I just finished an interesting book called Marlena. It was a good story about a woman in her 30’s who looks back on events of her fifteenth year. It’s typical coming of age stuff: Girl meets friend who’s on a different level socially, they become best friends in spite of the differences, girl experiments with a different lifestyle, and friend dies young. Now the woman struggles with the past and, of course, the past comes back to haunt her. Like I said, pretty typical. However, it was well-written and enjoyable. Until…
YouTube and texting entered the picture. Obviously this is fine for the parts of the story that take place in the present day. However, in this novel, it was the characters from 15+ years ago who were using this technology. Uh-oh. YouTube wasn’t around then. Constant texting wasn’t prevalent, either, as many cell phones either didn’t have the capability or it was cumbersome to use. Most texters were BlackBerry addicts, not teenagers LOL’ing and OMG’ing everything in sight.
(Now, admittedly, it’s possible that the author intended for the older woman’s perspective to be set further in the future than 2017. If the narrator were in 2030 and looking back 15 years, this would make perfect sense. However, that was never made explicit so readers can only assume that the narration takes place in the present day.)
Ideally an editor should have caught these mistakes before the book went to press. However, the author really needed to be the front line of defense and ensure that her technological references were correct. Stuff like this happens often and Marlena should serve as a cautionary tale for writers.
I think errors in chronology are especially easy to make when it comes to technology, as is the case with Marlena. Technology changes so quickly that it’s difficult to keep straight what was around and when. This might be especially true for authors who’ve grown up with various technologies as part of their own lives. It’s easy to assume that if something has been around your entire life, then it must have been around before then, right?
It’s sometimes tough to remember that the internet (and other technologies like cell phones, wearables, DVR’s, and smart home products) have not been around forever. They’re so ingrained in our lives that it’s difficult to remember when they entered the picture. Making things even more difficult is the fact that technology advances exponentially. And on the other side, stuff falls out of favor or goes out of production just as fast. So, while a story set fifteen years ago (2002) could include references to the internet, YouTube didn’t appear until 2005. MySpace was all the rage in 2008 but was out of favor two years later.
The line between a technology being present and not is a fine one. It’s also possible that a technology existed, but in a more limited form than you now know. (Take the the difference between dial-up and broadband, for example. Both are internet, but what you can do on each is vastly different.)
Literally a year one way or the other in your story can make a big difference in what was available or popular for your characters.
The burden is on you to make sure you get it right because you can be sure that some of your readers will notice. Unfortunately, an error in your chronology can jar a reader out of the magical story you’re weaving and, in some cases, can cause them to put the book down altogether. They figure that if you can’t get the details right, why should they spend their time with you?
The way to avoid this, of course, is scrupulous research. Even setting your story in the distant past is no guarantee that you won’t get the technology chronology wrong. You don’t want your peasant farmers using steel ploughs before 1837 (the year John Deere invented the steel plough), for example.
Any time you set a story in the past you need to ensure that the technology references are correct. This applies not just to social media, but to appliances, tools, electronics, transportation, and forms of media like tape, records, etc. Don’t just assume that because something is popular and available today that this was the case even last year.