Tag Archives: social media

‘Sympathy’ Offers a Literary Take on Instagram and Intimacy

Sympathy opens with what must be the most intense description of an Instagram follow request ever committed to print. Alice Hare, the 23-year-old narrator, relates the agony of waiting to be granted access to a private account. She aches for that pale grey "requested" button to give way to its more reassuring successor; to confirm that she's "following." With this, the stage is set for a contemporary tale of obsession.

It feels as though the world has been waiting for a literary take on the photo-sharing app. Who among us hasn't been queasy after a bout of girl crush stalking, or that very particular self-aware frustration when unable to find the right angle for a selfie? Not posting would be like having a margarita without the salt. What makes Sympathy such a standout in its approach to social media is a move way from Black Mirror-style satire and, instead, a smart and lyrical evocation of that murky emotional terrain between our online and offline selves.

The novel, written by 28-year-old London native Olivia Sudjic, has already been praised by the likes of British editor Diana Athill and is one of the most talked about debuts of the year. We meet in a cafe near my apartment, which I've chosen specifically for its Instagrammable properties: millennial pink tables and food served on pastel plates. It's the kind place I imagine Sympathy's characters might post about, tagging the location like a breadcrumb to be found.

Alice, the book's lead, is living in limbo after graduating from college, and in search of a "single, coherent narrative" about her origins (something her adoptive English mother has been unable to supply.) After striking up a correspondence with her sick grandmother, Alice travels to New York to help out during Silvia's cancer treatment. Once there, she becomes increasingly obsessed with a Japanese writer and Instagram cool-girl named Mizuko, and Alice detects odd parallels between their life stories. Any similarities that might not be present between the pair, Alice is able to manufacture, mining Mizuko's online presence for likes and interests with which to furnish her own personality. When Alice orchestrates a "chance" encounter with the writer—all thanks to geotags—Mizuko is unable to see that what feels like a happy coincidence is anything but.

Olivia Sudjic portrait at Cafe Miami by Imogen Freeland

Olivia Sudjic portrait at Cafe Miami, Clapton, by Imogen Freeland

Full of wry humor and sharp observations, Sympathy explores the ways we struggle to fully understand an experience that is not our own. We relate to others—as we must—through our own limited perspective. In this era of hyper-connectivity, the illusion of sympathy is everywhere, but are we really connecting in the way that we imagine ourselves to be?

Sudjic describes how, at 25, she'd tried a few different jobs and found herself working at a branding consultancy, but the idea that would evolve into Sympathy had already begun brewing. She decided to take a six-month sabbatical. "Of course, what happened is that I didn't write anything," she says. "Suddenly I had all this free time. I just freaked out."

Nearing the end of the six months, Sudjic's boss told her that they'd given her job to someone else, but that she was welcome to take a role in the Dubai office. "There was nothing like the threat of having to leave London to light a fire under my ass!"

"Throughout history, the tools we make end up shaping us."

She wrote the bulk of the book in three months in a self-confessed "fever dream," fitting for a novel rife with mysterious illnesses, identity slippages, and swift, feverish descents down social media's rabbit holes. The narrative's non-linear structure imitates the feeling of scrolling through an Instagram feed, where past and present co-exist and a #TBT might pop up at any time. It was meticulously plotted, so that Sudjic's writing space looked more like "a crime scene" than an author's desk. "It just felt like a much more authentic way of storytelling according to the way modern minds work," she says.

Surprisingly for a book that reads like The Talented Mr. Ripley for the 21st Century, Sudjic says that she initially conceived it as a historical novel about a 17th century "medicine" called Powder of Sympathy. "I'm quite glad now that I can talk about this historical element, because it guards against the idea that this book is only about now. I feel like there are these age-old human frailties that technology can take advantage of. The point is that, throughout history, the tools we make end up shaping us."

Alice's character being shaped by life online is immediately evident. "I was interested in how the internet sees you," Sudjic says. "To a machine, you're viewed as this collection of metadata; the things you like and click on, what you've spent time doing." What's most specific in Alice's characterization are the traits that can be easily understood by our devices: locations she visits, the amount of time she spends walking around the city, and the sights she captures through the lens of her iPhone. 

Despite the first person narration, Alice's inner-psyche remains blurry, mimicking the way someone is seen by a browser's internal algorithms. Later in the novel, strange coincidences begin to occur that mirror how a Facebook advert might anticipate a user's needs. "These things that we think are all about choice are actually being predicted, nudged, and shaped. What we get access to online, the links that float to the top of our searches—that's all colored by information we often don't even realize we've given out."

"The digital apparatus we have with which to affect change slightly tricks us into feeling like we're more powerful than we are, and actually, we're quite passive."

Sudjic compares buying a smart phone to a kind of Faustian pact: "There's this trade off between privacy and convenience." She points me to the novel's epigraph, a line from Alice Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice tells the Red Queen, "I wouldn't mind being a pawn, if only I might join." It is exactly this bargain we enter into when we share information about ourselves online. I ask whether Olivia was nervous about writing Alice as a character who, though the driving force of the novel, is quite passive—a pawn—when it comes to her interactions IRL. "She is passive, but I feel like that passivity is what a lot of our generation is coping with. The digital apparatus we have with which to effect change slightly tricks us into feeling like we're more powerful than we are, and actually, we're quite passive."

