Internet friendships

(This post is dedicated to Patreon backer David Lamb, who wanted to hear my thoughts about Internet friendships. At various Patreon tiers, you can commission blog posts, too!)

A perennial pet peeve of mine is when people dismiss Internet friendships as being “not real,” or not a proper way to have friends, in comparison to face-to-face friendships.

Internet friendships are a bit different from friendships in person, though. In my experience, it’s easier to do some things online, and easier to do some things in person.

Some things it’s easier to do in person:

  • Physically hug and enjoy the contact
  • Watch a person’s face and body language in real time
  • Share event-based experiences, like going to a concert or meal together
  • Help each other with physical tasks

And some things it’s easier to do online:

  • Find friends based on a rare or specialized interest
  • Lean on a forum or chat group for support and let whoever has spoons at the time interact with you, rather than bugging a lot of people individually
  • Bond over certain kinds of interest-based activities, such as making fanfiction/fanart, or deep essay-style analysis of a topic you both enjoy

There are also things that depend on the person. Some people find it easier to express deep feelings by writing, while others find it easier to express themselves aloud. For people like me who are more articulate with written speech, it’s easier to do that online. Other people’s mileage may vary. (This isn’t “neurotypical vs non-neurotypicals,” by the way; some non-neurotypicals have more trouble with writing than speaking. They’re valid.)

Often when people criticize social media for being shallow or causing low self-esteem, they’re not talking about the whole Internet. Instead, when you really delve into their argument, it seems that they’re talking about a very specific subset of the Internet.

For example, think of a place like Instagram, which:

  • Encourages people to post shiny pictures
  • Measures attention mostly in “likes” without a lot of in depth interaction
  • Makes it easy to find people with shinier pictures than you
  • Is mostly sorted by what’s most popular or controversial at a given time
  • Makes it easy to count your number of “likes,” compare it to the very popular stuff showing up on your feed, and feel inadequate
  • Makes it hard to share personal things in a safe/private way

And compare to a place like Dreamwidth, which:

  • Lets people write about themselves, their experiences, or their favorite topic in as much depth as they want
  • Lets people comment and converse in as much depth as they want
  • Doesn’t try to rank, classify, or compare its users
  • Gives users full control over privacy, access, and what shows up on their feed

Obviously these are not the only two ways to do things online, and they are also not black and white. Some people have good experiences with Instagram and some people have bad experiences with Dreamwidth. But it should be plain that many of the criticisms of “social media” are actually criticisms of the most common uses of a small handful of the most popular platforms, and they don’t encompass every online way of relating. Some platforms meet the need for meaningful connection better than others.

My own experience with online friendships have included many positive and meaningful things:

  • Connections with friends who shared interests with me and were weird in the same ways I was
  • Connections with fellow writers who understand and share the difficulties of a writing career
  • Connections with fellow autistic people which have taught me a huge amount about myself
  • Opportunities to share critiques and work on the craft of writing, including the skill of writing inclusively and sensitively, with people whose lives are very different from mine
  • Opportunities to network and build an audience as a writer in meaningful ways with people who are often very geographically distant from me

I have also experienced negative things online. People can be abusive online and non-abusive people can get into petty fights online just as easily as in real life. However, all these positive things I’ve experienced are real and have been easier for me to find online than in person – which doesn’t mean I don’t treasure them when I also find them in person.

Simply clicking “like” on someone’s post is not a very deep interaction, but sometimes it’s okay for interactions not to be deep.

  • People have shallow face-to-face interactions all the time
  • Like by nodding to each other when they pass in the street
  • Or by exchanging a perfunctory “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.”
  • These parts of human interaction are not worthless; they are rituals we have for a reason.
  • What does become a problem is when we have way more of these shallow interactions than the amount we want or need, and not enough deep or meaningful interactions.
  • Places on the Internet that strongly emphasize shallow interactions can make it easy for this problem to happen.

When people have needs that their online interactions are not meeting, and when there’s a good chance they could meet those needs in the face-to-face world, it can be good to encourage them to put their screens down and interact face-to-face more.

