How to Insert Social Media Into Your Story Without Dating It

Discussion PostIn early September, I wrote a post wondering why social media seems to be all but missing from contemporary YA and MG, even though we know now that the average teen spends nine hours a day online.  (That’s over half their waking hours, assuming eight hours of sleep.)  Of course, I mused, many adults writing books for teens probably are thinking about their own childhoods, when not everyone owned a smartphone and if you had to use the Internet, you might actually have to go to a cafe to do so.  And probably they realized that a bunch of books about teens lying in bed scrolling through feeds and texting each other would not be very interesting.  Still, it seems like books could at least give a nod to the existence of social media.  Why not a line such as, “Charlotte looked around.  She noticed none of her friends were listening; they were all on their phones.”  Or, “Peter looked at the table next to him.  There was a family of five, all of them on their phones.”  Writing a book that incorporates social media does not have to be all about social media and nothing else.  Including social media could simply provide a glimpse of what life is actually like for contemporary teens.

Many comments responded to my post by suggesting that including social media would “date” a book.  Of course, this is quite possible.  However, I believe that it is also possible to include social media in a way that would make it realistic and relevant, without necessarily dating it.  “Dating” a book generally means that there are allusions or references that are simply not timely anymore, or that readers will no longer get after the moment has passed, or that the allusions are almost funny.  The Backstreet Boys, did you say? Who listens to them anymore?  Simply referring to a piece of technology, even an obsolete one, does not have to date the book, as long as it is being used in a way that still feels relevant or still makes sense to the readers.  Does Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park feel dated because it includes a Walkman? No, of course not.  The Walkman simply indicates that the book is set in the 1980s.  And why not?  Stories cannot be completely unmoored from all sense of time and place.

To avoid dating a book while mentioning technology, it is best, quite simply, to avoid naming anything specifically or with a proper name.  Even if Facebook seems like a social media giant now, already we see teens moving to other social media platforms such as Snapchat.  So, yes, saying, “Sara was on Facebook,” could conceivably date a book.  However, this does not mean that the book cannot mention “messaging” friends, “scrolling through a feed,” “watching videos,” or “playing video games.”  These things are likely to last for some time, even if how we message or play video games changes.  And they are generic enough that readers in the future will be able to follow the action.  Someone talking to a friend who is not physically present while using some type of “messaging” is not a reference that will likely confuse the average reader.

Finally, we should note that no story can be truly timeless.  Even a YA book that talks about going to the mall or having a summer job–all without mentioning social media–technically “dates” itself.  First of all, not mentioning ubiquitous Internet and phones makes it seem like the story is set before 2007, when the iPhone was launched.  So do the malls and the summer jobs, since we’re seeing malls close as a result of online shopping and we are also seeing that there are no longer as many summer jobs for teens.  What seem like “normal” activities to the authors writing these books are not actually activities that many teens growing up today might relate to.  And they might be completely gone in the future.  But that is not a bad thing.  We do not feel the books are “dated” because the references to malls and summer jobs make sense to us, even if we don’t hang out in malls and we don’t know many friends lucky enough to land a job at the local pool or ice cream parlor.  The idea of hanging out with friends or trying to earn money are things people can relate to, even if they do them differently than portrayed in books.

Adding social media to books to reflect daily life does  not mean every book must revolve around social media or be exclusively about teens posting selfies.  Rather, adding social media to books is simply another way to note what life really looks like for teens.  Teens are literally attached to their phones–they eat with them, they sleep with them, they (like everyone else) experience symptoms of anxiety if separated from them.  And yet our stories make it seem as if social media barely exists at all.  But how can we help teens think about their lives and about their social media usage, if we keep telling ourselves that there is nothing to think about?

24 thoughts on “How to Insert Social Media Into Your Story Without Dating It

  1. Briana says:

    On a side note, I thought SLIDER depicted teen phone use fairly well, with the one girl on her phone the whole time she and her friend were supposedly hanging out together. And since the book generically referred to it as a phone, I don’t think that’s too dating. Some of the other stuff in the novel would date it more, anyway.

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    • Krysta says:

      I just read Slider and I agree! Amina’s Voice is also realistic. The girls hang out by listening to Taylor Swift and watching Internet videos. But the references to specific people and things could potentially date it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana says:

        I think that’s fair in the sense that no book is completely timeless anyway. Saying that someone is wearing leggings or that they’re drinking a kale smoothie is going to date the book anyway. You simply can’t leave out all details that would inevitably place the book in a certain time period.

