No technology is without cultural or psychological effect and such effects will sooner or later work their way through into the arts, including literature.
Twitter is a facility that allows its users to send a message of up to 140 characters, including spacing and punctuation. It's quick and easy to use, one doesn't have to be a geek of any kind to use it. You just need a computer or a smart-phone. Use it for what? See below the main body of the blog.
For writers the possibilities seem limited by the brevity but they need not be. There is a Jennifer Egan novella, Black Box, that is told all in tweets. It's a very skilful piece of work written almost entirely in arch commentary on the action, such as:
"Shall we swim together toward those rocks?" may or may not be a question.
"All that way?" will, if spoken correctly, sound ingenuous.
That is a tease in itself and, in what is primarily a feminist thriller, it serves as an extra layer of suspense.
The introductory 13 tweets that serve as an "unsatisfactory preface" to time lines, an anthology edited by James Knight (aka @badbadpoet), offer many hostages to fortune by making grand claims. Hostages are unavoidable in the making of claims for a new medium so while I don't feel obliged to believe most of them (eg "The tweet is the sonnet for the 21st century") I am perfectly happy to note them and see what follows in the poems, bearing in mind that, as Knight puts it, the tweet itself may be no more than a building block in a bigger, albeit short text. This slightly weakens the case for me because there is nothing particularly new about short texts in themselves: it is the formal limit of the 140-character "sonnet" that is new and there are in fact very few 140-character texts in the book.
Given that, the six poets explore various possibilities in both prose and lineated verse. The excitement lies in genuinely short text where a perception is refreshed through inventiveness. Here is one of Richard Biddle's.
Whispers, that's what these ciphers are. Shadows cast from the mind to the page, lit by a moon the size of a penny.Biddle (@littledeaths68) presents a discovery about ciphers and whispers, sets it in the traditional context of page and moon, then adds the penny at the end that brightens the perception into freshness.
That freshness is a start but it's hard to achieve.
The ways in which tweets may produce genuine poetry seem to me to employ various proportions of the following: precision, enigma, surprise, discipline, incompleteness.
The ways in which tweets may fail are through: generalisation, grandiosity, cheap philosophy, overuse of stage effects, overuse of randomness, and over-closure.
The book, which is handsomely produced, contains a fair mixture of virtues and vices. The editor himself has some of the best pieces with his packages of thirteen that present consecutive images as part of a fragmentary narrative, each episode sharp, for example:
A handshake on the other side of your eyes. Chainsaw promises. We apologise for the recent disruption.There are three sentences here each bearing tangentially on the other. Somewhere, the reader might think, there is a chain of events to which this is annotation. The annotation is fascinating because it is incomplete yet not quite arbitrary.
Some of @sandcave's lineated verse, though a little heavy at times, holds up without the support of Twitter Theory. Some of it concerns love and romance. Lots of drama going on in Mina Polen's poetry,
A boa embraces me, suffocates me with its selvatic heat, seduces me with its silkiness, invites me to be delirious about lianas and humidityMandy Gibson is reaching beyond Twitter to possibly longer fictions. There are nice clear touches throughout her work
- from Serpents
I know Aksania Xenogrette (@gadgetgreen) from her tweets but what she publishes here are longer, less enigmatic texts, in both lineated verse and prose. They're full of energy and are, I think, predicated on performance. She is clearly interesting.
It was very gracious of James Knight to send me the book. I think there is something to get excited about in Twitter but I'd like it if his next anthology - should there be one - focused more on the possibilities of the tweet itself. That is what the preface is about and that is where the best of the texts point. It is where a greater excitement might lie.
Uses of Twitter?
Twitter was sold as a form of social networking, so if you desperately wanted to know where Stephen Fry happened to be at any time of day you could discover it by grace of Mr Fry himself.
At notable public events it is a form of chatting to others interested in the event: anyone can drop a remark into a conversation whose subject is locatable through a hash tag. It was fun at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
It serves as brief signal for action, very much like texting except you were communicating with anyone out there not a single person. I think it was used in the 2011 riots. It can just as easily advertise an event or draw attwntion to it though anticipation,
For the intelligent reader Twitter may be used for linking to interesting articles and reviews, the links being neatly abbreviated to fit the 140 character format and still allow for a comment. I find this very useful.
It serves as a way of fomenting rumour and counter-rumour. That rumour may be filled out by linking to a longer text. Twitter in itself doesn't allow for too many subtle shades of opinion. Hence the links to articles that explain at greater length.
It can also be used like a well, down which you drop a small elegant stone and wait to hear the distant splash. This can be insomniac activity. Mea culpa. I myself write Twitter texts and take them seriously at the time. Sometimes for longer than that.
There are other uses of Twitter but this gives an idea of some of the main ones.