Twitter Fiction: "No Constraints, No Joy"

With more participants every day, and an annual online festival, a once new form of storytelling comes into its own. Five mini-interviews with five authors of five different forms of Twitter fiction.

On Jan. 8, 2014, author Teju Cole published a new short story, “Hafiz” — not in a literary journal or The New Yorker, but on Twitter. Unlike some authors who had published work via Twitter before (such as Rick Moody and Jenifer Egan), Cole did not simply tweet his story out line by line. Rather, Cole coordinated with over 30 other people, including some big names on Twitter, to execute the story over a series of retweets. The experiment caught the attention of The New York Times, NPR, and many others.

The wide world of Twitter fiction is weird and wonderful. One of the most popular accounts, @Horse_ebooks, originally thought to be a bot but revealed to be Jacob Bakkila, was profiled in The New Yorker earlier this month by Susan Orlean. The Guardian runs its own Twitter fiction series, and the fascinating Immigrant X project continues to use fiction to bring attention to the very real need for immigration reform. There’s @wise_kaplan and @CrankyKaplan (which were helmed by “two former Observer staffers as a ‘semi-private’ joke in homage to” New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan), not to mention @DadBoner and @MayorEmanuel. I had a fictional character who rapped about children’s books and the Peter Pan universe and over on Instagram Shelley Jackson is writing in the snow.

These stories don’t have much in common except for the fact that they’re published on social media…and that’s exciting. It’s the Wild West out there, with so many yet untested possibilities. Twitter fiction can make us think about what fiction is, what story is, what truth is. Questions abound: When we’ve taken an account at face value only to later learn that it is something else (an impersonation, a hoax, a parody), are we reading Twitter fiction? What are the ways in which multiple accounts could come together to tell one story? How can we use Twitter to tell science fiction and fantasy?

With the Twitter Fiction Festival, hosted by Association of American Publishers and Penguin Random House, we’ll get a special opportunity to see some answers. From March 12–16, 2014, storytellers from all walks of Twitter — from parody accounts to crowdsourcing projects, from narrative poetry to stories told via multiple accounts — are encouraged to submit their writing by using the #TwitterFiction hashtag.

But the festival is just one way of trying out Twitter fiction. Take it from some master practitioners of the form: Teju Cole, Jacob Bakkila of @Horse_ebooks fame (Bakkila works on BuzzFeed’s advertising side as a senior creative director); author Elliott Holt, Mike Gagerman, and Andrew Waller, the creators of Shh Don’t Tell Steve (who, before now, had never admitted that the account was a fiction); and Ranjit Bhatnagar, the man behind Pentametron, talk a bit about their projects and how they came to publish their work.

1. Hafiz, by Teju Cole, Jan. 8, 2014

Is this an experiment in art or an experiment in programming/algorithms/etc.?

Teju Cole: It’s a “thing.” I didn’t try to label it beyond that.

Why did you decide to tell your story on Twitter?

TC: We are there. The readers are there, and I like to take the writing where the readers are. Particularly if they’re not expecting it.

How much preplanning did you do? Were you setting out to tell a complete story, or did your story evolve over time?

TC: I wrote the story quite a while ago, but I edited it extensively in the days preceding the Twitter thing. I worked on the language, I worked on how I wanted it to sound. At some point in that process, I thought, This might work as a series of tweets. Then I thought, But what if the story started “magically” assembling itself from various sources?

We have more options now for telling a story than we ever have had in human history. Why choose a medium that puts constraints on your story? How did you work with/around those constraints?

TC: No constraints, no joy.

Obviously you believe in Twitter as a way of telling stories. Where do you see the medium going? What are some exciting ways of playing with the form that you would like to see?

TC: Can’t make predictions. But I know that more and more people will use the new media and new technological innovations to make our world thoughtful and interesting. Rublev painted. Tarkovsky made films. We respond both to our times and to timeless things. Maybe some future person will do truly great work on an online platform.

Do you use Twitter on a regular basis? If so, how do you usually use it?

TC: Yes. For various experiments, for commentary, interventions, and for jokes. Recently for poetry-like things too. I’m doing a “winter sequence” that makes use of the new timelines.

Is there anyone you would recommend following?

TC: Creatively speaking, @pentametron (who tweets found iambic couplets) and @anagramatron (who tweets found anagrams) are both delightful. Pedro Poitevin, @poitevin, tweets in Spanish, but you can tell he’s doing stunning things with palindromes.

