Maybe it’s best to begin in 2007, with an article in the New York Times about a “new, free communications service called Twitter.” It’s one of those delightful Times tech pieces that looks so, well, ancient as it matter-of-factly chronicles a digital trend that’s become commonplace, even ubiquitous, in a relatively short space of years. It was published a few weeks after that year’s SXSWi festival, during which Twitter (age: 1) was the big hit. The takeaway quote is from science fiction writer Bruce Sterling: “Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite The Iliad.”
Let’s look now, then, at Twitter (age: 8). We’ve obviously heard Sterling’s sort of derision plenty in the past decade (I’m contractually obligated to mention Jonathan Franzen here: it starts with his “ultimate irresponsible medium” comments and goes on (and on) from there) and we certainly still hear it today. But it feels a little useless to keep banging on about whether we should use Twitter: it’s so deeply interwoven into the fabrics of many of our personal and professional lives that the question feels a step out-of-date. Twitter is a medium now, irresponsible or not, and divorced from moral proclamations, it’s much more interesting to see how it’s being used. And whether, a thousand internet lifetimes since it made its debut in Austin, we’re still just as unlikely to fire up the CB radio and hear some guy recite The Iliad.
Perhaps the question will be answered by this year’s #TwitterFiction Festival (age: 3). It begins today, and it’s a co-production of the social network itself and some stalwarts of the analog book world, Penguin Random House and the Association of American Publishers. The pull quote: “The platform is a powerful tool for more than sharing news and telling the realities of everyday life. It’s a place where fiction thrives.” The cynical bit of me would take the opportunity to say, “Yes, fictions certainly do thrive on Twitter” — I think of all the disappointments of those unfurling hoaxes, fake things that turned out even faker, @Horse_ebooks and @GSElevator and that guy who “confronted” that awful woman on a pre-Thanksgiving flight a few months back. Or worse, actual misinformation, news misrepresented or outright misreported, for speed or, in rarer cases, with malicious intent. But there is good on Twitter, certainly, and beyond connections and communication, people are testing things out. Jokes hit big; poetry thrives; satire, in the form of the parody account, never seems to get old.
But then there’s fiction — and I am not completely convinced that it’s “thriving” on Twitter yet, but it’s certainly evolving well beyond the “experimental” stunt, and that’s exciting. One could argue that parody accounts are a mode of fiction — the #TwitterFiction Festival does, along with “Images/Vine,” amongst other categories — but I’m more interested in the ways that traditional written narratives can work with — and succeed within — the form. One of the earliest high-profile stories delivered via tweets was Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters” for Electric Literature in 2009. And then, three years later, the Twitter story a lot of us are most likely to cite: Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” in the 2012 (science) fiction issue of The New Yorker. That one was tweeted by The New Yorker fiction department in installments at announced times, much like the Moody story, but was also published in a linear format in the magazine itself. (The full disclosure here was that I had the miserable task of turning the print story to a web one — that was my role in the digital production department there for several years. Words can’t express how silly it felt wrangling tweets laid out in print into a non-Twitter — yet still digital — format.)
A smile is like a door that is both open and closed.
— New Yorker Fiction (@NYerFiction) June 3, 2012
Do either transcend gimmickry? Well, there are interesting things to look at with both of them. Moody told the Wall Street Journal that he composed his story in tweet-like spurts in the first place: “I wanted to try to write something very up-to-the-minute, that made use of the Twitter form, instead of writing something in the ordinary way and just carving it up into 140 character chunks (which is cheating, I think). The plot followed naturally upon this wish.” He likely faced the challenge of the economy of characters that plagues overly-wordy people like me every time we try to tweet, and Electric Lit praised him for the result, saying that, “The Twitter story helps to highlight the extreme attention to language a great short story writer is likely to pay.” Egan also gave herself constraints, but paradoxically, she drafted her digital story on paper — an image of her notebook shows sentences scribbled into wireframe-like grids. By way of introduction to the project, she cites a few different things she was trying to experiment with, the last of which was “serialization” on Twitter: “This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one — because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.” The cellphone novel, which emerged in Japan and continues to flourish both in and outside of East Asia, is now more than a decade old. Twitter, of course, originated from SMS messaging — it’s the reason for the character limit — and relinking these forms gives the conception of the story even more cohesion.
There’s no single correct way to use any social media platform. But for me, despite some of the successful elements of these stories, there’s just something about them feels…off. It’s in the delivery, not in the writing itself, because for me and for many on Twitter, the platform is more organic than this: there’s a spontaneity to its rhythms, to the memes and the quick exchanges, the truest expression of “viral,” for better or worse. If you follow a fair number of relatively active users, it often feels as though every tweet you manage to catch is a feat of pure chance: you switch tabs and navigate back a minute later and it’s “35 new Tweets,” and they unscroll in one enormous deluge, and then another pops in, and another. If you’re not on Twitter or have bad feelings about it, I’m likely not selling it to you here. But it’s sometimes that pure chance that’s so bewitching — some little gem that you just happen to catch can feel almost serendipitous.
