2013-05-22

How Twitter Is Reshaping The Future Of Storytelling

We might have fewer characters to work with, but we still hunger for narrative. New mediums aren’t destroying fiction, they’re allowing us to innovate even more in how we create and consume our stories. Plus: an appearance by John Hodgman!

Every five days, a billion tiny stories are generated by people around the world. Those messages aren’t just being lost in the ether, like the imaginary output of monkeys randomly attempting to produce the works of Shakespeare. Instead, the tweets are being archived by the Library of Congress as part of the organization’s mission to tell the story of America. The archive now includes 170 billion posts and counting.

The patterns of human life will be stored in this Twitter archive like a form of digital sediment. Every meme and revelation will leave an imprint in the record constructed of posts by half a billion Twitter users around the world (and over 150,000 more signing up every day).

How has the future of storytelling been influenced by Twitter?

Sparking the Imagination

Writer and actor John Hodgman recalls how derisive many people were about Twitter when it first entered the public consciousness. "Many jokes were made," he said, "about ‘why would I ever want to hear about what sandwich someone ate today?’"

"The early detractors failed to note is that Twitter, while faddish, was not only a fad: it is a tool, one with almost as many unique uses as there are humans to take it up," Hodgman says. "Twitter offered a very restrictive set of protocols that awaken the imagination: what can I do with 140 characters that will be meaningful to others? The solution has proven to be pretty much endless. And do you know what? If the right person is telling the story, I’ll read a tweet stream of sandwiches all day long."

We’ve gotten to know new characters through Twitter, Hodgman says, from Bigfoot to God, and their tweet streams are "more than just jokes, which themselves are the shortest stories of all." Instead, tweets are "a new kind of epistolary—postcards from a sensibility that over time, describe whole worlds."

"It is true," Hodgman says, "that this kind of storytelling is quick, even ephemeral, and largely improvised. It’s really more like broadcasting than writing, and one of the things that makes Twitter so intimate, even in its rowdy, buzzing, crowd-y-ness, is that you are reading someone’s work in real time."

A Future Biography

Prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted:

Creating a Twitter-self is like constructing with tweezers & toothpicks. Much patience required, some sense of purpose, & a sense of humor.

While many people struggle to make sense of what identity looks like as the lines between personal and professional, private and public continue to blur, some just rely on straightforward candor.

Twitter has produced several celebrities, including Kelly Oxford, 35, who transformed from a stay-at-home mother of three to the bestselling author of Everything is Perfect When You’re A Liar. Nicole Sperling of the LA Times noted: "Oxford’s writing is marked by the same wry voice that’s made her a social media sensation." "I always felt like the child actor playing myself in the biography from the future," Oxford told Sperling.

Twitter forces us to learn how to play compelling characters in a shared biography, a snapshot of this moment we are living and sharing right now, but I can’t help thinking about a comment made by Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent. He talks about context in the mainstream media, and the need for more space to explain ideas that go against the grain of the status quo. Twitter also has a context problem: when you come late to a conversation, for example, and only see a couple of previous tweets.

In the nearly six years since I’ve been using Twitter, I’ve generated over 14,000 tweets. How can these be used in the social mapping of a shared story that goes well beyond, but still includes, me?

Future Forms of Snippet Storytelling

Twitter itself is exploring ways to harness the power of future storytelling forms. The addition of Vine to the mix could be powerful—think of the difference between a "wheels up" tweet about a flight and a six-second video of floating above clouds like this one by Jack Dorsey. The Tribeca Film Festival just included Vine as a platform for a competition, posted through the #6secfilms hashtag.

Andrew Fitzgerald works for Twitter, driving experimentation in storytelling and looking for people doing it inventively. So many people post their favorite Taylor Swift lyrics, he said, that the singer could retweet an entire song based on found tweets, like WW Norton did for Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

The Twitter Fiction Festival was a successful experiment that featured authors from around the world in multiple languages. New forms of storytelling include Jennifer Egan’s experimental Black Box, tweeted out in blocks of 140 characters or less by The New Yorker. Fitzgerald, who loved the experiment, acknowledged that some criticized the serialized sentences because, they say, "that’s not how you do fiction."

For people who love compelling writing, there’s something tantalizing about lines being shared one at a time. A line on its own changes a reader’s relationship to the very texture of the syllables and ideas. Twitter story experiments aren’t shackled by the linear requirements of paper.

Elliott Holt’s Twitter experiment grabbed readers and lured them into a heavily hashtagged mystery story, the first of its kind:

"On November 28 at 10:13 pm EST a woman identified as Miranda Brown, 44, of Brooklyn, fell to her death from the roof of a Manhattan hotel."

So began Holt’s story, followed by a second tweet:

"Investigators are trying to determine whether Ms. Brown’s death was an accident or if, as some speculate, she was pushed off that roof."

From there, Holt built a narrative through threaded Twitter feeds with distinct voices from each of three characters to reconstruct the party at which the character died.

"Holt embraces Twitter for what it is," Slate wrote, "rather than trying to bend it into some tool that it isn’t. With its simultaneous narrators and fractured storyline, this is not the kind of tale that could march steadily across a continuous expanse of white space. It’s actually made for the medium."

The medium is also remaking us.

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