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  2. ofmariaantonia says:

    One of my pet peeves is the mention of famous people in what is supposed to be contemporary fiction. (In historical fiction, this doesn’t bother me.) For example an author writes something like: “She had a smile like Julia Roberts.” Yes, Julia Roberts has a beautiful smile, and it instantly conjures up an image to my mind. But what happens when you don’t know who Julia Roberts is?! THAT dates a book badly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Precisely. It works really well now, but if your book is still on the shelf twenty years from now, it might not. Though perhaps if your book is still being sold twenty years from now, you don’t care! You just feel lucky! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. saraletourneau says:

    Great suggestions, Krysta! I’m going to make a note of this for when I revise any scenes that feature social media in my WIP. I know I mention Facebook specifically, but maybe keeping it to “messaging / private-messaging” or “scrolling through her social media feed” is enough. Especially since most teens nowadays are turning to other forms of social media besides Facebook.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      From what I’ve been reading, teens are moving to Snapchat and Instagram. I’m not entirely sure why, though, because they do different things and I don’t see them as a replacement for Facebook. Maybe it just isn’t cool to be on a platform your mom and grandmother also use?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Valerie says:

    Love this discussion Krysta! I don’t really have a huge opinion, since I’m not a writer really, but I have wondered why it’s a problem if a book is dated. I guess the argument is because then it’s not written with the target audience in mind? Maybe in the future we’ll have our phones connected to our brains, and they’ll be no need for typing or texting 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      Honestly, I don’t see a huge problem with a book feeling dated unless it’s somehow confusing to the reader. For example, I think it was Judy Blume’s 1970 Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. that had a scene that confused readers because feminine products were different back in the day. But eventually they just revised the book so that Margaret uses a contemporary product. So, yeah, the book felt dated and it was a problem–but admittedly a minor one that had a solution. But if your book from 1970 is still going strong, worries about descriptions of old-timey feminine products are probably not keeping you up at night. 😀 And eventually I imagine the book just becomes something like Little Women–historical, not dated.

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  5. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    Ironically, my recent read actually incorporated the teen characters use of social media and cell phones into the story rather well 😊 I tend to favor a lot fantasy though and often the setting is not appropriate for or does not warrant the use of social media. But you have given me some food for thought. Great post!

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    • Krysta says:

      I read a lot of fantasy, too, so at first I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t seeing technology just because of my genre preferences. But then I noticed that even my contemporary reads seemed to going for some “timeless” feel. I just DNFed The Great Pumpkin Suite and the first fifty pages must be the two kids wondering what a seed is, based on its Latin name. Why don’t they Google it? Don’t computers exist in this world? I don’t know! They also live on the same street as the library and they don’t go there, either!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

        Hahah, yeah I can see how that would be frustrating. That seems like a plot that may not have been thought out to the fullest. I am guessing the time setting certainly allowed for the necessary resources but the author failed to incorporate them? YA is something I am just now branching out in more, so it is hard for me to formulate a fair opinion on the use of social media and technology in the genre. I have just been lucky that the few non-fantasy titles I picked up actually relied on both as part of the plot 😉

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        • Krysta says:

          I have no idea. This is the first book I’ve DNFed in years, as far as I can remember. I just didn’t understand any of it. I guess I’ll just have to live my life wondering. 😉

          I’ve actually been falling out of YA lately because so much of it seems repetitive. 😦 One book does well and then for awhile you have tons of books inspired by it. I wish publishers felt confident enough to try more original works and see if they would sell. 😦

          Liked by 1 person

          • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

            I can completely relate to that. YA has been a real hit and miss for myself. I take breaks until something grabs me. I am a sucker for retellings though and so many are YA 😉 I think that is how I find my way back more often than not.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. DoingDewey says:

    I get that adding technology to a story can date it, but I definitely prefer a story that is firmly rooted in a particular time period (even if that time isn’t the present) to one that seems to happen in modern times but weirdly ignores technology when it’s convenient for the plot. Like you said, a Walkman just makes sense in a story set in the 80s 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      That makes sense. I just DNFed a book where they spent 50 pages wondering what a seed was and never looked it up. I am fairly certain it was set today, but they have no computers? For…plot purposes? Of boringly wondering what a seed is? I’d prefer the book to have technology in this case, even if later we find their smartphones or computers old-fashioned.

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    • Krysta says:

      I once read a book that talked about general descriptions, um, in general (that sounds weird!). I wish I could remember who wrote it, but it basically argued that if you write something like a “homey room” without describing it, this works really well because all readers will automatically imagine THEIR idea of a homey room. I think it can work similarly with social media and technology. We can let readers imagine the type of phone, device, feed, etc. that makes sense to them.

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