But doing it by shaming people, or by invalidating their online friendships, is a bad idea:

  • It hurts people who have less access to face-to-face friendships due to structural inequality (queer people in a small conservative town, for example, or housebound disabled people) and are doing the best they can with the tools available
  • It hurts people who have found validation and support in online spaces that they were unable to find in person for whatever other reason
  • It hurts people who have an easier time writing than speaking and who are inherently more able to be “real,” in the sense of fully expressing themselves, online
  • It removes support for people who have gone through a difficult online experience, like losing a close online friend, and are struggling with real feelings of grief.

Dismissing online social interactions as “not real” also helps enable some very specific bad behaviors:

  • Internet trolls often feel more emboldened to harass people online than in real life, because online interactions don’t “feel” real to them; but the people at the other end of the interaction are still real people who can be hurt by what they do
  • Harassment and bullying have always been around, but social media allows these things to occur in novel ways
  • For example, harassers on social media can start pile-ons in which thousands of people around the world join in the harassment
  • Preventing & dealing with online harassment is a difficult problem that requires deep thought about our social media platforms, who uses them for what purpose, and why
  • It also requires careful thinking about some thorny philosophical issues (for example: what’s the difference between a harassment campaign and a call-out?)
  • No one who believes that the Internet is inherently fake and silly is going to do this careful thinking.

The people who do bad things, or are affected by bad things online, are real. And the same goes for people who treat each other well online.

Online and face-to-face interaction are different in some important ways; but we do better by each other when we take them both seriously, and this includes the idea that online friendships are valid and real.

Philip K. Dick Award

THE OUTSIDE is a nominee for the 2020 Philip K. Dick Award!

Chosen by a panel of five judges and sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Philip K. Dick Award is given to distinguished science fiction published in paperback form in the US. The winner, along with any special citations, will be announced on April 10, 2019 at Norwescon.

I am so thrilled and flattered for THE OUTSIDE to have been recognized in this manner. Thank you, PSFS and congratulations to the other nominees!

Who Do You Think You Are

Meanwhile, I’m ringing in the new year by having a new poem up in Uncanny Magazine.

This is one of those pieces that I have trouble describing except by just making an incoherent noise and pointing to the words in the piece itself. I suppose it’s about identity and myth. It’s short and free to read, though, so you might enjoy trying to interpret it for yourself. ūüôā

2019 In Review / Award Eligibility

I started 2019 in a state of severe autistic burnout. After a 2018 in which I sold my debut novel, finished my PhD, started a new job, and moved across the province and in with a partner for the first time, I was just completely out of every kind of energy. Over the last month or two of 2018, I had made some adjustments to my living situation and a tentative recovery plan, but I was still so overwhelmed by life generally that I couldn’t even handle household noises or watch television. That made for a very precarious start to the year.

I’m happy to say I’m doing a lot better now. There wasn’t a clearly defined end to the burnout so much as a gradual readjustment. I still struggle on and off with my energy levels and with sensory overload but, let’s be real, I’m autistic, I’ve always struggled with that and always will.

Some of the thing that helped me recover include:

  • Demanding my own space in my house. I’m a sensory avoidant morning person living with sensory seeking night owls! I love them but it’s tough. Having my own room where I can work and sleep and be quiet is a godsend. Having my own room also improved the quality of my sleep, which immediately improved a half dozen mental symptoms that I didn’t even know were sleep-related.
  • Shamelessly indulging in special interests. At the beginning of the year I did a series of Star Wars livetweets and they were literally the only thing in my life I felt happy about. I feel happy about more things now but I’ve continued to make space for the things that bring me joy and keep me going (including but not limited to Star Wars). I’ve tried to banish any thought of needing to “earn” them, any more than I earn my meals or sleep.
  • Getting better at using accommodations. There is something in me that doesn’t WANT to use noise-canceling headphones, or stim with stress balls, or do any of the dozen other little things that help relieve sensory stress. Why not? I don’t know. Internalized ableism or whatever. But when I work on quieting that voice, my life gets better.
  • Keeping my schedule simple and flexible.
  • Delegating! There are some things that I’m not so good at handling but that my partner can do, like going to the store. There are some things that are no sweat for me, like putting away dishes and folding laundry, but that my partner hates to do. We’re a team! And now I hardly ever have to go to the store anymore.
  • Making time for face-to-face social events, but on my own terms. Isolating myself makes everything worse, but socializing is very costly in time and energy. Some events are worth it because of the joy that they bring. I focus on those and let myself pare the rest down.
  • Above all, being patient with myself.

