Telling Tall Tales on Twitter

Issue 7 of my newsletter – subscribe here

When you listen to a stand-up comedian, you probably know their stories are being exaggerated for comic effect. That’s fine! Everyone understands they aren’t watching a documentary. We don’t need a disclaimer on the front door telling us the events depicted inside are fictional, even if we might appreciate it if there’s an element of truth.

Similar unspoken conventions apply to everything from like Playboy letters, to Chicken Soup for the Soul, to pretty much everything David Sedaris writes. The older the medium, the more established the conventions. Some thought Robinson Crusoe was a true story when it was first published in 1719, but today you just need to glance at the cover of a book to know whether it’s fiction or not.

The corollary is that new media hasn’t yet developed those conventions – and the newer the media, the greater the uncertainty. Take these heartwarming tweet threads by @sixthformpoet about visiting his dad’s grave, saving up for Disneyland, and helping his neighbours. All went fearsomely viral, nearing a million likes and retweets in total, and they all have picture-perfect happy endings.

Perhaps this is a confession of just how cynical I’ve grown, but I only had to take a single look at the first tweet to sense it probably wasn’t real:

The fact it was a pre-written thread (“ONE”), a “funny story” that was clearly going to make him look good, with a happy/funny ending? For me, it was damning evidence. And if you actually read the threads, the towering pile of coincidences should make anyone think twice about its truthfulness – especially when other authors of viral tweets have subsequently fessed up.

“But does it matter if it’s true, Adrian? Why can’t we have nice things?”

To be clear: the stakes are so low on these stories that I’m hardly suiting up for war. But we all know that if the author had, at the start of the thread (not at the end!) said, “THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION”, the threads wouldn’t have been nearly as popular. You only need to glance at the replies to realise that many, if not most, readers thought these were true stories.

So why do I care? I feel there’s a deliberate attempt to exploit people’s fundamental trust towards strangers’ stories. As much as we say we don’t trust Twitter, I think the opposite is true – at least with heartwarming tales like these. Why would someone lie to us in this way? What’s the gain?

In the past, there wasn’t much gain other than getting a few free pints down at the pub. But today, popularity on social media has very real value. It’s not just social currency, it’s real currency. So to that extent, it’s unfair because it’s diverting attention from writers who aren’t exploiting readers’ trust.

Perhaps there is little harm in the end. There’s only so many times you can do this. If @sixthformpoet had written a dozen more stories with astonishing coincidences and perfect conclusions, people would rebel. And letting go of the crutch of telling “true stories” to become a writer of avowed fiction or fact requires more courage and hard work than many are willing to give.

A few make that transition. They’re able to use their gift for words and extend it into novels, or they can tell their own stories in a way that doesn’t seem too untrue. And the rest just disappear, having told a few tall tales that made some people happy.

We don’t have a convention for tall tales online. Or maybe we’re getting one. In Five Signs a Viral Story Is Fake, Madison Malone Kircher suggests some ways to spot – or to telegraph – a tall tale:

  1. The person tweeting the story is the hero.
  2. TOO! MANY! CAPITAL! LETTERS!
  3. It takes more than one tweet to tell.
  4. “Story time!”
  5. There are follow-up threads.

Each medium has its own conventions, whether that’s Creepypasta or ARGs. That doesn’t mean we need enormous disclaimers at the start of books and movies, but rather a better understanding of how to convey whether a story is broadly true or not.

As I’ve argued before about ARGs, far better to improve your craft than rely on confusion or exploitation.

Additional discussion on Metafilter…

Watching

📺 Killing Eve Season 2. Not quite as shocking as Season 1 but still refreshing.

Reading

📖 Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. As usual, Lem displays a casual, almost insouciant, familiarity with science and physics that threads through this story in way that seems almost entirely unnecessary given the plot, but lends a measure of realism that makes his wild imagination seem more believeable. It’s like you crossed Tom Clancy’s knowledge of modern weapon systems with Tom Stoppard’s understanding of the human soul.

Solaris is about nature of knowledge, of books, of schools of thought, all circling round and round something they cannot understand.

As such, the movies are almost unrecognisable. They have a similar setting and ideas but plot is completely different. I would have said that Arrival and Solaris were equally unfilmable, but time makes fools of us all.

📰 HS2 is the only option for Britain’s railways by Jon Stone (Independent). A good primer for why HS2 isn’t for rich people who want fast trains:

Speed is not the main point of the new line. The objective is capacity, and not just capacity for fast intercity services, either, but for those local regional and commuter services between small towns that have been so neglected. The complicated bit is explaining why that is.

Britain’s railways were largely built in the Victorian era, for a different kind of travel. Today, the same lines carry a mix of express intercity trains – the kind which HS2 will take – and stopping local and commuter services, the kind people use to get to work, or pop to a neighbouring town.

This mix is a very inefficient way to run a railway, for a reason that is quite obvious if you think about it: trains cannot overtake each other on the same set of tracks. They would bang into the back of one another if they tried. Not good. To get around this, local stopping trains need a large gap behind them in the timetable, so the express trains behind them do not catch up. That reduces the number of trains you can have per hour on a line, dramatically reducing its capacity for every type of service – local and express.

The engineering thinking behind HS2 is to take those express services off the older mainlines, leaving them for stopping local and commuter services. When trains are all travelling at roughly the same speed on a line, you can fit a lot more in, because the gaps needed between them are smaller.

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