2. Pentametron, by Ranjit Bhatnagar, February 2012–Current Day

Is this an experiment in art or an experiment in programming/algorithms/etc.?

Ranjit Bhatnagar: Both — it came from an ongoing collaborative poetry project and also from wanting to try out Twitter’s streaming API.

Why did you decide to use Twitter to create fiction?

RB: I’ve been interested for a long time in surrealist techniques, like exquisite corpse, and in the Oulipo — using games and relatively simple mechanical techniques — algorithms, really — for making interesting and weird art and poetry. I’ve been messing around with making sonnets through blind contributions for more than 20 years(!) — more info here and here.

When I learned about the existence of the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary and the Twitter streaming API a few years ago, I realized that I could use them to automate the process.

How much preplanning did you do? How has your project evolved over time?

RB: I suppose you could say 20 years thinking about collaborative/cut-up poetry, and about a week of puttering around a few hours a day to make Pentametron happen.

The first version of Pentametron could read meter but not rhyme — it found tweets in iambic pentameter but didn’t try to rhyme them. A few months after it launched, I spent a few more days to teach it to rhyme; since then it’s always produced rhymed couplets. (Sometimes the couplets break when the original poster of one of the tweets decides to delete it.) The Twitter bot hasn’t changed in more than a year, except for occasional bug fixes and tweaking the filters that try to keep out spam and song lyrics that become too popular. I probably won’t make any major changes to it in the future. The website pentametron.com automatically collected couplets in groups of seven, to make sonnet-like poems, but a few months ago Twitter started cracking down on systems that republish tweets online without meeting their strict presentation standards, so I shut down the website because I didn’t have time to adapt to the standards.

Outside of the bot, I was inspired in November by Darius Kazemi’s project, Nanogenmo, to start publishing some fixed poems, as opposed to the dynamic, constantly changing poems of the Twitter bot and the former website. For the fixed poems, I also relaxed the very strict rule of the bot and the site, that it always uses tweets in chronological order. The first one, “I got an alligator for a pet,” was a 250-page “novel” in sonnets for Nanogenmo, made by randomly choosing rhymed couplets from all of Pentametron’s history. After that, I started making sonnets on specific topics suggested by Twitter readers, by searching Pentametron’s history for keywords. Some of those sonnets are completely random, but for others I choose the lines myself — another departure from the rules of @pentametron, which never has any human curation. Eventually I created a Tumblr site for these fixed sonnets.

That’s the history of Pentametron up to now.

Do you use Twitter on a regular basis? If so, how do you usually use it?

RB: Yes, I follow a mix of friends, internet acquaintances, and interesting strangers — a lot of artists and art critics, musicians, space scientists (go Mars rover!), and journalists/commentators who, like you, are interested in weird uses of Twitter. I read a lot and don’t post all that much — some conversations with friends, some replies to or retweets of interesting stuff, and some self-promotion and random jokes.

Besides my personal Twitter account, I have a few small side projects — unlike Pentametron, they’re not automated: Earwormreport is a log of songs that get stuck in my head. I don’t really care whether anyone reads it or not; it somehow helps make earworms less annoying when I post them. And I quote tweets that describe sounds, at @the_sounds_of .

Is there anyone you would recommend following?

RB: I follow hundreds of accounts and love (almost) all of them, so it’s hard to pick a few recommendations.

3. Steve Roommate, by Mike Gagerman and Andrew Waller, July 7, 2009–May 1, 2011

Is this an experiment in art or an experiment in programming/algorithms/etc.?

Andrew Waller: Mike and I rarely refer to what we do as “art,” but we have no idea what an algorithm is — so I guess we’ll go with “We did it for the art.” It was actually an experiment in real-time interactive storytelling. We are screenwriters, so sometimes it takes a long time to get reactions to our work, so we decided to try telling Steve’s story in a way that allowed the audience to interact in real time. On more than one occasion the audience’s reaction changed the narrative. If they were more interested in one character than another in Steve’s life, that character would get more attention — if people didn’t want Steve to hook up with Slutty Tina, we had him hook up with her, just to get the angry reactions from people.

Why did you decide to tell your story on Twitter?

