Affordances and Constraints of Twitter Fiction

Teju Cole wrote “Hafiz” as a Twitter story. He gave his friends lines to post and re-tweeted them in a specific order to create a story. What are some of the affordances and constraints of Twitter as a storytelling medium?

One of the affordances of Twitter stories is the impact of each tweet. Each tweet has a 140 character limit, so they cannot fit many words. However, Cole says it is similar to poetry in which “every single line has a certain punch and precision to it.” This is especially so because generally, the tweets are seen as separate beings. They are not combined to make one complete and meaningful story until they are connected on Cole’s timeline.For example, one of the tweets is, “Why tears? Because light is beautiful. Because we do not wish to leave something and stray away into nothing,” which can be seen as a very meaningful tweet even outside of its context in “Hafiz.”

However, I think this same aspect can also be seen as a constraint. In general, I think most of the tweets in “Hafiz” seem meaningless on their own. Actually, if I saw “‘Is it a heart attack?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Did you call 911?'” I would be very concerned about the Twitter user and what is happening in their personal life. Because Cole had his Twitter friends post for him and Cole himself retweeted, most people probably saw the lines individually and felt confused by them.

But the way that Cole spread his story through many different Twitter accounts can be seen as another affordance because it helps reach a much wider audience. Somebody could see the tweet that, for example, rob delaney posted and trace it to “Hafiz.” Especially because rob delaney is so Twitter famous and has over a million followers versus Cole which only has 13 thousand.

One more constraint of Twitter fiction is how temporary it is. What makes the story so amazing is the fact that it is on Twitter. If all the tweets were compiled into one paragraph, the story would lack impact. However, Twitter is not permanent. The value of Twitter’s stocks are dropping rapidly, and some are expecting Twitter to eventually go bankrupt which, in that case, Twitter would cease to exist. But even if something that dramatic does not happen, if one of Cole’s friends decides to delete their post from “Hafiz” then the story will be broken.

 

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#creativemisuse

It’s safe to say that Twitter Fiction is a creative misuse of the social media platform — when I think of Twitter, I think of it as a way for people to send out short updates to their followers about their daily lives or trite messages about one’s thoughts, not to share elaborate stories that span multiple tweets. The idea of telling a narrative through 140 character tweets is quite a novel idea, and one that not many have explored. Teju Cole was one of the first with his story “Hafiz,” a story about a man suffering from an attack of sorts while passersby look on. Cole sent out sentences of the story to friends to tweet out individually, in which he retweeted them in succession so that the whole narrative would be complete on his timeline.

Many of us in class voiced our disappointment in the fact that the story was not crowdsourced; not only is Twitter a perfect medium in which many people can contribute to one story, the style of the story also seemed to reflect a collaborative effort of sorts. Certain aspects of the story seemed to contradict each other or not make sense in the chronological order they were placed in, leading those who had read the story first to believe it was written by multiple people playing off each other. Part of the magic seemed to disappear when we realized that this story was artificially put together by Cole. It would have been really neat to see either a group of people deciding beforehand to contribute line by line (or tweet by tweet in this case) or a narrative composed of random tweets found by Cole. As mentioned in class, however, it would be extremely difficult to sort through the billions of tweets to create anything of literary merit.

In my honest opinion, I think that Twitter Fiction is innovative but not the most impactful or effective mode of storytelling. Most people on Twitter are not looking to read a story when they log on, and the constraints of the medium make it difficult to create a well-developed story. If anything, Twitter lends itself more to the style of poetry, as each tweet must be meaningful and carefully thought out.

Execution is cool but content is also important

I’ve been on Twitter for years, so Teju Cole’s “Hafiz” didn’t seem as visionary to me as it probably did in 2014 when the Wired article about his Twitter short story was written. Cole said that “I wanted the story to feel emergent, from a source that no one could have suspected. We generally haven’t thought of retweets as being like that.” but the fact of the matter was that it wasn’t emergent. That sense was artificially created and carefully cultivated by Cole. And, since there was nothing to tie the tweets together besides Cole’s retweeting of them in order, at the time the only way that Twitter users could’ve seen the full story was either by following all 31 chosen accounts or by carefully monitoring Cole’s retweets. Of course, now they’re handily collected on his account, but now they give the impression that the story was cultivated from random tweets found on the Internet, which is not correct. While I can see how his creation is a “strange little bit of magic”, I’m not necessarily enchanted. I think it would’ve taken advantage of the affordances of Twitter by perhaps including a special tag in each tweet and writing each as a clearly stand-alone sentence, then posing the challenge of reassembling the story to Twitter users, like a puzzle.

