That Reminds Me

Posted by Anne Trubek

Notes towards a theory of Twitter

A few weeks ago it was "Style" week in my undergraduate writing course. We discussed clarity (use active verbs! have subjects be characters!), and concision (omit needless words, in the immortal yet problematic words of E.B. White). That same week, I did what thousands of Americans did back in early April: I joined Twitter.Twitter and concision are a happy pair, and I stumbled upon the brilliant idea to force my students to "tweet" one paragraph of an essay they were writing. Each sentence would be one tweet, or 140 characters or less. They protested. They were vehement. "No!" they whined. "We will not join Twitter!"So much for the youth being early adopters, and so much for digital age pedagogy. I picked up the chalk and we erased unnecessary words on the blackboard, dusting the air with white powder.Meanwhile, my twitter account was gaining followers and followed, and, unlike my students and Maureen Dowd, I feared not. After all, if Virginia Hefferman is right, middle-class me must Twitter to stay viable.Thus I have spent the past few weeks pondering Twitter as a new literary form. Not, mind you, as a form of social media, or platform to get famous, or business venture. I am thinking only as Twitter as a writing form. Here are my notes towards a theory of Twitter:1.) Twitter is an associative writing form, not a narrative one. In Twitter, we are sent somewhere else-via a link-or reminded of something. We are not telling stories. Thus, while the "Hint Fiction" contest is swell and cute, I think it misses the generic boat. Twitter promises a new slate for poets. For fiction writers, not so much.1.a.) Twitter does not operate on the narrative arc of rising action, suspense, climax, and denouement. There is no arc. Instead, Twitter is horizontal-one thing reminds one of another thing, instead of one thing leading to another thing. This works on the level of interTwittering (i.e.: Read something on the web. Think it would be nice to share. Link to it in Twitter. Go back to what you were doing), and intraTwittering (i.e. Read an interesting tweet. Respond by posting a new tweet. Go back to reading other tweets).1.b) If there is a perspective induced by Twitter, it is an immanent one-we are all inside-rather than an objective one-here is how I see things. Twitter lacks single-point perspective (or omniscience).1.c.) Trying to write multi-tweets, meant to be read together, is futile. I tried. I told a 1400 or so character anecdote via Twitter, which required me to write, and think, backwards, so I could tell the end of the story first, and then work backwards to the beginning, Memento-esque, because that's more or less how one would read it (of course a follower staring at her Twitter screen at the same time I was composing would be able to "read" it from beginning to end). Writing a story backwards is hard. And silly. Plus, if someone else posts a tweet mid-composition, an unwanted alien tweet resides permanently in storyland.2.) Twitter does not encourage conversation or dialogue between Twitterers. It is too real-time and asynchronous for that. Instead, it encourages individual Twitterers to have conversations inside their heads about the various tweets and links they read. One culls from this cacophony an interior dialogue (or, perhaps, a multiply-voiced monologue) that generates new ideas, which one can then add to the mix by tweeting again. Thus knowledge accrues, but not through a back-and-forth exchange. (That, or one becomes disoriented and baffled and goes off to read an 18th century novel as an antidote, which happened to me last weekend, too.)2.a) The ideal way to read tweets is horizontally-like a stock ticker, or a crawl-not from top to bottom. Twitter emulates the action of reading a line of text-across, from left to right-not a page, top-down, from header to footer.3.) Twitter will create a new focus on the sentence. Word processing programs and online writing have focused our attention on the paragraph. When we wrote on paper, or typed on a typewriter, writing was readily conceptualized  on the level of the page (as in  "phew! I've finished one of four pages of my assignment!"). Lately, the paragraph has reigned. As one cannot "see" an entire paper, or, often a whole page, when composing on a computer, writing became more shaped around the element one can easily grasp-the paragraph. Contemporary prose is more paragraph-based now than mid-century prose was (note sweeping generalizations here), as the paragraph is the unit of a written work most equivalent to a computer screen. Paragraph-ism has created firmer divisions between tabs, as paragraphs are conceived more distinctly, and, during the writing process, often worked on and worried before considering the next paragraph. I hazard that we have also become habituated to thinking in paragraphs: we think in topics, with a few supporting ideas. In a Twitterverse, this changes. We think in cold hard sentences.3.a.) A new focus on the sentence is salutary. The paragraph is a fine element upon which to dwell, but it does not foreground word choice, syntax, and punctuation as well as the sentence does. Clarity and concision-two key elements of style-are garnered on the sentence level, and prose ethics and politics are best gleaned on the sentence level, too: the subjects and verbs we choose make a difference, as George Orwell taught us in "Politics and the English Language." Were my students brave enough to tweet their assignments, they would have realized how often they obscure agency, nominalize and use two words when one would do. The Twitter box, with hard lines all around, makes the space of thought stark.4.) Twitter may have some odd analogy to a compositor's stick. Compositors would select type and put letters in their stick, upside down and backwards, before laying them on a galley. The average length of the type in a stick before laying down (or "publishing") is not too far from 140 characters.5.) To sum up: Twitter is unlike this column. There are no numbers, no sub-categories, no ideas more than 140 characters, no direct comments upon tweets. There is no summing up. There are many arrows pointing one across (not up or down) to the ideas of others, cross-fertilization, and forced attention to the composition of sentences.Twitters remind.CORRECTION: In The Elements of Style, William Skrunk Jr. and E. B. White tell writers to omit "needless" words, not "unnecessary" words. This column has been updated to reflect the correction.