It's proof of Sudjic's electric talent that Alice's voice remains captivating, even as she seems to become a conduit for other people's experiences (her boyfriend Dwight's, for instance.) Alice is simultaneously relatable and inscrutable, sympathetic, caustic, and infuriating all at the same time. Of course she is—she's a 23-year-old trying to figure out her place in the world.

Acutely aware of the difference in the ways male and female novelists are asked to promote their books, Sudjic says she fought hard to keep the novel's original title. "I just thought, if Franzen can do it, I can. Men seem to have ownership of those one word titles. Also, I couldn't believe that it hadn't already been used, given what novels, from their genesis, are supposed to be about."

We discuss the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy: "It was about how we can over-identify with characters and it can lead us astray morally." Sudjic was drawn to the idea that novels used to be a slightly perilous moral undertaking. "Now novels are good and it's Instagram that's bad. Every single time a new format comes up for identifying with other people, we all throw up our hands thinking it's a disaster."

For Alice and Mizuko, it just might be.

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic is published by ONE/Pushkin Press on the May 4, via Pushkin Press. Also available on audible.co.uk.

Follow Kate Loftus O'Brien on Twitter. 

Upsider Abbey Rich on the Power of Social Media

“Communication between me and my customer is so important...” Abbey Rich became an accidental entrepreneur when she uploaded some designs online, and found a market. A part-time student, and now a part-time small business owner, Abbey is an Upsider. Hear her tips and tricks for using social media to network, curate, and connect with her customers, and find out what helps to power her passion. vodafone.com.au/upsiders Already an Upsider? We’d love to hear about it! Share with us on Instagram your passion project – tag @vodafoneau and #Upsiders

The Facebook Shooter Has Killed Himself After a Police Pursuit

Steve Stephens, the man wanted for shooting and killing a 74-year-old man on Sunday and posting the video to Facebook, has died after a pursuit with police, according to the Pennsylvania State police.

The three-day nationwide manhunt for Stephens, a 37-year-old social worker from Ohio, officially ended around 11 AM after state police spotted his car in a McDonald's parking lot near Erie, Pennsylvania. Cops then tried to pull Stephens over, engaging in a short chase before approaching his car. That's when Stephens then reportedly shot and killed himself inside the vehicle. 

Authorities said at a press conference on Tuesday that they did not believe anyone else was harmed by Stephens while he was on the run. At an earlier press conference prior to Stephens's death, authorities said they felt "confident" he was not linked to any additional murders, despite the fact he suggested he had killed more than 12 people in the initial Facebook video.

"This started with one tragedy and ended with another person taking their own life," Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams said Tuesday. "We would have liked to have brought Steve in peacefully and really talk to him to find out exactly why this happened, because there might be other people out there in similar situations."

The video, which has since been taken offline, raised questions as to how Facebook and other livestream platforms should monitor their content. It took nearly three hours before Facebook pulled the video on Sunday, in which Stephens laments about a former girlfriend before pulling up next to 74-year-old Robert Godwin and shoots him. 

On Monday, Robert Godwin's family said they forgave Stephens and asked that people not share the video of their father's final moments.

"Each one of us forgives the killer, the murderer," Tonya Godwin-Baines, Godwin's daughter, said Monday. "We want to wrap our arms around him."

"Steve, I forgive you," Godwin's son, Robert Godwin Jr., said. "I'm not happy [with] what you did, but I forgive you."

What We Know About the Man Who Broadcast a Killing on Facebook

Police are actively looking for a man who they believe committed a brutal murder in Cleveland on Sunday and uploaded the footage to his Facebook account, CNN reports.

The video, which has since been taken offline, showed the suspect, Steve Stephens, driving around in a car and talking about a woman before approaching an elderly man police have identified as 74-year-old Robert Godwin. At one point, Stephens looks at the camera and says, "Found me somebody I'm going to kill, this guy right here, this old dude," before pointing the gun to Godwin's head and firing, the Huffington Post reports. After uploading the footage to Facebook, Stephens then reportedly went on Facebook Live to talk about the incident. 

According to a local CBS affiliate, Stephens, 37, lived in Euclid, Ohio, and worked at Beech Brook, a behavioral health agency that helped children and families in the area. His mother, Maggie Green, told CNN that her son was in social work and that the woman he was discussing in the video was his girlfriend of three years. Stephens admits in the video that he's killed at least 12 people, but police have only connected him to Godwin's death.

Authorities in the area believe that Stephens has been on the run since the video was posted at 2 PM local time and warned people in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, and Michigan to stay on the lookout for his white Ford Fusion. According to CNN, Stephens's last phone signal placed him in Erie, Pennsylvania. 

"He is considered armed and dangerous, so we want people to be careful out there," Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams told reporters.

Green said that her son came to her house on Saturday and told her it would likely be the last time he'd ever see her. After learning about the video on Sunday, Green called Stephens, and he reportedly told her that he was firing at random because he was "mad with his girlfriend." Police believe that Stephens and Godwin did not know each other.

"He is a good guy... He'd give you the shirt off his back, and I'm not just saying that for these cameras," Godwin's son, Robert Godwin Jr., told Cleveland 19 News. "I hate [that] he's gone... I don't know what I'm going to do... It's not real."

Although the incident wasn't streamed using Facebook Live, it's just the latest in a number of violent crimes broadcast on social media. In January, four teenagers were arrested in Chicago after torturing a mentally handicapped man on Facebook Live, and in February, a teenager who filmed her friend's rape on Periscope was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Facebook released a statement about the crime on Sunday, saying, "We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety."

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