Critical Article—How Do You Solve a Problem Like Twitterature? Reading and Theorizing “Print” Technologies in the Age of Social Media

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Pamela Ingleton, McMaster University


This paper considers the intersection of print and social media technologies, particularly in the publication, promotion and critical reception of Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less. Beginning with a brief analysis of an oft-noted impulse on the part of new media scholars to theorize digital/online writing and publishing within a material print continuum, this paper argues that these theorisations discursively and theoretically bind digital text to material print. What follows is a close analysis of the promotion and reception of Twitterature in light of these theories, as well as a more general discussion of characterizations of the Twitter short form and the limitations, potentialities and problematics of web-based writing in general contexts (i.e. blogs, social media platforms like Storify and Medium) and in academic ones (i.e. “academic” blogs, online communities, open-access journals). In total, this essay interrogates the increasingly tenuous relationship between print and online composition and publication by way of the Twitterature case study, exposing a continued critical reliance on the frameworks of material print in writing produced by and within new media, all in an effort to (re)consider the influence of these discourses on our understanding and production of both print-based and digital texts now and in the future.

In April of 2010, at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) conference in Montreal, Quebec, I presented a paper1 on Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less, a Penguin novelty book composed by nineteen-year-old college students Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, released in December 2009, which aims to condense over eighty literary works into series of tweets. A few days after I returned home from this conference, I tweeted about NeMLA and the paper I had delivered there, only to receive a Facebook message hours later from Rensin (one of the book’s authors) inquiring about the conference, my paper and how exactly it came to be.2 Curiosity brought me to his Facebook profile page where, upon “friending” him, I noted his status thus: the title of my paper, followed by the comment, “That is an actual paper, presented at an actual university.” Rensin learned of the existence of the paper from my tweet, which had been tagged with his @AcimanandRensin Twitter account. Needless to say my tweet, and the academic study to which it referred, both surprised and perturbed him.

The personal and unexpected interaction with Twitterature co-author Emmett Rensin described above serves here as the impetus for further study of the constellatory relationship between new and especially social media, academia and (print) publication. While ever-growing sales of tablet and e-reader technologies and e-publications have no doubt changed and continue to change the landscape of contemporary publishing, this essay argues that the ideas and norms attributed to more traditional print publication remain at the forefront of how all forms of writing and publishing, including web-based and digital writing and publishing, are currently being understood and interpreted. To this end, this paper examines an oft-noted impulse on the part of academic scholars to theorize online and digital writing and publishing and its corresponding technologies within a material print continuum, rendering understandings of these texts and technologies by tracing their evolution as far back as the advent of the printing press.3 Much of the scholarship on digital/online writing, in adopting a persistent rhetoric that frames its analyses within print paradigms, seems unwilling to engage with such sites independent of their print predecessors. Likewise with Twitterature, Rensin and his collaborator had produced one of the first “books” to adopt the then relatively novel Twitter form, and yet Rensin seemed surprised that such a form, and his interpretation of it, could be taken up as a “legitimate” site of study.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first offers some tentative conclusions and commentary on critical, digital/online-writing discourses, ruminating on what might be at stake in the relentless appeal of these discourses to traditional “print” contexts. A brief overview of new media scholarship from the past decade or so on variously termed “digital writing” exposes the tendency in this scholarship to discursively and theoretically bind digital text to material print. The second and third sections consider the intersection of print and social media technologies as realized in the publication of Twitterature: they provide a close analysis of the promotion and reception of Twitterature in light of digital/online writing theories, as well as a more general discussion of characterizations of the Twitter short form and the limitations, potentialities and problematics of web-based writing. This paper argues that Twitterature attempts to escape a loosely defined sense of the “literary” only to be reinscribed—and to some degree, reinscribe itself—within its bounds.4 This investigation of Twitter and Twitterature, then, serves as a jumping-off point for a broader analysis of the relationship between traditional print and new media; in particular, the popular and critical discourses amassing around Twitterature, relating both to its production and consumption, are all indicative of the greater trend (outlined in the first section) in ongoing new media conversations with regards to writing and publication.