Not only did I feel that the execution could have been more interesting, but I also found the story interesting but not incredibly thought-provoking or substantial. To me, “Hafiz” is the product of a talented writer who was excited to take advantage of the affordances of a new platform but whose writing standards fell by the wayside in the face of his enthusiasm about writing a Twitter story. Content-wise, not much happens in the short story, which is definitely not because of the constraints of Twitter. I have read some wild (true) stories told on Twitter in a series of tweets, and I’m sure that a fictional story on Twitter could be told in a similarly gripping manner. Much of the charm of Twitter is its perceived spontaneity – you have a thought, you tweet it. “Hafiz” is a (thoughtful) commentary on the nature of life and death that feels more appropriate for a literature class than the punchy content usually found on Twitter.

But, that’s not to say that Cole’s Twitter fiction is not significant for its exploration of medium in storytelling – it is. I thought a lot about his comment that “actually, you’re the only person who sees those two tweets together because that’s your timeline”, and I think that the way he explored it by having a different user tweet each sentence was a unique utilization of the Twitter platform, but I personally feel that even more could be done to display the really cool affordances of Twitter.

Twitter narratives: failures and successes in crafting meaning

When considering a new storytelling medium, I think that it’s important to distinguish between merely using technology to present a story in a flashier (and perhaps somewhat gimmicky) way and genuine innovation for artistic purposes. For me, the main factor that pushes a work into the realm of the avant-garde is the use of the medium not simply to better catch the reader’s eye but to express meaning in a new way.

Of the Twitter narratives that I’ve encountered (Hafiz by Teju Cole, The Right Sort by David Mitchell, and @adelehugo by Peggy Nelson—thanks to Anna for pointing me to that last one), I’ve noticed a focus on four main affordances (or constraints, depending on how you look at it). Twitter narratives:

  1. Exist adjacent to other content on the website that is considered part of “real life”
  2. Are expressed through bite-sized increments (tweets)
  3. Are easy to connect to other online content (via hyperlinks)

Although item 1 is interesting both for its ability to incorporate narrative into daily life (touched on in Nelson’s interview and in one of my past blog posts) as well as to incorporate real-life stories into fictional narratives, it’s also easy for a narrative to be weakened by extraneous information. Extraneous information is the enemy of crafting meaning.

For me, “Hafiz” failed by virtue of item 1. Granted, I was unable to benefit from experiencing the story live as it peppered my Twitter feed, but there are other flaws apparent in this experiment. If the Twitter users had written their own lines of the story (or even just rewritten lines originally by Cole in order to reflect their own voices), their stories could have added a fascinating dimension to the narrative; but instead Cole had them tweet his prose word-for-word. The users’ stories still bleed through via their usernames, profile pictures, and how many likes and retweets their tweet got; but instead of being brought into the narrative subtly and purposefully, they spill forth unmediated and unacknowledged by Cole. Ultimately, I just don’t feel like my experience of the narrative benefits from hovering over @runtyreader’s Twitter handle to see their tagline “Don’t f*** with the old Chinese lady” or clicking over to @MisterSimian’s page to see the tweet “Thinking about setting up as a fishmonger.” Cole let what could have been an affordance turn into a constraint.

“The Right Sort,” in contrast, is defined mainly by item 2. Mitchell’s use of the medium is made explicit in one tweet:

“The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.”

It’s a simple analogy, but Mitchell builds on it to great effect. He presents us with a boyish narrator whose experience with Valium is conveyed through our experience with the medium of Twitter, whose thoughts we may imagine aren’t too difficult to fit into 140 characters, and whose building panic is elegantly expressed by a series of increasingly incoherent tweets at the end of the story. Mitchell unites medium, character, and writing style together to tell a coherent and engaging story.

