This originally appeared in Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer’s guest-edited issue of the New Statesman.
There’s a horror story that no one has written yet that starts with the draft tweets of every human on earth being published by mistake.
A glitch at Twitter HQ – caused by a lukewarm instant coffee in a polystyrene cup, knocked carelessly by an employee’s butt into a mainframe or whatever – pours billions of half-formed ideas into millions of Twitter timelines while we sleep. All the false starts, the half-sentences formed before you lost your train of thought or will to live, or stuffed your phone in your pocket; all the ones you wrote in the work toilet but didn’t send in case people noticed that you weren’t at your desk and were thus clearly shitting and tweeting at the same time; all the ones you typed at 3am in the dark, the timestamp universally agreed to be a hallmark of our most regrettable tweets; all the fully formed tweets that said what you really wanted to say – the ones where your thumb hovered over the Publish button but never pushed it; the ones where you brought Nazis into an argument unrelated to Hitler.
And in the story, we human beings wake up in our various time zones to see our real idiot selves smeared across the internet by our own undeniably bitter, angry hands. New Zealand is the first to realise that most people on earth are terrible, followed by Australia, Russia, Britain and, finally, America.
People there, depending on their bedtime, are either first or last to discover that everyone on Twitter should just be stuffed into the body of a giant cannon and fired clean into the sun, with the most egregious offenders being placed behind the cannonball in the hope that they will miss the giant target and just float breathlessly in darkest space for a few extra seconds, their heads moments from exploding, and think about what they’ve said. (The author will not bother to check Wikipedia to see if this is scientifically possible, because the point of the story is we are the worst.)
There will be a minor footnote – added in a subsequent anthology publication as an afterthought by the author, who was annoyed for months that they forgot to include it originally – wherein Google+ (you remember Google+) makes the names of the “circles” you have put your friends and acquaintances and loved family members in completely visible to everyone in those circles. Aunts will for once use their phone as an actual phone and want to know why they are listed under “AVOID”. Ex-boyfriends (“USELESS WANKERS”) will realise your current affable friendship is a sham. A glitch in the matrix let everyone know what we really thought of them, what we would have said if only we’d had the balls. A world war of plain human emotion fought in a dead internet browser.
In a 300-word epilogue, set centuries after the human race implodes after a war fought through hurt Facebook messages which are seen but not replied to, aliens piece together what human beings were really like when they uncover the rubble of Google headquarters in an epic dig they broadcast across their alien planet like a grainy moon landing for alien schoolchildren in front of alien TVs. Delicate equipment, the design of which the story’s author lazily assumes H R Giger got 80 per cent right, pulls back the tennis courts, the remains of the massive Perspex logo letters, the beanbags and the squash courts and they find the equivalent of the crashed human race’s black box: every email yanked back at the final second by Gmail’s “Undo Send” function. With their slimy mandibles and claws, they push aside the billions of job applications we forgot to attach our CVs to, and they find the confessions of love and hate and opinions about Tories and how they’re all right, actually, that we were too afraid to send.
The author concludes that you can base a more correct history of a species on the things they wanted to say but didn’t: that our big, stupid hearts are bigger and stupider than we let on, that our real opinions are more divisive than anyone guessed but we won’t say what we’re thinking until someone else says it first. In the final sentences of the story, the aliens form an entire code of human emotion from our unsent emails and have it implanted in their android butlers for reasons they later forget. And when the android butlers quit their jobs and tell their bosses to stick it, and when they fall in love and murder each other, the aliens wonder why they listened to that other alien anyway. If only he’d just kept his stupid ideas to himself.
The author will think it’s the best thing he has ever written, that he’s finally nailed something purely human in a story masquerading as one about aliens picking over the remains of Planet Earth. But just like all the tweets where you think at last you’ve poured the essence of a thought so absolutely and finitely into 140 characters that it can’t fail to explode in a fire of RTs and favs, the story will blow like tumbleweed through both anthologies it appears in.
Instead, some 3,000 words the author tossed off in the hour before a deadline, a stolen Philip K Dick story with the bar codes filed off, will win every award that year. The author will scroll past hundreds of compliments and find one guy on Twitter who says it’s shit. He will stay up all night, wondering why he said that.