The fourth and final section of this paper extends the analysis of the interacting discourses of print-based and digital writing beyond Twitterature and the new media scholarship examined here, assessing the implications of these findings for web-based writing in general contexts (i.e. blogs, social media platforms like Storify and Medium) and in academic ones (i.e. “academic” blogs and online communities, open-access journals). Contrastingly, it also briefly meditates upon the ways in which online writing in practice can be said to operate in opposition to the argument presented here; in other words, it begins to identify those writing spaces and practices that could be said to offer something new. In total, this essay will interrogate the increasingly tenuous relationship between print and online composition and publication by way of the Twitterature case study, exposing a continued critical reliance on the frameworks of material print in writing produced by and within new media, all in an effort to (re)consider the influence of these discourses on our understanding and production of both print-based and digital texts now and in the future.

Discourses Old and New: Accounting for Online and Digital Writing

Criticism of perpetually changing new media has become limited as scholars continue to rely on a recycled “new media” discourse, forcing, as Marshall McLuhan noted almost half a century ago, “the new media to do the work of the old” (McLuhan 81). Since McLuhan, the new media question has been exhaustively (re)framed within a set of important, but limited qualitative binaries: good versus bad, useful versus frivolous, literary versus illiterate, free versus prescribed, decentralized versus regulated, and so on. Such qualification has become redundant; as Henry Jenkins has noted, “Some fear that media is out of control, others that it is too controlled. Some see a world without gatekeepers, others a world where gatekeepers have unprecedented power….[T]he truth lies somewhere in between” (Jenkins, Convergence 18). Missing from the current new media critical landscape are more self-reflexive examinations of these discourses and various investments (personal, political, economic, etc.) therein, and how they might impede both our use and understanding of these media.

One iteration of this tendency towards reiteration is the persistence of print discourses in discussions of digital writing. In their various attempts to account for those changes brought about by the ever-increasing prominence of digital media, many new media scholars navigate the digital revolution by way of turning back to the media—and literature—of the past. Digital writing scholars seem occupied and even concerned by new media that drift away from familiar structures and/or enact new ones; correspondingly, there is a related interpretive move to equate these new forms of writing/reading with more familiar structures. In the first pages of The End of Books, for example, Jane Yellowlees Douglas, in her examination of hypertext or what she refers to as “interactive” narratives, establishes an “interactive narrative timeline” that begins with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and works up to Michael Joyce’s afternoon and Geoff Ryman’s 253 by way of Joyce’s Ulysses and—of all things—Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, among others (Douglas). Douglas’s timeline opens the book and therefore opens the conversation about interactive narratives within a limited framework, one that assumes these new media texts can be made readable and legible, can be comprehended only in relation to more traditional print counterparts. In a sense, primacy is assigned to those official print classics, while the digital texts are viewed as reconfigurations of more “real,” more recognizable works.

Where Douglas finds a progression from print to new media-based writing, Jay David Bolter, looking from “our computer keyboard to the books on our shelves” (Bolter 2-3) discovers what he terms “remediation,” or the overlapping and exchange of one medium (print) with another (digital writing) (23). According to Bolter, “The best way to understand electronic writing today is to see it as the remediation of printed text,” contextualising the computer and electronic writing based on its capacity to “improve” upon the printed book (26). Similarly, Jerome McGann asserts, “We are not facing the extinction of a species” but “the historical convergence of two great machineries of symbol production and hence of human consciousness” (McGann 209)—a term (“convergence”) later taken up by Henry Jenkins (and others) to describe the interrelationships within contemporary media culture. Elaborating on the work of Ithiel de Sola Pool (“[c]onvergence…operates as a constant force for unification but always in dynamic tension with change” [qtd. in Jenkins, Convergence 11]), Jenkins stresses the process of convergence—a perpetual, never-ending, ever-changing process (Jenkins, Convergence 16). All of these theorists rely on understandings of print texts in their attempts to provide greater understanding of new media texts.

