"Literature is the expression of a feeling of deprivation, a recourse against a sense of something missing. But the contrary is also true: language is what makes us human. It is a recourse against the meaningless noise and silence of nature and history." – Octavio Paz
To discern how literature as an art form has been changed by technology depends on defining literature in a certain way: that it is a series of words, printed in ink on paper, meant to be read from beginning to end.
Even before the computer, as digital media scholar Janet Murray has written in Inventing the Medium, authors like Jorge Luis Borges were using non-linear narrative constructions to create hypertext fiction.
Today we'll look a platform that has irrevocably changed our relationship to words, their function and form. On Twitter, the "meaningless noise and silence," can be overwhelming, but the strict restrictions (more on how strict they really are later), have created a new literary genre; and within this new format people are telling new kinds of stories, sharing perspectives that aren't often heard through printed literature, or couldn't be expressed in a traditional format.
Twitter and the Bard
When discussing algorithmic compositions of great works of literature it's hard to avoid the infinite monkey theorem, that is that given all of the time and space of the infinite universe, surely a countless number of monkeys randomly hitting buttons on countless typrewriters, would eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.
To update the infinite monkey theorem, one can easily imagine those countless monkeys on smartphones instead of typewriters and posting to Twitter.
And there is a Twitter account set up for the express purpose of finding the complete works of Shakespeare amongst the Tweet stream. @CompleteTweets was created as a collaboration between the Globe theater in London and Twitter in 2016. According to The Verge, they hooked up a typewriter sitting in the Globe's lobby to an algorithm that searched Twitter word by word to type out all of Shakespeare's 37 plays and 154 sonnets in order.
On December 6, 2016, it tweeted the final line of Hamlet, "The rest is silence."
Iambs are back
It finds tweets that are written in perfect iambic pentameter, which for those who haven't brushed up their Shakespeare recently is a line of verse with five sets of iambs (pairs of triplets of stressed or unstressed syllables). They're quite easy to write by accident. (That sentence could qualify).
Joined in March of 2012, the Pentametron continues to retweet unwittingly iambic pentametric phrases, from the mundane: "at least the yankees doing something right" to the philosophistic: "the empty vessels make the greatest sound ."
Over time, Pentametron has collected so many lines of iambs that they were enough to compose a 252-page "novel" entitled "i got a alligator for a pet!". While the length of the debut novel by the bot is impressive, its shorter literary works such as "song of the year okay okay okay" are more unexpectedly touching:
It's been a year, and nothing is the same.
I kinda lost myself along the way.
We want the money middle finger fame!
song of the year okay okay okay
Ranjit Bhatnagar, who made @Pentametron, also created a bot called @thesefutures for Terraform, a peripheral of Vice's Motherboard. @thesefutures functioned by retweeting future speculation and assembling its own prophecies from phrases by writers and future-thinkers like David Byrne, Don DeLillo, and Elizabeth Moon.
It ran from October 2015 to its last retweet on November 9, 2016. Most of the content for November 8th and 9th referenced the US election, and the fact that @thesefutures expired on this day is either a grim coincidence, a political statement, or both.
Twitter and fiction
I have eaten the baby shoes
Because of the creativity it requires to work within the constraints of the Twitter format as a writer, it has a sort of strange love affair with literature.
There are several literary references that regularly circulate as meme formats on Twitter, the two most notable being William Carlos Williams' poem "This Is Just To Say," and Ernest Hemingway's (debatably attributed) "baby shoes" story.
There is even a @JustToSayBot that creates new versions of the poem following the formula "I have eaten the (plural noun) that were in the (noun) Forgive me They were (adjective) so (adjective) and so (adjective)."
Both this poem and the "baby shoes" story are often used as an example of how evocative brevity can be in English literature classes, and have become something of an inside joke on Twitter as a reference to the platform's format.