Publishing and academia are both a bit slow, so 2019 was the year when my novel came out and when I got to go to my PhD graduation ceremony – even though almost all of the work for those things had been done in 2018. Sometimes that felt strange and I wondered if I was actually doing anything useful in the current year. Apparently this is a normal author brainweasel, though.

MY DEBUT NOVEL! In case you missed it! Is THE OUTSIDE! It is an autistic space opera with cosmic horrors, AI Gods, and cyborg angels! It is eligible for 2019 awards, in case you are reading the year in review for that purpose. This includes the Aurora Award (because I’m Canadian) and awards to do with queer SFF (the protagonist is a lesbian whose girlfriend doesn’t die; other characters are queer and genderfluid; I am also queer and genderfluid, hi).

Meanwhile, here are the other things I published in 2019:

Short Fiction

  • Fairest of All,” a novelette in The Future Fire, is the only short prose fiction I published this year. It’s a dark fairy tale with a happy ending; it plays with changeling folklore and its attendant disability and abuse themes, as well as being queer and polyamorous as heck. This was hard to write and hard to find a home for, and it’s not for everyone, but I’ve had autistic readers tell me it’s their favorite of all the things I’ve ever written. It also has a Locus recommendation, yay!

Poetry

  • Culvert Kelpie” was published in The Temz Review, a Canadian online literary magazine. This is the most structurally ambitious / experimental poem I’ve ever written; it actually appeared to me in my head during a meltdown, which makes it stealth autism literature as well.
  • Nightmare II,” a poem involving lava and frightened awakenings (and the brief, reassuring appearance of a kitty!), was published in Kaleidotrope.
  • Thule” (tricksters and northern exploration), “Looking Down” (a case of survivor guilt / sad news overload), “The Evil Eye” (domestic abuse and magical folklore), and “The Bright Wind” (elemental forces and romantic longing) went up as seasonal Patreon rewards, and are now free to read.

All six of these poems are eligible for speculative poetry awards, including the Aurora (which has a Best Poem/Song category) and the Rhysling.

Non-Fiction and Fan Writing

I wrote several essays and articles online as promotion for THE OUTSIDE, including:

  • Theology in AI Fiction,” an essay for the Uncanny blog, about the way we use AI and aliens in science fiction to explore much older theological tropes that ask questions about morality and human nature.
  • My Muse is a Sorcerer,” a post up here on my own blog, about how THE OUTSIDE was inspired by a villain character from an RPG, and how the world and story of the book evolved around him. (There’s been so much discourse online this year about whether and in what ways it’s okay to have crushes on fictional villains! The post doesn’t go into that side of things, but I am staunchly on Team Go Ahead And Have Crushes On Whoever You Want To, for the record.)
  • Towards a Neurodiverse Future: Writing an Autistic Heroine,” an essay for Tor.com, about why I was scared to give THE OUTSIDE an autistic protagonist, and how Dr. Yasira Shien (and her shady former teacher, Dr. Evianna Talirr) shaped themselves into the wonderful autistic characters they are despite me.

Meanwhile, if you want all my Star Wars opinions:

  • Disability In Star Wars” is one of my most popular blog posts! This is where you can read what I think about Darth Vader (problematic fave), limb loss, disfigurement, mental health, whatever the heck was going on in Rogue One, and the strangely consistent ways that the Skywalker Saga uses different forms of disability to denote different moral and spiritual states.
  • And the aforementioned Star Wars livetweets are here, by episode: [1] [2] [3] [Rogue One] [4] [5] [6] [Solo] [7] [8]. A Rise of Skywalker livetweet will have to wait until it’s out on Disney+, of course.

And the books I reviewed for Autistic Book Party:

Along with Short Story Smorgasbords in June, July, and September.

I’m eligible for Best Fan Writer, although to be honest I think many other authors have done more and better fan writing.

I didn’t read as much in 2019 as I wanted to, but if you want to know my favorite stories of the year by other people, you can look back at my Cool Story, Bro posts: from January-April, May-June, July-August, and September-October.

Meanwhile, here are my top ten tweets of 2019.