Not all new media scholars endorse a progression, remediation or convergence of the age of print and the digital age, however; others make a point of challenging this adopted practice of reading digitally produced writing in relation to print culture. Espen Aarseth advocates for a context-specific discourse for the “ergodic” nature of cybertext, explicitly urging literary theorists “to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved”—though he expresses similar frustration with the reverse, technological determinist interpretation of the new media text as radically new (Aarseth 14). N. Katherine Hayles—at one point responding directly to Aarseth—agrees with his contention that new media criticism is limiting itself in its reliance and exhaustive deferral to more traditional literary criticism: “To see electronic literature only through the lens of print is, in a significant sense, not to see it at all” (Hayles, Electronic 3); “literary and cultural critics steeped in the print tradition cannot simply continue with business as usual. Needed are new theoretical frameworks…” (Hayles, Mother 11); “the criticism is littered with those who have fallen prey to Scylla or Charybdis, ballyhooing its novelty or failing to see the genuine differences that distinguish it from print” (Hayles, Electronic 30-1). Hayles’s resistance to such delimiting of the new media conversation is evident across her work as the above citations from both My Mother Was a Computer (2005) and Electronic Literature (2008) attest.

Even Hayles, however, seems unprepared to forego the new media-literary comparison completely; she qualifies her statements by cautioning against “abandoning the rich resources of traditional modes of understanding language” (Hayles, Electronic 24). Hayles’s insistence on the “rich” resource of print/literature-based textual scholarship is evidence of the seemingly inescapable framing of new media within the conventions—and “traditions,” as Hayles explicates here—of the old. She concludes that the “optimal” approach to reading and studying electronic literature is one that keeps in tension both textual tradition and media/ technological specificity, a call echoed by scholars like Alexander Galloway, who asserts the “specificity of the digital computer as a medium, not its similarity to other visual media” (Galloway 19, my emphasis), and Manuel Castells, who claims, above all else, that emergent new media analyses must focus their attention to “the specific effects of this specific technological revolution” (Castells 16).

Notably, the majority of the case studies taken up by the aforementioned theorists relate to the production of hypertext, where hypertext, the choose-your-own-adventure mode of electronic writing (and reading), comes to serve as the “missing link” between the old and the new—and so it does, I would argue, because to a certain extent it “looks” a lot like it “should.” Bolter concurs that physical, material interaction with the technology—or the concern over how “digital technology changes the ‘look and feel’ of writing and reading” (Bolter 24)—is an integral component of these types of analyses and examinations. Douglas explicitly characterizes hypertext fiction as a continuance and elaboration of print practices: “[h]ypertext fiction…follows and furthers the trajectory of hallowed touchstones of print cultures, especially the avant-garde novel” (Douglas 7). Many scholarly readings of hypertext acknowledge its continuance of print traditions, while celebrating and praising its novelty. Hayles, for instance, spends considerable time, like Douglas, tracing the introduction of hypertext through its print predecessors, but then concludes that hypertext functions more as a rupture than an extension of this tradition. Writing on Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, Hayles argues that this particular piece of hypertext ficion “can be seen as a contestation of the ideology implicit in the print novel as a literary form” (Hayles, Mother 10). Regardless of their final conclusions, the questions that Bolter, Douglas, Hayles and others ask of hypertext tend to restrict the discussion, and any evaluation, assessment or criticism of the (hyper)texts themselves, to the terms of print culture.

Of course, there are politics at play in these critical readings of hypertext and digital works—a desire to re-emphasize the importance and primacy of print in books…books like those cited here. Hayles’s insistence on holding onto the “rich” “tradition” of print-based theories of language, for instance, could be in part a safeguarding of her own work and its frequent movement between more traditional “literature” and the digital. In terms of the debate over whether it is worthwhile talking/writing about new media in relation to print-based media, as was noted by Jenkins, I contend that some sort of mediation between the two extremes is most apt: these new media require new discourses, but these discourses will inevitably be influenced and saturated by those discourses that have come before. This interplay of discourses becomes particularly pertinent to a work like Twitterature, which explicitly merges the worlds of print and digital. While these insistent print readings of digital texts prioritize the notion of singular, more traditional authorship (hallowed ground for their purveyors), Twitterature, originating as it does from the Twitter form, presumably opens up a space for more collaborative and group-oriented writing/reading, or so it claims.

