As you may know, during the Awakening 3 tour with Fire and Ice Book Tours, Dane Cobain over at Social Bookshelves interviewed me and posted the audio. While we were at it, I interviewed him about his speculative fiction psychological thriller, Former.ly, and today I'm excited to bring you the audio and approximate transcript of that interview! :D
[Note: The transcript of the interview was typed up by Dane himself, hence the British English spelling.]
So Dane, you and I were talking via e-mail about the novel that you’re working on called Former.ly. From what I gather, it’s about a social network where people enter information when they’re alive and then after they die, the information goes public. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s basically the concept – imagine it like a private version of Facebook or like a private blog, so you can almost keep an online diary that’s completely private and only you can see it, and then after you die it then goes live to the public.
So what inspired that idea? Where did it come from? What was the moment when it struck your brain?
As a career, I work in social media marketing for a marketing agency, and everyone always says that you should write about what you know. I’ve done a lot of writing in the past, but I had this idea that I should write what I know, and so I started thinking, ‘Well what do I know about?’ I know a lot about social networking sites – not just how to use them but how they’re run and how they’re founded. I wanted to do something with that, and I tried to think of a wacky idea because I didn’t want it to be quite boring, like a photo social network or something like that. I wanted to do something that’s so crazy that it could only happen in fiction.
Yeah – I think what’s appealing about the concept is that it actually might appeal to some people. Some people might actually want to do that.
The good thing about that is it gives you the freedom – once you’ve got this concept, you can start to think about what people would use that social network for. The planning stage of the novel was quite easy because in terms of my knowledge of how social networking sites work, it was really easy to think ‘what would this company do?’ They’re going to need to worry about how to make money about it, so how would they do that? I came up with this idea that they’d release a feature where you can leave virtual wreathes and stuff, and you can donate through them to charities that fight the cause of death, and that sort of thing. But then I also had to look at it from the other side and look at what people would put on the social network, so you’ve got people who were secretly having an affair and wanted to leave a message to clear the air, and thing like that. And then I was thinking, ‘what happens then, after they die?’ You’d then have a backlash from the loved ones against the social network, even though it’s not necessarily their fault – they have nothing to do with what the people have been putting on it. That’s kind of how that all evolved. The main story follows the employees of the social network, and so you only hear about these stories in a second-hand way.
That was going to be my next question – who’s the protagonist of the story?
The protagonist is a web developer called ‘Dan’, and he keeps a journal – that actually turns out to be a plot device in the story, although I won’t say how because I don’t want to ruin it. The six core employees of the company are the six main characters – they start off small and then grow and more people come in, but it still focuses on those six employees.
Is there some kind of mystery that evolves, or can you not tell us?
I can tell you how it evolves but I can’t tell you how it’s resolved, partly because I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing it and the characters quite often take on minds of their own and although I’ve planned it all out, it does keep changes in little bits, which will be interesting to say the least when I go back through and edit it. Especially because I’ve done some foreshadowing, and I’ve set the scene for later events and then realised, ‘Hang on a minute, this wouldn’t actually happen’, so I’ve had to take those bits out.
Coming back to the mystery, there’s this feeling that something isn’t right within the company and Dan, the main character, he knows this and although he’s one of the early employees there’s a lot that the two founders don’t share with him. One of the things that they don’t share is how they actually know when people are dying – it does get revealed near the end how they get that information, but there’s also something about them that none of the employees really trust. A couple of the employees of the company start to die as well – they have their office broken in to about a third of the way through and they step up security, and the two founders are very secretive. It’s revealed at the end what the cause of that was as well.
So would you say it fits in to the ‘thriller’ genre?
It’s a bit of a weird one – I think that’s probably the closest genre to it. The thing with myself is that I read quite a lot of different genres, so there are a few bits of black humour in there, it probably is mainly thriller as well. I try to keep it quite realistic as well, so there are bits in there for everybody – because I know a lot of web developers at work and I know quite a lot about the industry, I’ve even done bits in the dialogue that you’d appreciate more if you were a web developer as well. Otherwise you’d be like ‘I don’t know what that means’. It’s not vital to the story, but I think it’s quite a nice little nod to those characters.
What are some of the parallels between the fictional social media that you’re writing about or the social networks that we already use?
One of the things that I had to do was to think ‘how will this site actually work?’ There’s never a boring bit in the text that says ‘this is how it works’ and explains it, but here and there it refers to different features of it. It’s quite like Facebook in that you can leave a message of condolence on someone’s profile – in terms of the way they make money from it, that’s very much based on how current social networks try to make money out of their users as well. One thing that they do also launch, which is based on Tumblr – they do this, I think – is that you can advertise on the site, but it doesn’t go on to the profiles, it goes on to the dashboards. The living people, before they pass away and their profile goes live, as they log in and update it, they’re exposed to adverts. That was also thinking, ‘in this position, as a social network, you wouldn’t put adverts on the profiles of dead people because they’re massively disrespectful’. But what you can do is you can advertise to them before they’re dead. In terms of how they get their funding – they get their investment from angel investors and that allows them to relocate – and in terms of how they start out as well. During the novel, there are two office moves – they start out in someone’s living room, then they get a proper office in London, and then they move to Palo Alto in America which is the Silicon Valley of social networking sites.
