October 4, 2015

O’BRIEN | Twitterature: Twitter as Literature

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By KATIE O’BRIEN

Twitter can be a lot of things: a news aggregator, a place to follow the musings of public figures, a powerful platform for citizen journalism, the originator of hilarious jokes and a hotbed for trolls. It’s a space to showcase your thoughts and beliefs, as well as a great exercise in brevity. And, I’d argue, it’s an emerging 21st century literary form.

Twitter is a proponent of its own literary potential; each year since 2012, Twitter has partnered with the Association of American Publishers and Penguin Random House to hold a #TwitterFiction Festival: five days during which published authors and amateur writers alike create original stories in the form of 140-character-or-less tweets. Its website gives many examples of ways to create fiction on Twitter: through parody accounts, crowdsourcing, images/Vines, narrative/poetry and multiple characters/handles. The festival encourages participants to think of #TwitterFiction as “perhaps something more than just tweeting out a narrative line-by-line” — in other words, to create fiction in a way that is unique to Twitter and therefore pushes the boundaries of what we understand literature to be, as opposed to simply using Twitter as a platform to post traditional narratives in bits.

As part of the 2015 #TwitterFiction festival, Margaret Atwood wrote a short story in tweets called “Film Previews on A Plane: The Helpful Summaries.” She compiled phrases from previews of movies about planes to form a cohesive, philosophical musing. Celeste Ng used pictures as well as words to tell a story of finding someone’s notes to a lover, written on post-its hidden in relevantly-titled books. The narrator of the story wondered if the lover ever read them. Ng’s story mimicked the style of live-tweeting real life events, simply applying the concept to a story she made up.

Independent of the yearly festival, some authors are embracing the experimentation and creative challenges that Twitter both allows and forces. A few years ago, Teju Cole published “Seven short stories about drones,” each its own tweet, each alluding to a classic work of literature. Tweets included: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s”; “Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable” and “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone” — all first lines of classic novels rewritten to allude to the death and destruction of drone warfare, a specifically 21st-century problem. And of course, by the nature of social media, literature on Twitter is interactive and collaborative: One user tweeted his own story back at Cole: “Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams to be blown apart by a missile.”

Fragmented narratives, multiple perspectives, a blend of highbrow and lowbrow culture and a preoccupation with consumerism and technology are signature traits of postmodern literature. Twitter then, is the the ultimate post(post-post?) modern form. Writing something that resonates with a mere 140 characters is an inherently literary task, and tossing it out into a giant virtual hivemind hosted by a large corporation and funded by advertisements is, well, very 21st century. Millions use Twitter daily to tell stories of their real lives, and it’s proving to be an exciting new medium for telling fictional stories as well.

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Midnight Radio appears alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at kobrien@cornellsun.com.

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