My metamorphosis from police officer to writer presents at first glance as a complete career change, yet at the heart of both roles lie observation and communication; a parallel that makes the former the perfect training ground for the latter. Learning what makes people tick is fundamental to understanding why someone commits crime. Watching, listening, and understanding are vital skills, as are finding the right words to communicate with a witness, a suspect, a victim; before presenting a compelling story to a court. My audience today are readers, not judge and jury, but the challenge is no less great; readers are perhaps even more skilled in separating fact from fiction.
Social media provides platforms for both observation and communication, and just as they have become key to investigating crimes, so they have become essential ingredients of my life as a writer. Alone in my study I can access the inner thoughts of instagramming celebrities; tweeting Trump-followers; bread-line bloggers sharing budget recipes. I can chat to readers on Facebook and find out (with painful clarity) their literary likes and dislikes, or send a request for niche research to be retweeted a thousand times. Never before has a writer had such wealth of human material at his fingertips; such instant channels of communication. Never before have there been so many writers; for social media has made writers of us all.
So why, in this exciting, vibrant world of social media, with its tapestry rich in material and ripe for communication, do I find myself stepping, not towards social media, but away?
We all have the same time. Eighty years, give or take. Fifty-two weeks a year. Twenty-four hours a day. We can spend those hours where we wish, and too many of mine disappear into the void of social media. Time that passes enjoyably slowly whilst reading a newspaper, races past in a series of online links. I fall down a rabbit hole of Facebook posts, clicking mindlessly from one to the other. Social media chips away at our attention spans until we are intolerant of anything delivered in paragraphs. Baby birds demanding news in beak-sized bites. There is much skill in the short story format (Hemmingway’s famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” would surely have debuted on Twitter, had it existed), but little rivals the emotional arc of a novel. Read tweets, but read books, too. Read columns and essays. Don’t lose the skill of following an argument, or tracking the transformation of a character between obstacle and goal.
It is crucial we retain the ability to form our own opinions; to consider what we really think, without the influence of trending hashtags and fake news. The revelation that Russian bots had posted 45,000 messages on social media ahead of the U.K.’s European referendum shocked the nation, but the damage was already done. When we find ourselves whipped into a frenzy we must take a mental step back. Are we morally outraged because our values have been challenged, or because Twitter says we are morally outraged?
One of the wonders of social media is discovering one’s ‘tribe’. Like-minded people with whom one can discuss fashion, sport, or any other subject on earth. Whatever the pastime, there’ll be a chat group, a hashtag, a Facebook group. I once ran social media workshops for retired people. One student, a widow in her eighties, especially missed her husband when Strictly Come Dancing was on television. ‘I’ve got no-one to discuss the scores with,’ she said. Seeing her face as she discovered she could chat with Strictly fans across the globe was pure joy.
But where there is a tribe, there are comparisons; and where there are comparisons, there is disappointment. The baker who shares pictures of her cakes online loses her satisfied glow when she scrolls through other people’s creations. The selfie queen proud of her pout wilts a little beside the competition. My own self-esteem takes a hit when someone else’s book success hits the social media headlines, even if – five minutes previously – the offline me was perfectly content with my lot.
We are all guilty of perpetuating this confidence-knocking vortex by posting only the highlights of our lives; the tips of icebergs that hide murky truth beneath the waters. For every Facebook status about our adorable children there are ten unwritten updates about arguments, tantrums, dinners untouched and days out ruined. I may write my fictional characters with searing honesty, but I edit my life with social media filters.
Privacy is an oft-raised argument against social media. As an ex police officer I am appalled by how much is shared online. The regular Facebook ‘check ins’ that tell a would-be stalker when you visit the gym; the running app that gives an attacker your route. The airport selfie letting burglars know you’ll be away; the photo of your kids with school logo on display. Snippets of a day, making up a jigsaw of your life for a stranger’s benefit.
Less debated is the invasion of our emotional privacy. Today’s novelists are expected to lay bare their souls; to afford their audiences three-dimensional reading and an access-all-areas pass. Readers don’t only want to know what inspired their favourite novel; they want to know about the author’s family, her pets, her hobbies. They’ve bought the book – now they want a pound of flesh, too.
When I wrote my last book, I SEE YOU, I was thinking about privacy, and the threats presented by technology. I was also increasingly concerned about the harassment of women, and the way the two issues – harassment and technology – had dovetailed in a hitherto unseen way. I saw connections wherever I looked. The airline Virgin announced a way for passengers to send drinks to each other. A way to make real-life connections through digital networks? Or a creepy way for men to hit on women? I discovered a Facebook group with 33,000 members, called Women Who Eat on Tubes: thousands of covert images of women eating on Underground trains. I read Commuter Cupid in London’s Metro, and found the ads not romantic but terrifying. ‘I see you every day at Acton, where you buy a ticket for Paddington,’ one read. ‘Your name is Shah and you pay with a Barclaycard. I like the way you smile. Call me.’ Call? I’d run – fast.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, internet forums… incredible technological advances sparking conversations across the world. Without them, our lives (this writer’s life, certainly) would be poorer; our observational well shallower. Yet we would be wise to exercise caution. There is a life to be found outside social media, and it’s better lived unfiltered.