Literary Rebels at Play: Marketing the Print-Digital Divide with Twitterature

“Twitterature provides everything you need to master the literature of the civilised world, while relieving you of the burdensome task of reading it,” or so explains the online blurb for Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less. Criticisms of the project run the gamut from the outrage of the terrified elite to the hyperbole of active Twitter participants: “Do you hear that? It’s the sound of Shakespeare, rolling over in his grave” (Taylor); “Dear god, help us all...I can’t adequately express my outrage at the fact that a social networking tool will now be ruining every single one of my favorite books” (Rebecca); “Twitterature makes me want to punch someone, preferably the ‘authors.’ They're in Chicago. I'm gonna take a road trip...” (@damig). Opting to invert these and other criticisms to serve instead as endorsements for the book (several of the most scathing early critiques were quoted on the book’s website, even before its release), Aciman, Rensin and (publisher) Penguin designed a promotional campaign that attempts to reach the (buying) audience through the rhetoric of rebellion.

But what exactly is being rebelled against? The following examination of the promotion and reception of Twitterature considers anew the print-digital relationship discussed thus far, and particularly the book’s self-proclaimed resistance to conventional notions of the “literary”—that which, seemingly, has readers ready to punch the book’s authors. While the act of adapting largely canonical works into “tweets” is presented (and reasserted in these criticisms) as provocative play on what constitutes “legitimate” engagement with literary texts, the containment of these tweeted adaptations in a published book of print undoes the act of rebellion and reinforces the very culture Twitterature is presumably resisting. The published Twitterature does not reflect the spirit of the Twitter application, described—somewhat ironically—by the book’s editor Will Hammond as “a free-for-all of voices clamouring for a split-second's attention with zero quality control” (Twitterature). Instead, it erases the potential for others to play, re-establishing the authority presumably removed in the initial act of tweeting, and reducing the collaborative potential of a form of writing designed to be community-driven.

Questions regarding “authority” are certainly common to any discussion of collaboratively produced texts. The negotiation of authority in Twitterature is complicated by its collaborative classification on several levels: the co-authorship of Aciman and Rensin; the implied collaboration of adaptation in the re-writing of literary texts; and the collaborative nature of the medium from which it draws its format and style. Understanding and articulating the collaborative potential of Twitter and the Internet more generally is a task to which scholars of both collaborative writing and cyberculture have been committed. George Landow, in his study of the parallels between hypertext and poststructuralism, suggests that web-based writing is inevitably, inherently and always (already) collaborative in nature: “Within a hypertext environment all writing becomes collaborative writing, doubly so” (Landow 136). Nowhere is this tendency made more manifest than in popular social media/Web 2.0 applications like blogs, wikis and an application like Twitter. As Twitter users come to “follow” other users, their main profile page—or “feed”—emerges as an ongoing conversation; a conversation which, while not always responsively (as in, characterized by responses) dialogic, becomes a perpetually changing, multivocal, collaborative text.

In addition to its presumably inherent collaborative properties, the Internet is also often heralded as being a particularly free or democratic space in which conversations that may not take place in the “real” world are given voice. Alexander Galloway in Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization traces—and himself opposes—the history of this supposition:

Critics love to exclaim that “everything has changed!” They write that advances such as new media, new technologies, new and faster methods of transferring information, democratization of technological luxuries, diversification of access to digital networks, the standardization of data formats, and the proliferation of networked relations will help usher in a new era marked by greater personal freedom, heightened interpersonal communication, ease from the burden of representation, new perspectives on the problem of the body, greater choice in consumer society, unprecedented opportunities for free expression, and, above all, speed. (Galloway 60)

Galloway goes on to largely deconstruct the promise of this kind of one-sided exclamatory praise, counteracting idealizations of the unlimited capacity of new media, or the view, as Galloway writes, that “the late twentieth century is a moment of transformation from a modern control paradigm based on centralization and hierarchy to a postmodern one based on flexibility and horizontalization” (158).