@adelehugo is an impressive example of item 3. Although Twitter is the main vehicle that propels the reader through the story, Nelson uses a wide variety of elements (including text, photos, and videos on an Adele-associated tumblr, Nelson’s own website, and third-party websites like Vimeo) to convey meaning. Her meta opening tweet (“is this how it begins? with words, with a story?”) immediately places the narrative in a gray area between reality and fiction; the reader is aware of both Nelson writing the story of Adele and Adele telling her own story. This is followed by a tweet that hints at the project’s multimedia nature (“Photo: or with an image … ? http://tumblr.com/xwm20y5tk”).

In particular, I was struck by the Web 2.0 Truth Selector that Adele links to at one point. Depending on your response, the truth selector points you to a different webpage. “Hidden” takes you to a website criticizing Scientology; “the inestimable bright light of reason” takes you to definitions of “magnet” and “magnetism” that each depend on the other; and “in your mind’s eye” takes you to a webcomic by Nelson created using virtual avatars from Second Life.

These links have meaning. Seeing a website deconstructing the failings of a secretive body of religion makes you question whether the truth must be hidden. Circular definitions bring doubt as to what is “reason” really is. A webcomic with characters from a virtual world literally called “Second Life”  instills discomfort with the idea of living in the mind’s eye.

It’s hard to draw general conclusions about Twitter narratives, since each story makes use of different aspects of the medium and has a different structure; but creation of meaning should always be the end goal. If artists can work with Twitter’s innate qualities rather than against them in order to create meaning, we’ll begin to see some very unique and powerful stories.

I Don’t Like Twitter Fiction

I can see how Twitter can offer some affordances for collaborative story making. I actually think that hashtags could be used to organize stories in a way that allows readers access to new parts of the stories. However, this affordance comes with constraints. The organization of the hashtag would be limited to placing the story into one area. The tweets that comprise the story would still be jumbled based on the chronological order they are placed in. You could have one person tweet out all of the tweets to organize them like in Hafiz, you could reply to other parts to make a chain, or you could have multiple hashtags for each part of the story if it is meant to have branches. But in all of these, there is a lot of room for error and there are clearly better platforms for this type of collaboration, like Reddit and 4chan. Both of these can feed you a seamless stream of comments that can cumulate in a collaborative story.

As for simple individual story telling, Twitter offers very little in the way of affordances. The 140 character limit, in my opinion, in no way helps the effectiveness of sentences. They simply have to be condensed. As a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, I do not put much stock into the trait of being short and sweet. This sentence from The Colour Out of Space is 282 characters long:

“They were twitching morbidly and spasmodically, clawing in convulsive and epileptic madness at the moonlit clouds; scratching impotently in the noxious air as if jerked by some alien and bodiless line of linkage with subterrene horrors writhing and struggling below the black roots.”

I am sorry if this is ignorant, but a limit that would exclude Lovecraftian language is not something that I find appealing. While it may be simple and easy enough to make sentences that conform to the limit, I cannot get past the fact that there is a limit. Also, I find the jump from tweet to tweet jarring. Even if it is just scrolling down to the next tweet, for some reason the tweet format seems more independent than other types of post formats. Smooth transition is another reason why I would prefer 4chan or Reddit for the job of creating a collaborative work of fiction. Overall, I find myself unimpressed by Twitter fiction. I will definitely be creating a locative narrative for my next story.

Twitter Stories – Maybe not so special after all

I just want to start by recognizing that I was harsh on 7Scenes in my previous post. It wasn’t until I actually built a locative narrative that I able to appreciate the usefulness of this tool.

 

This past week we were introduced to Twitter fiction – stories told 140 characters at a time. This idea of constrained story writing was initially captivating, but upon further thought, seems much less revolutionary.

While Twitter offers some interesting possibilities, the fundamentals of the story are essentially the same. Unlike other mediums, like Twine or 7Scenes, the use of Twitter to tell a story doesn’t really add unique elements. It instead encourages a different style of writing in which complete thoughts must fit into 140 character bursts.

