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.

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One thought on “Execution is cool but content is also important

  1. “‘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. ”

    I agree with you, but don’t see your comment as a critique. One thing that “Hafiz” does is it takes Twitter seriously as a storytelling platform. Cole aspires to capital “L” Literature with his work, as well he should given his standing in the literary world. I appreciate your desire to have the content match the form more exactly, but we should keep in mind that these types of evolutions are never straight lines. Writers experiment, try things, find out what works and what doesn’t, and then try something new. Absent the kind of aspirational work like Cole’s, Twitter, I’m afraid, would rightly be relegated to the cat pictures and cliches.

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