groups.
Could your criminals be using private Instagram pages to communicate or share pictures? What about direct messaging? Or cyber bullying?
Although there are ways to use the site on desktop computers/laptops, it is primarily designed to be used on mobile devices.
WhatsApp WhatsApp is a messaging platform, similar in some ways to Facebook Messenger, but with key differences. It started as a US-based service in about 2009. It is more akin to old-fashioned SMS text messaging, in that it requires a mobile phone number.
The app is used almost exclusively on mobile phones but transmits data via the internet. As of 2020, it can be used to send text messages, pictures and videos, as well as allowing files to be attached in a manner similar to email. Users can send messages to anyone that has the app installed, as long as they know their mobile phone number. Messages can be sent to individuals or groups of people (Group chat). You can share or forward these posts to people outside the group - leading to high-profile scandals where users sharing objectionable content in what they regarded as a private group had that content exposed to others outside the group. Could your criminal be tripped up by somebody sharing them boasting about what they did in a private chat?
After being bought by Facebook in 2014, they introduced the ability to make and receive voice calls in 2015 using the app (again over the internet - VOIP in technical parlance) and in 2016, video calls.
In 2016 End-to-End encryption became available on all devices (see next week's post).
WhatsApp is now the biggest messaging app in the world and in some countries has overtaken traditional voice calls, given that it is essentially 'free' if you have an unlimited data tariff on your internet connection. It is commonly used by individuals to talk/message directly, families, or by groups of people with common interests - including criminals...
Thanks again for reading, pop back next week for a look at non-Facebook-owned services.