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In between all the writing and recovery work, this year, I also taught three university courses and dealt with a household situation that continued to change. In particular, my primary partner lost his job, took another more precarious one, then had his own burnout in the early fall. He’s no longer able to work full-time. Due to the nature of his disabilities we always knew this would happen eventually, but it’s still startling when it does happen. I’m now the primary breadwinner in my house; what my adjuncting and writing income doesn’t cover is being supplemented by Ontario’s social safety net and by some contributions from my family.

There were a lot of times when I got distracted by drama or bad feelings, fell behind on the things that I felt I was supposed to be doing, and felt generally that this year was getting away from me. But honestly, looking back, it didn’t really. I did what I needed to do to take care of myself. I did my paying work, and I’m progressing with the sequel to THE OUTSIDE at a rate my agent is happy with. Sometimes this is what moving forward looks like, even if it feels like keeping barely afloat.

2020 looks like it’s shaping up to be another big, difficult year. I hope it’s a year we take care of each other. I hope it’s a year when we’re able to create the kinds of beautiful things we need most.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 58: The Trans Space Octopus Congregation

Today’s Book: “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation,” a short story collection by Bogi Tak√°cs.

Autistic Character(s): The author, among others!

This is a generally excellent collection.¬†As is often the case with a single-author collection from an author I know, many of the stories were not new to me, and they won’t be new to long-time Autistic Book Party readers either (see the Reviews Index). Much of the joy of such a collection is in seeing the stories arranged next to each other, seeing more strongly how themes recur and patterns emerge.

“The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” ranges from historical fantasy to modern-day political allegories to far-future space opera, but there is a remarkable unity to the themes throughout.¬†The writing is accessible and clear, but there is a very strong¬†Bogi Tak√°cs aesthetic, which is hard to describe until you’ve seen it. It’s to do with powerful magic-users at risk from those who want to abuse them as weapons; matter-of-fact acceptance of states which in another author’s hands would be body horror; sensory seeking; Jewish mysticism; and non-sexual BDSM. Eir worlds are diverse and complex, with multiple cultures mingling and clashing, even within very short works. When political and other large organizations enter the stories, it’s with a wry awareness of those organizations’ flaws, ranging from the well-meaning but inefficient to the horrific; but it’s never without a sense of hope, if only in the sense of ordinary people making the effort to help each other. Those octopi from the title also appear here and there (though, sadly, not in the exact manner the title implies; there is no literal religious congregation of transgender space octopi).

The word “autism” is never used, but non-neurotypical characters abound in this book. The Ereni – citizens of a magical planet of autistic people – appear in several stories, though their universe is large, and they are mainly seen in minor roles here, through the eyes of other sorts of people. In works set elsewhere, characters stim, perseverate, have motor coordination issues, and generally behave in such a way that it’s easy to read autism in if you want to. Queer and trans characters also abound, as the title implies, often in the form of casual but clearly spelled-out nonbinary rep.

I’m not sure I have much else to say about Bogi’s writing that I haven’t already said in prior reviews, but “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” showcases the author at eir best. If you’re a fan of the writing of eirs that you’ve seen online, you should definitely check this one out.

The Verdict: Recommended

Disclosure: Bogi Takács is someone I consider a personal friend. I received a free electronic review copy of this book.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Cool Story, Bro: Favorite Stuff I Read In September and October

Carmen Lucia Alvarado, “Astronaut Poets” (Samovar, September 2)

I’m often hesitant about “all X are like Y” statements, which is how this poem begins, but I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little and I feel seen.

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Sarah Gailey, “Away With the Wolves” (Disabled People Destroy Fantasy!)

This is a werewolf tale that quickly and quietly goes elsewhere than expected. Suss is a chronically ill girl who can change into a wolf when she wishes to; wolf form is the only time she isn’t in pain. Her wolf self isn’t overly violent, but she doesn’t always remember or control what she does, and the people around her are quick to blame her when wolf-related things go wrong. What I love about this, besides the disability representation, is that Suss’s arc isn’t about repressing or embracing a vicious animalistic side. Instead it’s about agency, belonging, and finding ways to give back to her community as her whole self.

