“Charles Dickens’s” toxic auto-tweets: a cautionary tale for authors on Twitter.

dickens header

I’m going to tell you a little story. It is a story, as the main character is made up, though as most good stories are it’s based on fact. Pretty heavily based, I’d say. This story is a parable, that is, it has a moral. The moral is to teach authors how they should–or more precisely, how they should not–use Twitter. I don’t write articles like this very often, and my #1 piece of advice for authors on social media is (yes, you guessed it), don’t use TrueTwit. But I just have to speak out on this other issue too. So bear with me.

Once upon a time, in the early days of my being on Twitter, I followed an account run by an author. Let’s just call him “Charles Dickens,” a fake name. His account seemed cheerful and amusing, at least at first. All of his tweets were promotional, all were humorous and most were off-color in some fashion. For example:

Buy my book Nicholas Nickleby…or Sir Mulberry Hawk will whip you on the butt with a riding crop! [Amazon link]

Oliver Twist will put a twist in your testicles. Ow! Please sir, can I have some MORE? [Amazon link]

You don’t get to see Nell Trent’s tits in The Old Curiosity Shop, but you do get to see Christopher’s Nubbles. [Amazon link]

Dip your throbbing quill into my luscious inkwell over at my Facebook page! [Facebook link]

I certainly remembered Charles Dickens. In fact, as time went on I began to recall the exact wording of his tweets, evocative as they were of butt whippings and luscious tits. The bit about twisted testicles stuck in my mind too. I thought, wow, this author is pretty creative, and is using Twitter to its fullest advantage. I clicked on the link to one of Dickens’s books. It wasn’t my thing so I didn’t buy one.

oliver-twist-more

As time went on and I continued using Twitter, I would occasionally see Dickens tweet. There was something awfully…familiar about his tweets.

You don’t get to see Nell Trent’s tits in The Old Curiosity Shop, but you do get to see Christopher’s Nubbles. [Amazon link]

Oliver Twist will put a twist in your testicles. Ow! Please sir, can I have some MORE? [Amazon link]

I quickly realized that these promotional tweets were pre-written and being recycled. Curious, I clicked on Dickens’s profile. In his timeline I saw every tweet I ever remember: the riding crop, Oliver’s twisted testicles, Christopher’s Nubbles, the luscious inkwell, and about six or eight other promotional lines that never varied. They were repeated several times a day. The riding crop appeared every six hours, Oliver’s testicles every ten hours, Christopher’s Nubbles every seven hours, in a strict and never-ending rotation. I also noticed that, while Mr. Dickens frequently retweeted promo tweets from other authors, there was not one single @ reply in his entire timeline. He never talked to anyone.

In short, Charles Dickens was a bot.

robot

Okay, I thought. That’s unfortunate. Dickens used an app that could schedule recurring tweets. Once in a great while he checked his timeline and RT’d stuff by other authors, but he was never actually there. Yet somehow Dickens had over 15,000 followers. In fact, his followers and following numbers were extremely close; 15,410 followers, 15,388 following. Dickens had followed me almost immediately upon me following him. This told me that his automated account also had an auto-follow feature (which has since been disabled on Twitter, thank God). Basically, there was nothing human whatsoever about Charles Dickens.

Deciding that there was no reason to junk up my timeline with automated spam, I unfollowed Charles Dickens. (I noticed he unfollowed me within 24 hours). Problem solved. Right?

Wrong.

I follow over 5,000 people. At least three times a day on my timeline I see tweets from Charles Dickens, which someone I still follow has retweeted. What are these tweets? Take a guess.

You don’t get to see Nell Trent’s tits in The Old Curiosity Shop, but you do get to see Christopher’s Nubbles. [Amazon link]

Buy my book Nicholas Nickleby…or Sir Mulberry Hawk will whip you on the butt with a riding crop! [Amazon link]

Oliver Twist will put a twist in your testicles. Ow! Please sir, can I have some MORE? [Amazon link]

First I ignored these ubiquitous RTs. After all, Charles Dickens has over 15,000 followers, some of them people I follow. Writers on Twitter are eager to scratch each other’s backs, so they will sometimes (often) RT another writer’s promotional tweets. No big deal, right? But then they came again. And again. And again. And again. Everywhere I looked–every time I clicked on Twitter, whether on my phone, my desktop or whatever–I started seeing the same tweets. The face of Dickens, who never changed his profile pic, began to haunt my dreams; it appeared in my timeline next to each and every retweet. The insipid words became burned in my memory, indelible, like the fateful carving on Ebenezer Scrooge’s tombstone.

Oliver Twist will put a twist in your testicles. Ow! Please sir, can I have some MORE? [Amazon link]

You don’t get to see Nell Trent’s tits in The Old Curiosity Shop, but you do get to see Christopher’s Nubbles. [Amazon link]

With each repetition, each unknowing propagation of this eye-searing virus, the insidious echo chamber of Charles Dickens’s toxic tweets grew just a little larger in my head. Ignoring someone works on the principle of “out of sight, out of mind.” But there was no out of mind with Charles Dickens. Just seeing his face on my timeline triggered the words in my head. Twist in your testicles! You do get to see Christopher’s Nubbles! Mulberry Hawk will whip you in the butt! Dip…your THROBBING QUILL…into my LUSCIOUS…INKWELL!!!!!!!!!!!!

