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 … ?”).

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.


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