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S.L. Huang, “As The Last I May Know” (Tor.com, October 23)

Huang takes what could have been an arid, trolley-problem-style thought experiment – would people in power be less likely to give certain kinds of orders in war, even in self-defense, if they had to viscerally experience those orders’ human cost? – and fills it with heart and feeling. This is the kind of story where there are no easy answers, just all-too-human characters whose lives and needs are all too real, even as they come into conflict in seemingly impossible ways. It’ll stick with you.

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Cynthia So, “If Love Is Real, So Are Fairies” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Nine)

A poem full of sweetness and longing and hope. The feeling of having an imaginary fairy to link you to someone, as the poem describes, is relatable to me.

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Ali Trotta, “Three of Swords, King of Cups” (Fireside, July)

A poem about love, rebirth, and honoring oneself even in pain. I really love the metaphor in this one.

Announcing THE FALLEN

For a long time the most frequent question people have asked me about THE OUTSIDE is, “Will there be a sequel?”

THE OUTSIDE stands on its own, but its ending suggests many future possibilities and further ways the characters’ arcs could develop.

I am pleased to finally be able to announce that a sequel, tentatively titled THE FALLEN, is officially under development.

Watch this space for more news.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 57: No Child Left Behind

Today’s Book: “No Child Left Behind” by Claudia Casser

The Plot: A visitor from a parellel universe creates a prep school for neurodivergent Earth teenagers and refugee teens from his home world.

Autistic Character(s): The author; Geoff, the main viewpoint character, is also a teen with ADHD.

This is a book that has some cool ideas, but that I really struggled to get into because of the writing style. It’s a book whose early chapters seem to flit from thought to thought without much sense of context, stakes, or how it feels to be the various POV characters.

I do like some aspects of the way Geoff is written. The way his mind races is very realistic for a teen with ADHD. For instance, here’s an excerpt from when one of the characters explains to him that people from their universe have electromagnetism-related psychic powers:

Holy cow. Holy cow squared. You could do a lot of stuff with electromagnetic bursts.

You could fry pacemakers and memory beads. Could you fry cell phones? I shoved mine deeper into the back pocket of my jeans. Could you fry neurons? Had Lord Kemp fried my Mom’s neurons when he shook her hand? Is that why she was letting me sleep over? How could I stop them from frying my neurons? Could I find something to fry their neurons if they tried to fry mine? My foot was tapping like crazy.

But this excerpt also exemplifies what I found frustrating, because before any of these questions is addressed or before Geoff can make up his mind to do anything about them, another topic comes up and distracts everyone. This is fairly typical of how exposition and character interactions are handled throughout the part of the book that I read.

It’s also not solely a feature of how Geoff is characterized. An adult from the other universe named Lord Kemp, also has POV time; the style in his chapters is very similar to Geoff’s style. He says and does zany things, and it’s vaguely shown what his motivations are (he wants to build a school on his estate and doesn’t understand why zoning laws prohibit this), but the scene still kind of flits around without much context or illustration of what he’s sensing or feeling, or why he reacts the way he does.

I mentioned a long time ago, in my review of “Kea’s Flight,” how modes of communication that are natural for non-neurotypical people – like, in that case, infodumping – are sometimes classified as bad writing by neurotypicals. It can be worthwhile to push past that initial impression to understand what that communication style means for the characters. (I’ve reviewed other books in which I felt that long infodumps worked particularly well for building the characters, including “2312” and “Experimental Film.“) I feel bad that I couldn’t follow that advice with “No Child Left Behind.” For a reader with ADHD the aimless flitting around might feel exhilarating and relatable. It just happens to be something that I personally bounced off of pretty hard, and that made it a struggle for me to keep reading or to emotionally invest.

After I reviewed the very triggery “Mirror Project,” I decided to make a rule that I was allowed to DNF (did not finish) Autistic Book Party books if I wanted to. (I had also previously DNFed “Dance For The Ivory Madonna,” which was not triggery but just very badly written.) “No Child Left Behind” isn’t full of triggers, and it isn’t entirely bad the way “Dance For The Ivory Madonna” was. But it’s not working for me, and in the interests of getting to other autistic books in a reasonable timeframe, I’m going to put it down.

DNFed in chapter 6.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Disclosure: I read this book because Claudia Casser offered me a free review copy. This is the only interaction I have had with the author.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.