Finally I had to block Charles Dickens. But even blocking did not solve the problem completely. Twitter has struggled for several years with the features of blocking, and sometimes, especially if you’re using Twitter on a phone or third-party app (which I often do), if someone RT’s a tweet by someone you’ve blocked, occasionally it will still show up in your timeline for whatever reason. Blocking prevents a user from contacting you, but if simply seeing their tweets is the issue, there are still sometimes problems. Unfortunately my timeline will never completely be 100% Dickens-free.

One day, curious to see who among my followers was vectoring this fulsome plague, I returned to Dickens’s profile and clicked on his list of followers. Guess who they were? Writers. Every single one of them, writers. Over 15,000 of them. Every single person who followed Dickens did so not because they liked Dickens’s books, but because they were hoping Dickens would retweet their promotional book tweets to Dickens’s own 15,000 followers. And he did. So the whole thing was a colossal circle-jerk, a never-ending ouroboros of thoughtless point, click, native-RT viral trolling which had the effect of spreading Charles Dickens’s same eight or ten auto tweets into every corner of Twitter, every day, day after day, century after century, epoch after epoch–and driving me, one of those “lazy” writers who does not automatically go around RT’ing every promotional book tweet I ever see cross my timeline, to the brink of madness.

The_Scream

And here’s the sad part. What has Charles Dickens accomplished? With his toxic auto-tweets, as invariable, unchanging and repetitive as GOP votes to repeal Obamacare, he’s made an implacable enemy; nay, probably more than one, because I can’t be the only person on Twitter who becomes apoplectic at seeing Oliver Twist will put a twist in your testicles! for the 247,833rd time, eleven months after unfollowing, blocking and reporting Dickens for spam. The real Dickens, whoever he is–probably laying on a beach somewhere sipping a Mai Tai–decided he’d take all the work out of Twitter, spent 20 minutes five years ago writing a few tweets he must have thought (during those 20 minutes) were funny, and set the whole process in motion.

So, author, before you think that setting up auto-tweets to promote your book is a wonderful, time-saving panacea that will reap you all the rewards of Twitter with none of the pesky downsides of actually putting, you know, some effort into it, stop and think for a minute about what you’re doing–to yourself, to your own brand, your own readers, your own fans, or possibly as in Dickens’s admittedly extreme case to innocent bystanders who can no longer even stand the mention of his name or the sight of his avatar, which will evidently continue being RT’d until the end of time.

If there is ever a nuclear war that wipes out the human species, and nothing is left of planet Earth but the charred radioactive bones of its unfortunate victims, so long as one computer is left miraculously operative anywhere in the world I fear someday an alien spacecraft will come upon the shriveled burnt husk of Earth and one day receive an inscrutable message scroll across the viewscreen of their flying saucer:

Oliver Twist will put a twist in your testicles. Ow! Please sir, can I have some MORE? [Amazon link]

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6 Comments

  1. I share your frustration! I’m currently plagued by someone who is apparently a middle-aged female history lecturer, and curiously anxious that I look at the photos of topless actresses in a magazine I won’t name. I just ignore it, and all the other similar messages that pop up all too frequently. There’s far too much of this kind of thing going on and those of us being annoyed by it (most of the Twitter population) should perhaps make more of an issue about it and see if we can make change happen. I don’t think any of it works though. I would never buy a book because of one of those messages. I follow authors that have interesting things to say about subjects that interest me. If I find that they are likeable people so much the better. Gradually I’m buying books by them (it’s a VERY long list, and currently on order is Zombies Of Byzantium amongst other titles) and it’s because I’ve become sure that I would enjoy their work based on my own observation. I imagine that most people have a similar policy to me.

  2. How do you feel about writers who stalk you from down under ? 😉 I have been very lucky so far on twitter. I don’t have a huge following, probably because I am very selective. Maybe at my own detriment.

    1. Twitter is really a great thing, and its positives far outweigh its negatives in my opinion. In fact I think my affinity for Twitter is why I’m so passionate about opposing the things that ruin it–like TrueTwit, and auto-tweets and such. There is a saying I’ve seen a few times now, “Twitter makes you love people you’ve never met, and Facebook makes you hate people you’ve known all your life.” So, don’t get me wrong–I didn’t present this as a way of turning people off Twitter, but in fact the opposite, a plea to use it properly, which “Charles Dickens” clearly does not.

  3. I only have 40 Twitter followers, and it annoys me that some of those are, if not exactly bots, not at all interested in my life. Like some doctor specializing in back pain who follows everybody who uses the hashtag #backpain even once.

    I mostly use Twitter to monitor myself, keep an eye on my moods. I even showed my account to my therapist once or twice to show how my mood crested and dipped over the course of hours or minutes.

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