Monday, April 4, 2016

Experimental Twitter

Last summer, I began an experiment.

But perhaps I should begin at the beginning:

Back in 2013, at the urging of a friend (and also because work was hinting that it might soon be required) I created a Twitter account.  I was late to the party of course, mainly because - quite simply - I couldn't see any point to the platform, and it seemed as though everything I heard about it was bad.

I confess that although it didn't seem quite the cesspool anticipated, even after joining I found it difficult to see any value.

It was like listening to voices chittering in the darkness, occasionally adding my own mad whispers. At worst, it was like talking to myself in a dark room. At best, it was like raving on a street corner, with passers by simultaneously fascinated by my incoherence and wary of being spattered with foam shaken from my fevered lips.

I exaggerate of course, but the point: Twitter really isn't a "social media" platform. 

On top of the fact that it's impossible to say anything substantive in snippets of 140 characters, the utterly unfiltered nature of Twitter makes it impossible to really have anything like a meaningful conversation. Honestly, when taken as a social media platform - ie as a tool to facilitate exchanges between people - to me it seems like a distillation of the worst of the internet. The character restriction makes it next to impossible *not* to misconstrue nuance, the firehose-like flow of tweets makes it next to impossible to follow the flow of any interaction lasting more than a couple of tweets (unless you restrict yourself to a very small, very quiet circle - which seems to rather defeat the point), the very brevity and volume exacerbates the "channel surfing" short attention span of our age.

I tried, early on, to use Twitter in a "meatier" way but it quickly became clear that it was mostly useless for me except as a purely "push" platform, so in the end my use degenerated into little more than sporadic sharing of news items (if I remembered) and scratching out doggerel I knew no-one would ever see/notice in the morass, and which I would later collect back up and revise to publish in other, less pointless formats.

And so it was for about 2 years, until I began my experiment. (Bet you wondered when I'd be getting back to it!)

In the summer of 2015, I decided that I was going to try to make something useful out of Twitter. Inspired by some news-folk I followed who occasionally post multi-part Twitter essays, I decided to try something more substantive than the quasi-poems I'd hitherto been working with. I started with a few essays of my own, but they were unsatisfying; it was just too difficult to develop complex thoughts in that format. What I needed was something where I could stretch my metaphorical legs and pack meaning into small spaces just as I had tried to do with poetry.

The answer, of course, was fiction.

I had already played with fiction on Twitter, building up an elaborate interactive drama under a false account as a prank on the friend who had persuaded me to join - that was really a tweak aimed at his conviction that platforms like Twitter forced people to be more honest because of their enforced brevity and relative anonymity, a confection designed to demonstrate how easy it was to lie and how hard to detect false fronts online. But it did demonstrate an intriguing potential: would it be possible to use the unique character of the medium to build up a new way of writing a story?

I've dabbled with fiction for many years, mostly frustrated by the challenge of finding enough time to finish things I started, so it seemed as though the bite-sized format of Twitter would be ideal. The character limit would force me to write more compactly; the short attention spans would encourage me to keep story arcs short - Hemingway-spartan flash fiction in other words.

Over the past 6 months, I've tried to average about 1 story a week - a pace that I sometimes find challenging, but which has helped me develop some healthy habits.  In this time, I've noticed my writing change - not just on Twitter, but elsewhere as well.

I haven't always been successful at keeping stories within the realm of "flash fiction" - in fact it's not uncommon for me to range as far as fully fledged shorts, and I have written an aborted novella as well.  Everything has been "raw" - unedited and in some cases actually posted live, which has led to some odd editorial decisions on the fly.

But more importantly, the format has given me scope to experiment that a mere blank page wouldn't have - I've tried alternative ways of building stories: "tone painting" in a sort of prose poetry that merely sets a scene, skeletal-spare but otherwise straight up fiction, experimental "found object" stories that built themselves up from things I encountered in a place.

I even theorized and experimented with non-linear narratives - a kind of literary choose your own adventure story where the reader can choose to focus on alternate strands of the tale, following different characters perhaps even along alternate what-if paths - though ultimately that came to nothing (on Twitter) since the actual threading and linking capabilities of the platform simply wouldn't support what I had in mind.

Perhaps I'll continue writing on Twitter. It's certainly been good for me, and not only in terms of (in my opinion) improving my writing. I don't think it's an experiment anymore though - almost all of what I write there is now a story or fragments of one. It still seems necessary to use a curation utility like Storify to make stories coherent and available for review (my Storify is here if you'd like to see my work) but now that I've developed a system I hope it's relatively easy for followers to keep the thread of things. 

Twitter, as the platform its creators seem to have envisioned, still seems rather pointless to me, but I have to thank them for the utility of a place that serves as both a repository for first drafts (I intend to revise and submit a number of the stories produced in the past 6 months) and as a stone to sharpen my writing.

I guess it just goes to show: there's always a use for things.

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