Let’s talk about the word “friend.” We often throw the term around loosely, especially on social media. But if you’re newly entering the publishing industry, especially if you’re a young adult or if you’re not neurotypical, a lot of the nuances of these social interactions aren’t clear. If someone had told me upfront when I entered the industry that, when people say “friend,” they don’t always mean “friend,” that would’ve saved me a lot of heartbreak.
So I’m here to lay all this out explicitly now, in the hopes that this is a positive way to process and to save others a bit of pain.
First of all, let’s break down what “friend” is shorthand for within genre publishing. It usually means “acquaintance,” which better characterizes the casual and occasional nature of many relationships within the industry. “Colleague” is also a more accurate descriptor of many professional relationships that get subsumed into the term “friend.” Finally, “mutual” describes a particular Twitter relationship that can often become the basis of a friendship: a mutual is someone you follow who also follows you. Each of these relationships is different and implies different levels of intimacy and appropriateness—yet it’s common for people to collapse all these categories into the term “friend.”
That might sound appealing at first. After all, who doesn’t want friends? But there are a couple problems with that.
The first is that the social spaces in genre publishing are often mixed spaces, where the context is already muddled. If you go to a professional association’s annual conference, you know you’re in a professional setting and should conduct yourself accordingly. If you go to a nightclub and party, you know you’re in a personal setting where a different set of behaviors is acceptable. But if you go to a science fiction and fantasy convention, where there are fans and professionals sharing space and a multitude of activities requiring different levels of formality, including bar and party settings, the context becomes less clear.
What’s considered appropriate conduct in genre spaces varies a lot, and the expectations aren’t always articulated up front. On top of that, we’re an industry with a lot of people who have emotional baggage about being excluded in some way, often for our niche interests, so people are quick to extend the term “friend” in hopes of inviting more people in. And we tend to be conflict-averse in part because of that—see Five Geek Social Fallacies for a background on common conflict-avoidance behavior.
Regardless of what terms other people are using, it’s important to take a step back and assess what the actual nature of your relationship is. Are you mere acquaintances? Then you might not feel comfortable sharing your deepest vulnerabilities. Are you colleagues? Then you might want to decline having alcoholic drinks as a matter of courtesy, if only to keep you level-headed and professional. Are you mutuals? Remember, that’s not inherently the same as being friends. If you’re mutuals, maybe the most appropriate activities are to go to the panels that interest you and other programming that channels your fannish interests.
“Friend” implies a degree of emotional intimacy that doesn’t necessarily exist with the terms “acquaintance,” “colleague,” or “mutual.” And that’s where the second danger lies: whether consciously or not, some people can use the term “friend” to override your boundaries. Having boundaries is a good thing. After all, you have a door to your home that you can open and shut depending on who you want to allow into your space and when. Leaving your door open to the elements and anyone regardless of their intent toward you is a recipe for danger and disaster.
There are a few behaviors to watch out for that I’ve encountered a lot more on Twitter and in genre spaces than in my other day-to-day life activities. Many of the conflicts that arise out of these behaviors are often rooted in misconstruing the nature of a relationship or of friendship.
Bonding over trauma
This is when you and another person spend a lot of time processing trauma that you’ve both been through. This is not an inherently bad thing—after all, healing doesn’t happen without acknowledgement of one’s trauma and its impact, and friends are often a crucial part of that journey. Plus, a lot of writers use their work to process trauma they’ve experienced. But real friends will call you out when you’re engaging in harmful behavior, whether toward yourself or others.
People who bond over trauma commiserate about their struggles, but don’t necessarily encourage each other to break destructive cycles. These are the conversations that go, “I know I shouldn’t do this, but trauma, am I right?” Beyond that, bonding over trauma depends on constant revictimization in order to keep having something to bond over. It’s a relationship based on mutual enabling. It may be liberating to feel like you have someone who understands you, but if your relationship with that person keeps you doing things that make you miserable, is that truly friendship?