AW: Twitter was just gaining some traction when we began the feed. It didn’t start as a narrative — it seemed like a fun way to create a character and have him comment on popular culture. But as we started gaining followers, people started giving us feedback and they wanted to know more and more about Steve and we started doing little mini stories…and then it just evolved into a sort of dude soap opera playing out in real time, where we would be “live-tweeting” events in Steve’s life (being on a date, making an ass of himself at a party — that happened a lot).

How much preplanning did you do? Were you setting out to tell a complete story, or did your story evolve over time?

AW: Orchestrating Steve’s life was something we talked about on a daily basis. Mike and I have a small writer’s office in Hollywood we go to every day; each morning we would get in and each write a bunch of posts, then show them to each other. The best posts we punched up, then planned out how we would roll them out. There [were] a lot of arguments that went like, “I don’t think Steve would say that” or “Do you really think Steve knows who Kyle Maclachlan is? We would plan weeklong storylines this way as well. Sometimes we purposely dropped storylines before they finished to keep a measure of reality. If the nights always paid off it wouldn’t feel authentic.

We have more options now for telling a story than we ever have had in human history. Why choose a medium that puts constraints on your story? How did you work with/around those constraints?

AW: We never thought of it as constraining. It actually helped us to edit things down. The story had to be distilled into the quickest and funniest beats, which I think helped us in our other writing. Editing was a great muscle to stretch every day.

Obviously you believe in Twitter as a way of telling stories. Where do you see the medium going? What are some exciting ways of playing with the form that you would like to see?

AW: We always thought that it might have been fun to create an entire world — dozens of feeds of all of Steve’s friends and girlfriends and enemies that all had their own lives and feeds but also interconnected — Like a Winesburg, Ohio, for the internet age. (Putting that BA in English to good use on that reference.)

Do you use Twitter on a regular basis? If so, how do you usually use it?

AW: We no longer use Twitter on a regular basis. We occasionally read feeds by comedians that we like, but I think we burnt out on it a year ago and haven’t really picked it up again.

Is there anyone you would recommend following?

AW: My sister Ali Waller is a very funny comedy writer with a great voice. Her feed is worth checking out: @imaliwaller. We also like @jenstatsky, @weismanjake, and @morgan_murphy.

4. Evidence, by Elliott Holt, Nov. 28, 2012

Read the whole story here.

Why did you decide to tell your story on Twitter?

Elliott Holt: When Twitter announced plans for its first annual fiction festival, Ryan Chapman (@chapmanchapman), who then worked for my publisher, suggested that I submit a proposal to the festival organizers. He thought I might have a good idea because I was on Twitter a lot in those days and already had an audience.

How much preplanning did you do? Were you setting out to tell a complete story, or did your story evolve over time?

EH: I wanted to create a story that commented on the way that social media feeds are now being used for evidence. (Often, investigators will use Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines in an effort to reconstruct events leading up to an alleged crime.) I outlined the plot and created the three characters beforehand; my proposal to the Twitter Fiction Festival organizers included a fairly detailed plan. I explained that the story would unfold, in real time, over a couple of hours, and that it would be a mystery, tweeted from three different accounts. So my story began with a report, from my own Twitter account, of a woman named Miranda Brown falling to her death, from the roof of a Manhattan hotel, during a party. The idea was that investigators were examining the feeds of three guests at the party who had been tweeting all evening. The three tweeters didn’t know each other but had all observed Miranda Brown at various points in the evening. So the story was a series of tweets, from three different fake accounts, arranged chronologically. And then I asked readers to decide if Miranda Brown’s fall from the roof was an #accident, a #homicide, or a #suicide.

We have more options now for telling a story than we ever have had in human history. Why choose a medium that puts constraints on your story? How did you work with/around those constraints?

EH: I didn’t want to just tweet lines of a story. I wanted to use Twitter to tell a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else. So I used the hallmarks of Twitter — the way it unfolds in real time, the performative nature of tweets, the hashtags and irony, even the typos — to create my mystery. I wanted the characters’ tweets to seem spontaneous and authentic, so even though I had plotted out the entire story, I improvised some of the tweets. (I was switching back and forth among the three invented accounts on my iPhone. I tweeted the whole story that way.) The story was an experiment (and a fun one), but I was surprised that it got so much attention. After Slate wrote about it, Penguin Press (my publisher) Storyfied it here.

Do you use Twitter on a regular basis? If so, how do you usually use it?

