Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The role of aggregation in Twitter storytelling

The transitory nature of Twitter makes it difficult to tell stories, whether fictional or otherwise. While there are tools (ScribbleLiveCoverItLiveStorify) to collect tweets, an editor is required to aggregate the work. 

In the example of Elliot Holt’s #TwitterFiction [sic] project, the story is narrated by three characters, each with their own Twitter handle. Indeed, the permalinks to Holt's tweets are not active anymore, so the story only exists in its aggregated form. 
A screenshot of Holt's story on Penguin Press' Storify.

Holt’s story was part of the Twitter Fiction Festival and hosted by Penguin Press. In the finished project, an editor from Penguin has aggregated the content into a Storify page. Should the editor be getting credit for their role in the story’s creation?

I agree with Slate’s David Pierce that:
"In most ways, the Story Time Twitter reading experience is awful. You’re waiting for tweets, as the author painstakingly tries to contort a long story into some indeterminate number of 140-character chunks. Tweets get lost in your timeline unless you’re vigilantly paying attention.”
Though I'm a transliterate reader, I find it difficult to follow a narrative without an aggregated story. Therefore, Twitter fiction presents a problem of accessibility: not all readers have the time/means to enjoy the story live. Typically, I tune into the Twitter story well after it has unfolded. Take for example, the tale of Aziah King (NSFW). I would venture that this aggregation is counter to Twitter’s nature as a place for brief texts written quickly in a casual manner. 

As Rita King puts it, "Twitter story experiments aren’t shackled by the linear requirements of paper”. Though I applaud the progressive nature of Twitter stories, I still cling to narratives in print. This recalls our reading of How the Page Matters by Bonnie Mak. To me, the stories still ends at “the edges of the cognitive space” of the page (p. 13).

In Andrew Fitzgerald’s TED talk "Adventures in Twitter fiction", he provides an intriguing graphic of Twitter interactions. This web is so wide, it is impossible to extricate any one user or story.

I think this graphic is an apt metaphor for the multimodality of Twitter. In contrast, print fiction is distinctly one dimensional. That said, print media is innovating and expanding its boundaries.

It makes me think of the early 2000s, when newspapers tried to garner more web traffic by starting printing QR codes alongside stories. Little coded boxes would appear next to the text, encouraging readers to scan the code and connect with further information online. This technology was cumbersome at best: you had to download a separate app to read the codes. Of course, now QR codes are somewhat redundant thanks to advances in near field technology (NFC).


Holt, E. (n.d.). @ElliottHolt's #TwitterFiction Story (with image, tweets). Retrieved January 27, 2016, from

King, R. (2013, May 22). How Twitter Is Reshaping The Future Of Storytelling. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from

Mak, B. (2011). How the page matters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pierce, D. (2016, January 22). Gather Around, Folks, for the Brilliance of Story Time Twitter. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from

Fitzgerald, A. [TED]. (2013, October 11). Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter fiction [video file]. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from


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  2. I really like your point about the need for an editor: Teju Cole's Seven Short Stories About Drones, which I used as my example, was all but impossible to find without the Storify version by Josh Begley.

    To find it in Cole's Twitter feed, when it was three years ago, by browsing the feed, was all but impossible without finding the date (through Storify) and doing an advanced search. Unlike looking for a non-twitter piece of literature published on a web site or in hard copy, Twitter is so of-the-moment and impermanent (while still being permanent) it is not lasting in the way I would like literature to be.

    Reading your post made me think of the billions of tweets being catalogued by the Library of Congress- how will those be searchable? Will the bits of Twitter literature be amalgamated/edited by someone who will get none of the credit but turn a bunch of tweets into something that will last?

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Raquel, I don't mind the "garishness" of the tweets. In journalism, there's often talk about the power of the hook, in order to grab your audience's attention.

    Also, I really don't think this is a new phenomenon. You really can't beat Dickens for first lines: "My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip," (Great Expectations, 1861) and "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show" (David Copperfield, 1850).

    Maybe because Dickens' work was serialized, he felt the need to really grip audiences from the outset.

    Jennifer, I really liked your example from Teju Cole. I thought the stories were devastating and beautiful.

    I have often wondered about the usefulness of the Library of Congress' project. They were certainly have to develop some advanced search techniques, if anyone wants to data mine the tweets efficiently.

    I'm also very protective of my tweets, for one reason or another. I have taken to backing them up (using Evernote), so I can refer to them easily. For better or worse they're a trance de vie for me.


    Dickens, C. (1850). David Copperfield [e-book]. The Project Gutenberg.
    Retrieved January 29, 2016, from

    Dickens, C. (1861). Great Expectations [e-book]. The Project Gutenberg.
    Retrieved January 29, 2016, from

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