Social Writing & The World of Twitter Fiction

“Twitter, the most brilliant tough love editor you’ll ever have.”

Josh Gosfield, Artist
Social media is contributing to a more social experience of reading and writing fiction with writers and readers becoming more actively aware of each other. It is also affording artists with a space to experiment with the expression of their work across multiple modalities. More specifically, Twitter and events like the Twitter Fiction Festival is an “outlet” for literary producers’ creativity and the urge to experiment with different forms of fictions writing.

The practice of tweeting has inspired various literary experiments. From Nigerian writer, Teju Cole’s Small Fates, a nonfiction narrative of his hometown Lagos created 140 characters at a time; to Jennifer Egan’s novel Black Box shared tweet by tweet through The New Yorker’s Twitter feed (@NYerFiction). In November 2012, Twitter Inc. latched onto this trend by curating the first Twitter Fiction Festival (#TFF) with the help of its @TwitterBooks account. According to the account’s manager, Andrew Fitzgerald, the intent of this five-day literary experience was to “showcase live creative experiments in storytelling created by participants from five continents and in five different languages”.

Experiences like the festival inspired us to explore how social media practices such as tweeting, are impacting how people experience what we read and write.

“The buzz of society’s social digital conversations and numerous digital experiments has impacted the way we perceive and experience literary fiction."

David L. Ulin, Author of The Lost Art of Reading

One important change is the increase of fragmented production of texts which can be enjoyed, much like short stories, in one sitting. Fragmented production of texts inspires readers to move in and out of different media environments in search of text snippets. As they engage in this process of gathering and assembling narrative elements, the readers ownership of their literary experiences increases. In some cases, that ownership is increased even more by producing additional elements often labelled as fan fiction.

In other artistic disciplines, like music production, this process has been studied from a producer’s perspective. In relation to literature, the implications of participatory culture for the literary producer have remained largely unattended. Regardless, popular discourse about literature in the digital age often associates practices such as fragmented reading, remixing and self-publishing with the demise of attentive reading, rich narratives, and printed books.

Digital media has contributed extensively to the ongoing transformation of our understanding of literary practices from “a thoroughly private experience … [to] an exuberantly social activity”

Jim Collins, Media Scholar

The dominant view is that both reading and writing fiction are practices ‘best’ performed and ‘only’ enjoyed in solitude. Formal education has long supported and helped to reproduce this dominant view where writing is seen as solitary practice separated from reading, listening, and speaking. This view has effectively obscured many of the social processes by which literary work is created, spread, consumed and appreciated.

Many scholars stress the importance of a social approach to literary studies. A social approach to literary studies considers writing and reading as overlapping and nonlinear social activities that support a relationship of mutual dependence between actors in the literary field. It also takes into account the many social experiences such as literary festivals, book clubs, reading groups and parents and teachers reading to children as well as the more formal literary workshops.

Writing and reading as social activities are not in any way “new” types of activities. In Writing on the Wall, journalist and literary critic Tom Standage (2013) pointed out that our activities within social media environments often build upon habits and conventions that date back centuries (p. 5). The rise of social media environments like Twitter has actually afforded people with opportunities and challenges to perform social literary activities more often, in different ways, and with different actors in our social networks. Designers and developers of these social media contexts often claim that it is their intent to provide users with tools which support and potentially improve these practices.

Activities like the ‘Twitter Fiction Festival’ create opportunities for social and situated learning by providing access to a multitude of discourses where people can express ideas, ask questions, and create meaning through literary work or in relation to it. Writing and reading activities support the social and cultural development of a writer and readers. These social practices also serve as a system of identity making and enculturation into the social life of a community as fictions are the most powerful of all the architects of our souls and societies.

This system of identity making and enculturation involves a symbolic process that develops out of and in conjunction with talking, drawing and playing.

Much like the experiments and oral traditions of poets from the middle ages, today’s writers are exploring the potential of different literary practices and narrative forms in social media environments. They are seeking and trying out various methods to connect more directly and more deeply with readers and to evoke their senses. From a writer’s perspective, this transformation involves adapting to the new spaces and infrastructures for experiencing literature, as well as renegotiating the various expectations that exist within society towards producers of literary texts.

One example of this transformation process is literary writing and participation through Twitter.

To explore the convergence of practices and people’s (roles) in the production of literary work on social media, we explored the practices and perceptions of festival participants during the first 2012 Twitter Fiction Festival. We explored the identification of the ‘Author as Artist’, ‘Tweeting as literary production and Retrieving the practice of fragmented writing’. We also considered ‘opportunities for curating literary narratives’ and the ‘reversing of literary communication from solitary writing practice to responsive performance’, that which enhances the ‘playful experimentation with literary communication practices.’

Social media is indeed contributing to a more social experience of reading and writing fiction, as is often claimed ~ implicitly or explicitly ~ by developers of social media. The opportunities for instant interaction and communication are making the various actors in the social system of literature increasingly visible.

Writers and readers have become more actively aware of each other. The opportunities for interaction and communication also have afforded the loss, or better, the lack of control over the narrative by the “author”.

In our work studying the cultural models of the experience that is the ‘Twitter Fiction Festival’, each participant responded to this fluidity of ‘being an author’ in a different way. While some made attempts to seize control over the narrative by carefully planning and affording readers the role of critics or “beta-readers”, others seemed to embrace the loss of control and opted for improvisation, experimentation, and social playfulness as a means of artistic co-creation. By employing the latter approach, producers of literary fiction can take advantage of the affordances of social media to recognize readers’ creative efforts, not as a tribute to their work, but as part of their work and the narrative world which they help to curate.

Social media like Twitter and events like TFF is an “outlet” for literary producers’ creativity and urge to experiment with different forms of fictions writing. They present to producers an opportunity to try out something new, which mostly involves repurposing existing styles and techniques for creating fiction in a digital context. The descriptions and reflections of the participants clearly showed that fiction writing on social media involves much more than “mere words”. It involves an intricate mix of various modalities, such as images, videos, and sounds, but also hyperlinks, hashtags, mentions and retweets.

Participants who incorporate these mixed modalities in their work are inspired to contemplate the expectations related to traditional labels “writer” and “author”. The participants suggest that labels such as literary “artist” can help to broaden the interpretations and expectations of what is considered literary fiction.

The label “artist” serves as form of recognition of extended skillset required to create literary fiction in a social media environment where embodiment, responsiveness, timing and ingenuity are key qualities.

Video ~ Andrew Fitzgerald, formerly of @TwitterBooks, shares his thoughts on ‘Adventures in Twitter Fiction.’

Read More ~ Dr. Joachim Vlieghe, Dr. Kelly L. Page, and Dr. Kris Rutten, (2016) “Twitter, the most brilliant tough love editor you’ll ever have,” Reading and Writing Socially during the Twitter Fiction FestivalFirst Monday, 21 (4).