All of this is compounded by the strange, somewhat warped sense of time in the digital age. I’ve been acutely aware of my five-hour displacement since moving across the ocean, and it’s more noticeable on Twitter than on other social media platforms — the list of accounts I follow is so American-centered (really even so East Coast-centered) that my feed is sparse and plodding for most of the business day — it’s lively in my late afternoon, and seems to heat up as I’m going to bed. I see the world unfolding in real time — but in someone else’s time. This has yet to stop feeling weird, and often a bit alienating. So I’ve been working to become a bit more active on social media here in my time-displacement, reaching out across a chasm that feels like it can be sewn up, at least a little bit, one tweet at a time. Then one afternoon in early January, I started to notice something curious happening on my Twitter feed. A series of seemingly — bafflingly! — connected retweets were popping up, a few of them from people I know but most of them from strangers, and they appeared to be telling a story.
. . . to the subway, I saw a man on the ground. He sat on the sidewalk, under trees, with his feet out to the quiet street.
— rünty reader (@runtyreader) January 8, 2014
The retweeter was Teju Cole, and the tweets told the story of a man collapsed on the ground, and a bystander who tries to help him. For one foolish moment, I believed that this was some totally miraculous game of exquisite corpse — that Cole was somehow curating a crowdsourced story that was being spun by a talented group of people on the spot. I later learned it was actually the exact opposite: he had used the crowd to tell a story — entitled “Hafiz” — that he had drafted beforehand. He told the Times that the piece was “a creative cousin to works like Shelley Jackson’s ‘Skin,’ a 2,095-word story that was told one tattooed word at a time on the bodies of 2,095 volunteers.” A retweet is nothing more than a single click — obviously nothing so extreme as a tattoo — but it is a curious device in itself, one Cole was interested in exploring. “I was fascinated by how clean a retweet can be, how you can make someone else present on your timeline,” he said. “This is usually a cause for anxiety (an anxiety people express with the plea ‘retweets are not endorsements’), but I thought it could also be an occasion for grace, for doing something unusual together.”
One of the participants was actually fellow Millions staffer Mark O’Connell, and I got in touch to ask about, as he put it, “the nuts and bolts.” “Like you, I was watching it unfold on my timeline for a while anyway and was really interested in what he was doing,” Mark told me. “He sent me a DM asking if I’d participate by tweeting a line he’d written, which I was totally happy to do, because it was cool to be a part of something clever and innovative like that.”
“How did he get into that position?” “He lay down there.” “Lay how? Did he bang his head?” “He lay down there like someone going to sleep.”
— Mark O’Connell (@mrkocnnll) January 8, 2014
Upon my further request, Mark got a bit more analytical, and he picked up on what Cole stated outright that he was going for — the disruption of a retweet on a timeline:
I think one of the reasons it worked as well as it did was that it actually used the medium to do something odd and original that could only really arise in that medium…I had a sense of the experience of my Twitter timeline being interrupted or unsettled in some quite interesting way. I remember noticing the retweets, and feeling that there was something that set them apart from everything else in my timeline — some quality of out-of-placeness that was more than just the ordinary out-of-placeness of retweets. I guess what I’m trying to get at is the sense that the story, or narrative, felt like an artfully estranging intrusion into a particular and familiar context. I think the ephemerality you mention is pretty crucial too; like, what I thought was maybe most interesting about it was the relationship between the initial appearances of these (for want of a better word) utterances in the timeline – that fragmentariness – and then the coming together of those fragments into a whole once you realized what was going on, and pursued them to their source – or maybe destination? But basically it was just gratifying and exciting to see the fragmentary experience of Twitter being turned to artistic account in that sort of way.
A few weeks later, we watched Cole playing with immediacy in real time, retweeting random peoples’ tweets with certain phrases in batches — they were collected later, as “A Ghazal In This Moment” and “A Ghazal For Now,” amongst others. There’s something crucial that’s lost when you look at them after the fact, though; this is all performance art, in a way, and the real coup is to see him in the act — in this moment, as it were.
But we can’t spend all day glued to our feeds. The Egan story can be revisited now and read in its entirety, though I found it strangely hard to find — The New Yorker’s put it back behind the paywall, so I wound up scrolling through two years of @NYerFiction tweets to find them. But if it’s simply a story split into pieces, I feel like the novelty of putting it up on Twitter has worn off — though it remains an interesting exercise, paring down character counts to refine language.
The #TwitterFiction Festival runs for four days, and while many (if not all?) of the participants appear to be pre-scheduled, that doesn’t preclude some spontaneity — and perhaps they’ve even got a few secret tricks planned. They’ve got a great and varied line-up on board, from Emma Straub to Alexander McCall-Smith, and they’ve been teasing at a variety of different approaches for weeks. Will they break any new ground? The surest way to tell is to watch your Twitter feed. All tweets may be archived forever in the Library of Congress, but if past Twitter fiction experiments are any indicator, the best way to feel a tweet’s full impact is to catch it just as your feed drops down and the notification pops up: “1 new Tweet.”