There are a lot of parallels in terms of how these companies develop and also the technical aspects, and it sounds like another parallel is that sometimes the end users use the site in a different way to how the developers thought about it. Is that right?
Yeah, and quite often the developers will factor in the way that the users are using it and use that to inform new features as well. One of the interesting things is that you see it through the eyes of the people who are developing it – you hear stories about individual users, but you never get to use it as a user yourself. The team actually has quite a bad attitude towards the users and it’s almost like they feel that without the users it’d be a lot easier to do it. Which I think is probably an attitude shared by a lot of people at Facebook and Twitter, because people keep breaking it and they have to deal with taking down pages that have caused offence, and that kind of thing. One of the early hires at the company is a woman who comes in and she does their in-house PR – they’re having a lot of both positive and negative PR. They’re quite a controversial social networks and that helps them to get lots of users – they have huge boosts in the number of sign-ups whenever a negative news story goes out because people hear about it and go ‘oooh, what’s this?’. It’s quite important for a social network like that to have someone on the inside, communicating with journalists.
You’ve described the plot and you’ve described how it came about, what are some of the social, political and economic themes from life that you’re exploring? What’s it about on that human level?
In some ways, it’s about human nature – with most of my writing there’s a dark undertone in some way, and quite often with the things that the users do, a lot of the publicity that they get is when someone’s done something really bad like they’ve died and then afterwards it comes out that they’ve killed someone when they were young or something. You never really get exposed to happy stories because actually, that wouldn’t make the news anyway. They’ve got a lot of personal demons and a lot of problems that come out during the novel – I guess that even people who seem quite normal on the outside have got something on the inside that they don’t necessarily want everyone to know about.
What’s your own level of comfort with public disclosure? Could you envision using something like this?
That’s an interesting question, and it’s one that I find quite interesting on a professional level. I find that people of my generation, perhaps under the age of 30, they’ve kind of grown up with the internet and they’re quite comfortable with posting stuff. The younger people are, the more willing they generally are to post stuff. A lot of the reasons in which it actually works is that because none of it goes live until after you’re dead, people can post what they like on it because they’re not going to be around to see the consequences of it.
Definitely – well when you were talking about the millennial generation, people are more comfortable with that kind of thing, and I’m thinking about the babies that are being born now. Their parents are posting photos of them every day to Facebook or whatever. These kids are growing up not having any choice whatsoever about participating on social media, because their parents are doing it for them on their behalf. It’s a whole other world.
I didn’t want to give the message that it’s necessarily bad to do that, but I wanted to be quite even about it – if you do this, this is what’s going to happen. It’s up to the reader to decide whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, and I think you can enjoy reading the novel whether you’d use the service or not.
Do you feel like there’s any conflict of interest for you to be writing this book and working in social media? Just in terms of the fact that you work in social media and so it’s your job to publicise these things and to interact with these things. On the other hand, it sounds a bit like the book you’re writing is a bit of a cautionary tale. Maybe that’s too strong a word because as you say you try to be even about it, but exploring some of the real consequences of this kind of sharing.
I wouldn’t say there’s a conflict of interest because I try to keep it fairly unbiased and actually, the work that I do is in social media marketing and as a marketer, you probably wouldn’t use Former.ly, the social network in the novel, for marketing – maybe you’d use the ads, but that’s it. I guess that it can be quite difficult to be even-handed about it, but because the plot follows the employees of the network, it’s more of a human tale – I think that the social network itself is almost the least important part of the novel. I don’t work for a social network but I do work for quite a small company with quite a strong company culture, and I use a lot of things that we do in the office to say that this is what the company would do internally as well. Just the fact that I’m familiar with that area itself helps me to write about it more convincingly, and I suppose you could say the same about anyone who writes about anything. For example, an ex-soldier writing a military novel – could they then be biased in favour of the military? It’s a tricky thing that I think most writers have to face.
Well since you’re using actual conversations – things that people actually would say to each other – or decisions that the company actually would have to make, have you ever had a pang of anxiety about your co-workers reading it, that you might be exposed?
I think I can get away with it, I think I’ve changed it enough – one or two people might read it and think ‘that sounds familiar’ and know that it’s them, but I don’t think it’s too obvious. I don’t think there’s anything that’s taken directly from reality, but there’s a lot that I could imagine people that I know or companies that I know doing that, in that situation. It’s more their approach than the things that they do.
On a similar note to your final question but a little bit different – do you have a favourite sci-fi thriller that you’d recommend?
That’s a tough question – I’m looking at my bookcases right now, I’ve actually just moved house and I haven’t finished unpacking. I’ve got over 1,000 books and so to pick a favourite is a bit tricky. One book that I’ll give a shout-out to, which is more of a young adult novel rather than a really deep, thick adult book, but a good friend of mine called Imran Siddiq has written a book called Disconnect – that was the first book of the trilogy and I was very impressed by that, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
That’s the one you’re holding in your picture.
It is, yes!