Where social media was concerned, George Chen was always a little ahead of the curve. In 1990, he launched an indie music fanzine called zum, which began life in paper form and moved online in 2000. Zum ultimately became a record label. In 2003, Chen tested the bounds of Friendster by accumulating 500 friends, apparently an upper limit for that site (Chen said Friendster wouldn’t let him add number 501). He maintained a personal blog while penning a monthly music column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He used MySpace and Facebook for pretty much the same reasons that everyone else does — keeping in touch with people and promoting his bands. “I kind of migrate to these things for four or five months, then I move on to something else,” said Chen, who characterizes himself as an obsessive multi-tasker and chronic sufferer of ADD. Then he discovered Twitter. With its easy-to-use interface and massive powers of dissemination, the site functioned not just as a network, but as a creative tool. Chen turned his Twitter account into a small publishing house.
He’s one of many young writers who seized on the medium. In Japan, people tweet whole serialized novels from their mobile phones, and sometimes generate a following — these so-called “keitai shousetus” comprised half of the Japanese best-seller list in 2007. US authors have followed suit, tweeting everything from play scripts to short stories, set-ups, and punchlines. Famed writer Rick Moody published his short story “Some Contemporary Characters” on a Twitter feed for the online journal Electric Literature. New York music writer Christopher R. Weingarten tweeted 1,000 record reviews last year. Los Angeles punk rocker Sam McPheeters renders each of his tweets as a self-contained story. Chen, who lives in Oakland, uses Twitter as a means to publish short character sketches.
“I’ve done about sixty, but I already feel like I’ve made a more interesting character universe than Kevin Smith has,” said Chen. He could be right. It’s obviously difficult to write full stories in 140-letter nuggets, which is the maximum number of characters that Twitter allows per tweet. But it’s a great poetic challenge for writers who like to “show, not tell,” as one popular adage counsels. Chen is good at that sort of thing. “Karen Caputo discovered too late that her lower back tattoo said ‘insert credit card here’ in Chinese,” he wrote, in tweet number 59. “This, unfortunately, was in China.”
Many Twitter writers say they like the medium because it matches their attention span. “Twitter works in the way that I think,” said Weingarten. “I like to think in one-liners and jokes. I like a joke that’s enlightening, or a piece of insight that’s funny.” As a free-lance writer, Weingarten has to make snap judgments, rapidly synthesize information, and produce at a fast clip. He prefers texting or AOL Instant Messenger over long, wordy e-mails. He likes sentences that convey a lot using as few words as possible. “When I worked in magazines, I liked writing headlines, decks, and subheads,” Weingarten said. “I don’t like to write long e-mails because I spend a long time poring over them.”
Twitter doesn’t always lend itself to meticulous editing or perfectly sculpted sentences. It’s a fast, tense, stream-of-consciousness medium, set up for people to write down their ephemeral thoughts. The steady clamor of voices makes it a lot more competitive than Facebook. But it’s suitable for folks who, like Weingarten, need that kind of reach. He built a cult of celebrity shortly after starting the 1000 Times Yes record review project on January 2, 2009, with a two-sentence critique of dälek’s Gutter Tactics: “Noise-hoppers discover breakbeats, guitars, closer to shoegaze than ever. Rev. Wright samples are ’09 Farrakhan.” He rated it an 8. Weingarten threw a New Year’s Eve party upon completing his goal. He invited friends to a nightclub in Brooklyn, and DJ’d an entire set of Christmas-themed rap music. At midnight, he sent out the thousandth tweet.
Whether most of these tweets constitute a worthy form of writing remains to be seen. They often come as bite-size sentence fragments that make a Facebook status update seem ornate in comparison. Sometimes they’re pithy and quippy, other times they’re oblique. “I don’t really like or respect Twitter,” wrote McPheeters, who posts a new short story to his own Twitter feed every day. “Although it does a decent enough job of warning people as to which bushes the Basij dudes are hiding behind.” For McPheeters, it’s also a useful forum for short fiction. He clocks one story a day, usually without putting much thought into it. “It would feel like a creepy, dude-in-his-parents’ basement-writing-erotic-sci-fi-fan-fiction kind of deal if these stories actually took serious time or thought,” he explained.
Learning how to make that form work is a craft in itself, says Weingarten. “It’s fun building a sentence in a box,” he explained. “It’s like Legos.” To him, Twitter also signifies a huge stylistic change in the way we communicate. Previous generations of writers often used a lot of thick, wordy paragraphs and solipsistic asides. But almost every work of canonical literature, with the possible exception of the Lord’s Prayer and the Gettysburg Address, could benefit from a bit of editing. To Weingarten, the blogosphere only made matters worse. “It’s given everyone a voice, which is great, but now everyone thinks they need to have a voice,” he said. “It creates a world of completely uninteresting talk.”
Chen agrees. He says his own blog, Californiageddon, started off as music criticism, and ultimately devolved into a personal diary. On Twitter, he’s a lot more focused. “I don’t want to be spammy with my tweets,” he explained. “If I did ten an hour I might lose people because they’d just be annoyed.” He and Weingarten apparently found a way to use the social network to their advantage. They’re writing for free, but they’ve also built a following, made themselves highly visible, and published work that might otherwise never see the light of day. At present, Weingarten has 5,857 followers, while Chen has 897 followers. McPheeters has 548 followers. All of their tweets are easily searchable on Google.
Twitter might constitute the perfect mouthpiece for an ADD generation. It could also be a sign of degeneracy. Local novelist Chris Baty, who started National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), says he set up a Twitter feed for the event last year, and it was a hit. “I would go on the feed and ask, ‘What’s everyone was listening to? Or ‘Share your favorite line.’ Suddenly all these people who were alone, up late, probably disgruntled about having to write their allotment for NaNoWriMo … could share that experience.” Yet, Baty hastens to add that when he really wants to crack down he has to disable all his Internet access. Twitter can be a life-saver when you need a writing buddy. When you’re trying to write a novel, it’s one hell of a distraction.
Of course there are plenty of advantages to tweeting a manuscript instead of parking it in a Microsoft Word document that no one can see. On Twitter, the audience is not only instantaneous, but ever-expanding, since readers generally retweet your work. There’s no need to slog through a story on your own, or go through the trouble of finding an agent and shopping it to publishers. And there’s a much bigger sense of fandom and adoration, which is hard for writers to find in real life (unless you’re Rick Moody). Not for nothing are Twitter readers called “followers.”
Thus, ADD-generation writers like Chen, Weingarten, and McPheeters seem hard-wired for Twitter. They thrive on noise and love the immediacy of modern communication devices. More importantly, they know how to make a lasting impression in a short amount of time. Chen started his Twitter sketches on April Fool’s Day, thinking that if they sucked, he could just play the whole thing off as a joke. As of this writing, he’s up to number 61: “Emerson Franken is a self-proclaimed Foodie. He may have gone too far over the edge by also proclaiming his farties and his poopies.”