People who bond over trauma may also encourage you to share things about yourself that you might not feel comfortable sharing. That discomfort comes from you encountering one of your boundaries. True friends respect your boundaries, while those who are only interested in mining you for your trauma will ignore your discomfort, even going so far as to disguise their prying as concern. Sometimes people are unaware that they’re crossing bondaries, but there are also people who maliciously look for such vulnerabilities so they have power over others.
Although love bombing is usually a term found in dating contexts, it applies to the genre world as well. I will be extremely upfront and say that this happens a lot more in queer spaces and women-majority spaces in genre, mostly because rape culture conditions people to be more suspicious of men who lavish any kind of attention on anyone, and to almost negligently overlook the same behavior in people who aren’t men.
It’s common for those of us meeting like-minded people in genre to feel excitement and like we’ve found a place where we belong. Especially when we’re marginalized in some way and we feel like we finally have people who understand our exact experiences. But there’s a difference between the excitement of bonding with someone new and the overwhelming onslaught of attention that is love bombing.
It’s often very difficult to articulate the discomfort around love bombing. After all, it’s positive attention, right? What’s there to complain about? But the true end goal of love bombing isn’t to establish a mutually respectful relationship, but to create a debt of validation that the manipulator uses to control the one they’re love bombing.
So, what does that actually look like? For me, it looked like stepping into queer spaces in genre and being told by near strangers how awesome I am, how great I am, how they love me. I believe the word “love” can be used platonically between people, but, at the same time, I’m not going to tell someone I’ve spoken to twice that I love them, because that’s just not enough time for me to distinguish “love” from “like.” In any case, the end goal wasn’t necessarily to build me up so I can go on with my career like a badass. At best, people who love bomb have poor boundaries and have trouble managing their emotions. At worst, people who love bomb intentionally step over boundaries and make people uncomfortable in a way that is plausibly deniable in order to have power over them.
Conflating you with your social media presence
Social media lulls us into a false sense of intimacy online, because people are more available and often more willing to show their vulnerability than via other outlets. But you are not your social media. Your Twitter shows only a sliver of your life and who you are. Your presence or absence there doesn’t imply anything about you as a person. Whether or not you comment on something doesn’t imply whether or not you care, or whether or not you’re taking any action.
Yet you will see people on Twitter who are outraged that a certain figure hasn’t commented on a scandal, or that, because someone liked a certain tweet, they must be endorsing the message of the tweet. Silence is very often taken as agreement, even if you’re having a health crisis and can’t be on Twitter—like what happened when “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Falls was published in Clarkesworld and editor Neil Clarke wasn’t present to moderate the initial conversation. Social media outrage happens to even the most respected figures in the industry, nevermind those just getting started who can get caught in the crossfire.
Some people will even go so far as to say that blocking, following or unfollowing, and muting people on Twitter signals a certain belief on your part. But that is patently untrue. The block, unfollow, and mute tools exist on Twitter and other social media for you to curate your space and make it a pleasant experience for you. There’s nothing morally outrageous about locking your door when you get home, and curating your Twitter space with these tools is a social media equivalent of that.
Which leads into the last point I want to make: Twitter and social media aren’t the only way people network and communicate in genre. If I block someone on Twitter, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to talk via another method. I make my email abundantly available for that purpose, because I might not enjoy someone’s social media feed even if I otherwise enjoy working with them, and I’d like to offer a private and long-form avenue of communication that allows more detail and nuance, as well as confidentiality.
Harsh as it may sound, Twitter is not your friend. In fact, most people in this industry are not your friend. But that’s a good thing—if you spend all your time fussing on the social niceties side of being friends with everyone, you’re left with little energy for yourself and your work. In the end, what brought you to this industry was not the desire to make friends, but to share what you have to say. Guard your heart and attention to give yourself the strength to carry your dreams through to reality.