Surely, sentences bound by this 140-character limit must be difficult to craft, or at least flow in some memorable, poetic way. As a counterpoint to that misguided philosophy, I’d like to draw your attention, reader, to this very blog post. Every sentence transcribed here contains less than our Twitter character constraint, and yet was no more difficult to write. The only distinction Twitter offers is the self-contained nature of each thought, allowing stories to be narrated in a staccato fashion.

One underdeveloped feature of Twitter fiction is the potential to create a crowd-sourced novella. This tantalizing possibility was teased through Teju Cole’s Hafiz story, artfully designed to create the illusion of a collaborative work. This tale, secretly written by a single author and then publically tweeted by his friends, showcases the wonder of a crowd-sourced story. Each person who responds takes control of the narrative, but only briefly. While each user can only steer the story for one sentence, they have the power to drastically redirect the narrative. What makes this effort magical is that no one author knows the fate of the plot or the characters. Each scene is at the whimsy of the next author. Just like with ergodic literature, the reader and author overlap. Upon reaching the conclusion of the told story, the reader can chose to continue the plot in any direction, or simply leave it be. When the story has finished, readers can marvel at this collaborative work constructed by a group of complete strangers. While the story might not have gone the way any one of the authors envisioned, the result is a work of art. I think this collaborative story telling is one of the few affordances that Twitter lends, and I hope to see more works utilize it.

Storytelling for a broader audience

The notion of using twitter to tell a distributed story is very interesting and unique. As in every medium of storytelling, there are set affordances and constraints innately built within the technology. Through distributing lines of the story amongst a group of people and retweeting them in the narrative order, a story can be built and include a larger mass of people.

Teju Cole first experimented with this form of storytelling in his piece “Hafiz.” Several affordances that this medium gave Cole included the ability to reach out to a larger mass of people, having the ability to put more weight on individual sentences, and mobility. Mobility is very simple in the fact that people can read this text from anywhere in the world (with connection to the internet). The aspect of using other people and their followers to increase viewing audience is something I find unique to twitter. In dividing the story up into sentences, Cole was able to utilize the followings of the other twitter users to expand the group of people who read his story. It was remarked that some of the people who posted lines of the story had very large followings, one of which had over 1 million.

Another affordance of using twitter to distribute a story is the ability to put more weight in individual sentences. In a novel or long paragraphs of text, individual sentences tend to blend in amongst them all and while some do contribute thought provoking notions continuing the novel, many remain unanalyzed. In the twitter interface every sentence or few sentences is visually divided as well as spatially. In this way every sentence can be written in a more meaningful manner. Cole remarked that this medium felt more like writing poetry in that every few lines could be written to stand alone.

There is tremendous possibility in storytelling through social media. Cole provides the perfect example of creative misuse in utilizing twitter’s capabilities to tell a short narrative he created. However, it is very clear that steps forward could be made in having many writers work together to compile a great piece through social media, where they can establish a large presence.

Everyday Narratives

Twitter is a very interesting medium. Past the one obvious constraint of 140 characters, Twitter has many affordances. It is elegant in its simplicity, yet not clear on its purpose. Many people are not sure what Twitter is for, and some struggle to understand its utility. You don’t post photos like Instagram, you don’t plan events like Facebook, and you can’t have discussions like forums.  So what then, do I use Twitter for?

The narrative we read this week opened my eyes to Twitter’s place in social media. Teju Cole’s story “Hafiz” was an experiment of telling a story through Twitter. Many people contributed fragments of a story that really only make sense in one collective context. People could have witnessed parts of Cole’s story live, but it was incomplete until Cole pulled it all together.

This I think reveals something deeper about about the nature of Twitter. In an interview with Cole discussing Twitter, he says:

“I’m also fascinated by this thing that happens on Twitter: A friend of yours in Singapore tweets something and then someone in San Francisco tweets something, and they’re not tweeting at each other—actually, you’re the only person who sees those two tweets together because that’s your timeline. And yet they speak to each other in a funny kind of way.”

In a way, this describes every Twitter feed as a narrative of some sort. A narrative we construct, where we choose the characters, and follow them in real-time. The live element of Twitter makes this feed incredibly interesting, where the people you follow experience different events, that may at times crossover. What Cole did was hide a story that only he could see, making a 31 person crossover event. He then shows what he hid by retweeting them in order. This experiment was in a way creative misuse, but ultimately revealed the genius of everyday narrative aggregation.