EH: I don’t use Twitter much anymore. I joined in early 2009 (I was one of the early adopters in the publishing world) and I enjoyed the banter about books and TV and politics. But last fall, I deleted my Twitter account. I felt overexposed — in the way that a lot of writers do when they publish a book — and needed a break. I re-joined in 2014, mostly because I wanted to protect my username from being used by someone else. But @elliottholt 2.0 will be a much less active presence. I’m busy teaching and working on a new book.

Is there anyone you would recommend following?

EH: Twitter is great for aphoristic wit. You can’t go wrong following Mat Johnson (@mat_johnson), Elizabeth McCracken (@elizmccracken), and Teju Cole (@tejucole).

5. Horse_ebooks, by Jacob Bakkila (2011–2013)

Is this an experiment in art or an experiment in programming/algorithms/etc.?

Jacob Bakkila: Horse_ebooks (2011–2013) is a conceptual installation where I performed as a spambot for a little over two years, pulling snippets of previously written text (overwhelmingly from spam e-books about self-improvement or tax evasion or similar impossible topics) and posting them to a Twitter account. The output of the installation can be, broadly, interpreted as a narrative poem. Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I’ll defer to my critics, even my more vocal ones, and say the general consensus seems to be that what I’ve done is art, albeit not exactly good art. Works for me.

Which brings us to programming, algorithms, etc., as you put it. To me, the act of making decisions can be, broadly, interpreted as programming. I’d rather not share too much about my actual process, but I don’t think I’m shocking anyone when I say it involves making decisions. So my answer is: It’s an experiment in art and decision-making both. The two are no more mutually exclusive than Great Taste and Less Filling.

Why did you decide to use Twitter to tell your fiction?

JB: Twitter is great. It’s so fast-moving as to approach memorylessness. I love storytelling and art that uses the least traditional methods of expression present in a particular system, and telling a hidden story in plain sight over two years on a platform known for the immediacy of people battling for attention seemed like the least efficient use of Twitter, so I thought, sure, why not.

How much preplanning did you do? How did your story evolve over time?

JB: I like to keep the hows and whys of my process private, but to give just a little context, in terms of research, I spent hours each day, between September 2011 to September 2013, reading spam e-books.

We have more options now for telling a story than we ever have had in human history. Why choose a medium that puts constraints on your story? How did you work with/around those constraints?

JB: Mediums necessarily constrain and shape output, but you know what? Clothes necessarily constrain and shape our bodies too, but they can also make us look cool as heck, especially when they have graphic designs on them, or cargo pockets. Would, in an ideal world, we all walk around nude, free of shame or danger, realizing that when I hurt my neighbor, I hurt myself, we are all connected and the distinctions and delineations of the past were false ideas designed to alienate, dominate, and objectify? Maybe, but then we’d have to sew the cargo pockets directly onto our skin to hold our smart phones and our smart waters. Anyway, Twitter was just the right medium for my piece of spam art.

Obviously you believe in Twitter as a way of telling stories. Where do you see the medium going? What are some exciting ways of playing with the form that you would like to see?

JB: To me, at least for the foreseeable future, Twitter is conversation, more natural than email, more personal than video. People do amazing, hilarious, profound stuff with it daily. It gives an immediate voice to groups and interests that previously did not have a voice. I’m not one for giving advice, but if I had to, I’d just suggest that people anticipate the direction(s) Twitter, as a platform, culture, and private company is going, then either try to outpace it or go in the opposite direction(s), just to see what happens.

Do you use Twitter on a regular basis? If so, how do you usually use it?

JB: Yes. I don’t have an account, so I just remember names that I like, and then type them in, and then read all of their tweets. Sometimes I look at trending topics also, but not usually.

Is there anyone you would recommend following?

JB: @Coffee_Dad, @glitchr_, @Seinfeld2000, my homies @Dril and @Wettbutt. Plus @rare_basement, @DVSblast, @kat_ratmaze, @TriciaLockwood. @TejuCole. @pushinghoops. @janetmock. @greatdismal even though I think he hates my art. @steveroggenbuck. @muscularson. @neonwario. @cat_beltane. @Karnythia. @jeremybailey. @ericandre. @ianaleksander. Anyone who uses Twitter in unexpected ways with unexpected results. Shout-outs do not constitute endorsement. There are tons more. I love Twitter. I love internet. I love the world.

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