In response to the lifting of the 140-character limit for certain Twitter users in late September of this year, one user, @jrobertlennon used the story to demonstrate how the increased character limit could be abused:
Hi so I'm calling about the baby shoes? Are they still available? Great! I just had a baby and, you know, haha, baby needs a new pair of shoes! Anyway, so are they, like, NEVER worn? Or just, like, near mint? OK, great. Like, can I ask why—like, your baby didn't like them, or di— J. Peter Maldonado (@jrobertlennon) September 27, 2017
And of course, because this is Twitter and we can never have enough of a good thing, there are multiple "baby shoes" versions of "This Is Just To Say." The most popular one has approximately 20,000 likes:
I have eaten— SCARE😱AMUCCI (@BobbyPines) October 10, 2017
the baby shoes
that were in
and which I
they were so small
and never worn
Acknowledging the creativity that can come out of the limitation of writing in 140 characters and the use of the Twitter feed itself as a source of inspiration, Twitter sponsored a fiction festival in 2009, which took place annually ending in 2015 (according to the lifespan of its official Twitter account).
During these festivals, well-known authors would try to write an entire novel in a Tweet. The Guardian collected some of their best examples from 2012:
Microblogging fiction, as defined by its unverified and multiple-issue carrying Wikipedia page, is "a fictional work or novel written and distributed in small parts, defined by the system it is published within."
While few believe that most of Twitter's content is intentional or unintentional literary genius, Melissa Terras, a professor of Digital Humanities from London, has compared criticism of Twitter literature (or Twitterature) to resistance to any other new literary medium.
"In the Victorian era, critics were aghast when production press technology became more advanced and allowed authors to write longer novels. 'You had all these critics saying, "The books are too long, they’re awful"'" – via Quartz, "Authors are turning Twitter into a literary genre, 140 characters at a time"
Matt Stewart, author of a book on the French Revolution, released it in a series of 3,700 Tweets in 2009, and claims to be the first to publish a book through Tweets. However, Japanese "cellphone novels," or "keitai shousetsu," told through text messages, are arguably the first iteration of the form, and have been best-sellers since the early 2000s.
In 2010, Chinese author Zhong Xiaoyong (pen name Lian Yue) tweeted his novel "2020," using the platform to also make a statement about online censorship in China.
Many authors use the structure of the platform in creative ways, not simply posting the text of their stories but also making accounts for characters that interact, link to external web pages, and take full advantage of the hypertext format by constructing something similar to an alternate reality game.
For one example, as part of the Twitter fiction festival in 2014, Elliott Holt told a story on Twitter through retweets from characters who witness a murder at a party and Tweet about it, and whose Tweets are later used as part of the investigation.
Another notable example is Jennifer Eagen's "Black Box," released as a Tweet stream by The New Yorker in 2012. It works well broken up into short chunks because the story is comprised of the internal narrative of a female secret agent in a future where cartilage-embedded recording devices, cameras activated by tear ducts, mind-reading activity logging, and other technologies that have turned her body into a weapon are commonplace – as are ordinary people being outfitted with these technologies and deployed against foreign powers.
In 2014, David Mitchell Tweeted an experimental novel entitled "The Right Sort." In interviews with Mitchell at the time, he admitted it was primarily a PR stunt to draw attention to The Bone Clocks which was also released that year.
Ian Crouch wrote for The New Yorker, "By Sunday night, you could go to Mitchell’s Twitter page and read it from the bottom up; or else you could follow a link from Sceptre Books, his publisher in the U.K., and read the tweets, reorganized for easier scrolling, from the top down."
Even the publishing formats of long-form Tweets have changed since 2014, and savvy Twitter users today now thread their Tweet screeds into a readable order in the form of replies to the original tweet. What was once seen as a highly experimental use of the platform has now been codified and made more legible by conventions agreed upon by mass use.
The reality of Twitter is stranger than fiction
Maybe it's another side effect of the normalization of microblog fiction as a literary genre that Twitter no longer runs its annual competition.
This could be because the reality of Twitter is stranger than fiction, the combination of telepathy and Tourette's syndrome that somehow compels us to shout our deepest thoughts and feelings into the void, and constantly be reading and receiving those thoughts from people we may never come in physical contact with.
Or perhaps Twitter literature isn't disappearing, and there's actually more fiction on Twitter than ever. As the line between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred on social media, we are all the authors of a certain kind of Twitterature, telling the stories of our lives 140 characters at a time.