Distributive Twitter Fiction With a Twist

The idea Twitter fiction, stories told through Twitter, is a unique way of looking at how we as a society tell stories. The medium that is Twitter forces the author to make every sentence meaningful and enough to make someone wait until the next tweet to find out what happens next. In Teju Cole’s Twitter story “Hafiz,” he gave out tweets to his friends that he had already written out. However, when I was reading the story, the style of the story seemed to change a couple times, based on who was tweeting it.

Whether we mean to or not, we interpret tweets based on their perceived writer. If it’s someone you know, you might read it in their voice, if all you see is a picture; that may change how you read the tweet. This I think is an important part of Twitter because it gives everyone a unique persona within the medium. Additionally, in Cole’s interview with Wired, he says that a strange phenomenon occurs when you read through your Twitter feed. In an experiment such as this, two people from different locations tweet something and “they’re not tweeting at each other-actually, you’re the only person who sees those two tweets together because that’s your timeline. And yet they speak to each other in a funny kind of way.”

This idea brings up what I would think is an interesting experiment. I would like to see someone try to recreate Cole’s story experiment but with an additional twist. Instead of prewriting all the lines, allow each person change the voice or language in which the line is read while keeping the main idea of the tweet the same. Now, you really would have a story that is tweeted by different people and actually reflects the different voices and points of view that people have. And thus these people from different places in the world are seemingly talking to each other in their own vernacular but part of the same story.

Apples to apples

Compared to some of the other storytelling media we’ve looked at so far, we haven’t been able to spend nearly as much time discussing Twitter and some of the more experimental storytelling that has taken place on that platform. To supplement this, I ended up Googling “twitter narrative” and reading a few of the articles that popped up, which were primarily interviews with artists like the one we read with Teju Cole. It took a little while to wade through the results looking for pages that were relevant, but I eventually stumbled across an old 2010 interview with Peggy Nelson, a “new media artist who has spent the last several years doing digital and virtual storytelling”. I’d recommend checking it out if you have the time, even if you don’t get around to viewing her work.

Peggy Nelson has worked with Twitter as well as with digital locative media, animation, and even PowerPoint. She describes herself as a new media artist “with a focus on episodic, decentralized storytelling”.  Although we didn’t explicitly use the word “episodic” in our discussion of Teju Cole’s Twitter fiction, we touched on this idea when we discussed the way each sentence Cole tweeted was isolated and exposed to a much greater extent than a sentence in a traditional short story would have been. Each tweet that makes up a larger narrative like this can be seen as a micro-episode of a story. This is especially true for those experiencing a Twitter narrative in real time.

About halfway through, the interviewer asked about Peggy’s work with new and nontraditional storytelling media.

“When I joined Twitter, I realized that the people who use it are checking it pretty consistently throughout the day. So I want to make an art project specifically for this medium that these people are checking anyway. I wasn’t thinking, “Okay, no one is reading The Atlantic anymore, so I’m going to substitute with something like this.” I was thinking, “Okay, people are using this a lot. It’s creeping up to be a bigger part of their day and more of what they’re thinking about.” So I want to put art in there as well […]”

 By the time I was halfway through reading this paragraph, little blog post sirens were going off in my head. In just a few sentences, she was able to put into words something that I had been struggling with for most of the semester. The point she makes here is that “traditional” storytelling in, say, a newspaper or a poetry anthology is not mutually exclusive from “nontraditional” storytelling like Twitter fiction or mobile locative media.  These new methods of telling stories are ways to bring narrative and art into activities we already spend our time doing, not necessarily to replace other media. If you’re going to spend five minutes on the toilet scrolling through your timeline anyway, why not experience narrative through a new lens?

So while I believe that our critiques of newer storytelling media (like 7Scenes or The Martian: Bring Him Home) are absolutely legitimate, I’m not sure how valuable it is to compare them to their traditional media counterparts. Instead, it might be more useful to compare mobile apps to other mobile apps and the way each of those experiences navigates the affordances and constraints of a mobile device.