#TwitterFiction: Endless Possibilities in 140 Characters or Less

Twitter may have just finished its first official Fiction Festival, but the 140-character social media has always been pushing the boundaries when it comes to telling stories

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Writer Jennifer Egan attends Festival America on Sept. 23, 2012 in Paris.

If you’ve spent a lot of time on Twitter this past weekend, you might have noticed the hashtag #twitterfiction. That’s because of something called the Twitter Fiction Festival, a five day “virtual event” that, in the words of the company’s Andrew Fitzgerald, promoted Twitter as “a frontier for creative experimentation,” with writers from five continents writing everything from real-time murder mysteries to 140 character poetry — with Tweet epitaphs and remixed Shakespeare in there, along the way — across the course of the weekend. While the festival made for some great reading — Elliott Holt’s effort, in particular was both enjoyable and something that could only really be done on Twitter, allowing readers to unpack (and try to solve) a mystery from the various pieces offered up by three different participants in their tweets — the idea of using Twitter as a new way of telling stories has been around almost as long as Twitter itself.

It was, after all, less than three years between the creation of Twitter (which opened for business in March 2006) and the launch of Nanoism — what its creator, Ben White, describes as “the first non-genre Twitter fiction publication.” Talking about the inspiration behind the online publication, White told me that “at the end of 2008, Twitter as a creative medium had shown up in the [New York Times] in an article  about people posting as fictional characters (from Mad Men) on Twitter. I already wrote and loved flash fiction. It gave me the idea to post single tweet stories, each one a piece that would stand alone. Turns our there were a handful (literally) of people doing the same… It was fulfilling enough that after about a month I wanted to encourage others to do the same, so I started Nanoism.”

Now, almost four years later, Nanoism has become the longest-continuously running publication on Twitter with more than 500 published pieces under its belt. But the origins of Twitter fiction as a medium separate from — and, potentially, equal to — traditional prose go back further than Nanoism’s 2009 launch. White pointed to the 2008 launch of an online publication dedicated to speculative fiction from Twitter called Thaumatrope in addition to the NYT piece that inspired him, and a year before either of those, Oregon-based cartoonist Dylan Meconis found herself creating what may well have claim to being the first narrative to truly explored the interactive potential of Twitter as a medium.

“Twitter was new, and I thought it was neat but I was horrified by the concept of micro-blogging my personal existence,” she explained in an email. “And I felt like my writing practice was locking up a little; I wanted to do something spontaneous where I wasn’t worried about a certain structure or product, just an experiment.” The immediate result was @DameJetsam, the Twitter account of a fictional character that Meconis describes as “little diary excerpts from an anonymous shipwreck victim who’s just washed ashore on an abandoned island, gradually building up to [reveal] that this person was female, young, and was a prisoner being transported either to or from the Australian penal colonies in the 19th century. I think I had been reading some Sarah Waters at the time, and I love text-based games, so that’s where I started from.”

And then, to her surprise, other people joined in.

“An anonymous person started posting as SirFlotsam, writing on a concurrent timeline and setting — and apparently as a character that mine had obliquely mentioned early on. From there a bunch of other accounts started cropping up and playing along, run by various people (at least three others, some running multiple characters), and it kept going for months, building into this big and kind of remarkably coherent Victorian supernatural romance thing,” Meconis said. “To this day I only really know the identity of one of the other authors; everybody else is still a mystery… Some of the final reveals were really just intuited — the person running SirFlotsam was deeply pleased when I figured out who that character really was. It all came to a head in a span of 24 hours, and we essentially finished a book together.”

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The success of Meconis’s narrative — specifically, that it became a democratic process, outside of the control of any one person, and that it was an ongoing, unfolding story that simultaneously takes advantage of and subverts what people expect from the format — showcase what makes Twitter unique as a narrative medium, and what separates it from other forms of prose storytelling.

That last part, that Twitter fiction recognizes what makes Twitter “work” as a social media tool is important to the Twitteratti. When author Jennifer Egan serialized a story she’d written for The New Yorker on Twitter (rhapsodizing ahead of time about “the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and… the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters“), she faced criticism for failing to understand how Twitter actually worked, whether it was the story’s hermetic lack of interaction with other Tweeters, the regularly scheduled updates or disinterest in the medium as anything other than story engine, as opposed to the more honest chaotic and non-sequiter-filled commentary that “real” Twitter often reads as. Writer Anne Trubek put it best: “Good experiments, literary or otherwise, should begin with a strong familiarity with form. One expects a novelist to have read novels; one expects a Twitter fiction writer to have read tweets, maybe even written them.”

Despite such criticism, Egan’s description of Twitter fiction as possessing a particular intimacy isn’t as out of step with those who are more familiar with Twitter’s particular quirks. Nanoism’s Ben White has described one of its appeals as providing “stories that fit in the cracks of your day,” going on to describe it as “a process of literary distillation, of taking something big and unwieldy and concentrating until it fits on a cellphone screen or in a Twitter screen between shared links and the intricacies of people’s bowel movements.” Teju Cole, another writer who has come to attention for his stories on Twitter, also talked about the distillation required to write stories in so small a space — as well as the collaborative element necessary for them to work. “I found that there was so much that you could take out of a story, a great deal more than you might imagine, and still have it be a coherent story,” he told NPR in April of this year. “So, there’s a spray-painter, there’s a policeman somewhere near him who fires into the air, and gravity does the rest. I don’t have to conclude the story, because it concludes itself in your head.”

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Writers needing to surrender sole authorship of their work? Readers required to become involved in their reading material in a different way than they’re used to, whether in creating their own climactic moments to an ambiguously short sole Tweet, or searching multiple accounts to keep track of a story with multiple narrators (or even writers)? If this is beginning to seem as if Twitter fiction is an entirely different beast from traditional prose that requires a different skill set to fully appreciate, then you may be comforted (or not) to know that the experts agree with you. In a study that appeared in the Educational Forum earlier this year entitled Twitteracy: Tweeting as a New Literary Practice, Michigan State University professors Christine Greenhow and Benjamin Gleason make the case that Twitter is, as Greenhow put it in an interview with the Detroit News, “changing the way we experience what we read and what we write.”

Citing studies that “suggest the complex interrelationship that may be developing between traditional, print-based literacy skills and standards and new social literacy practices that traverse online and offline spaces,” the authors conclude that “tweeting practices may also encourage the development of 21st century skills, such as information literacy skills.” They explain, “A tweet stream is a constantly evolving, co-constructed conversation. Establishing a presence and inserting oneself into the conversation requires understanding conventions that have arisen in the community and deciding when and how to use them to support one’s purposes.” Revisiting criticisms about Jennifer Egan’s approach to Twitter, consider Trubek’s complaint that the writer misunderstood how Twitter interacts with traditional serialized narratives once complete: “Egan claims the experiment is an attempt to bring back serialization, a statement which truly vexes me. Serialization is dependent on building up suspense, something that a story that one reads backwards [as Twitter timelines necessitate] does not create.”

This past weekend’s official Fiction Festival shone a welcome spotlight on many good writers and a lot of fun projects, but in many ways, it sold the potential of Twitter as a narrative medium entirely short. Like all good social media, Twitter is a growing, evolving medium and Twitter fiction is constantly mutating. From Jeff Noon’s psychedelic haiku-like shorts to fans continuing their favorite TV shows long after they’ve gone off-air to random and wonderful media satires that only a few will truly understand, Twitter’s potential to tell stories great or small, personal or universal, has barely been scratched. Hashtagged and given company approval and announcement or not, Twitter’s Fiction Festival is always happening, with an endless amount of stories out there to be discovered — and written.