By contrast, writing on hypertext and collective authorship, Florian Hartling counters Galloway’s argument in his brief examination of what he refers to as “open source” programs with the ability to “self-produce”—gesturing towards, though not explicitly referencing Web 2.0 technologies (Hartling 293). In his discussion of the collaborative potential of the Internet, Hartling claims, “[d]ue to its structure, a new quality of collaborative and cooperative authorship is being created on the fringes of the Internet dispositif,” rendering “contents...without hierarchy” (293). Galloway, too, discusses Hardt and Negri’s dispositifs or apparatuses of control, but where Hartling asserts their authorial potential, Galloway insists that “[a] distributed architecture is precisely that which makes...control of the network so easy” (Galloway 25).

Galloway’s extended discussion of control is relevant here in relation to Aciman and Rensin’s pretence of rebelling against the canon in a space that has somehow permitted them to do so. Implicit to their project is the suggestion that Twitterature necessarily follows Twitter; that it could not have existed apart from the application, and that it is in some way the technology’s next logical step. In an interview with The Irish Times, Rensin claims that “the internet is a forum for the id, and Twitter encapsulates that....[I]n terms of content you can say anything” (McCann). Here, Twitter is characterized as a space in which anything can be said; or, as Rensin puts it, “anything can be tweeted” (Lang). Following from Galloway, this essay argues that Rensin’s contention is not necessarily true. On the contrary, Twitter and Twitterature especially may be read as sites that reflect and reinforce a system of control, rather than oppose it.

Generally speaking, Aciman and Rensin’s own position on Twitterature, as evidenced in interviews given in the months just before and just after the book’s release, can be summarized thus: they consider the project to be funny; they consider the project to be “rebellious;” while somewhat in opposition to the previous claim, they also consider the project to honour or pay homage to the canon. The first claim is made clear by Rensin’s comments in various interviews, elucidating Twitterature’s existence by observing, “all comedy proceeds from the pun” (Cowan); “Great literature has always benefitted from the humor of commentary” (Lang). In other words, Twitterature is funny and there is precedence for this type of humour. Secondly, the authors clarify the “joy” of the project to be “saying inappropriate things” (Lang), and the work has been labelled in reviews as “irreverent” and “profane” (Cowan). When questioned about some of the negative reactions to the book, Aciman and Rensin, in the book’s introduction, respond, “we prefer to think of ourselves as modern day Martin Luthers” (xiv). In other words, Twitterature is breaking the rules. Finally, both Aciman and Rensin tackle the concern of canon-crashing by antithetically reasserting the primacy of the canon. Claims Aciman, “We’re making available the idea behind great works of art” (Cowan); “We’re not taking Shakespeare off the shelves...[a lot of people who seemed upset] will be able to appreciate the humour while not fearing for the canon that they revere” (Cowan), adds Rensin. They go as far as to claim that Twitterature “brings out the sublime essence” of the works “better than most college papers” (Lang), and one reviewer’s comment that “Twitterature is a celebration of the novel” (The Blob) is certainly reiterated by the links conveniently provided on the book’s website to all those works “adapted” in Twitterature—Penguin editions available, of course, for purchase.

Before debunking Aciman and Rensin’s insistence on Twitterature as (hyper)textual rebellion, it is useful to look at another component of the promotional framing of the book: recalling their editor’s definition of Twitter, the contention that both Twitterature and Twitter are represented as products of play. Critical attempts to define or signify what it means to collaborate have largely overlooked the consideration of collaboration as play, with a few exceptions. Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, for example, writing on feminist collaboration, invoke Bakhtin’s work on heteroglossia, identifying the way in which “interacting voices ‘play,’ emphasizing that textual authority is shared rather than centralized” (Singley 68). While not referencing Bakhtin directly, Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford also pick up on this characterization of collaboration in Singular Texts/Plural Authors, drawing similar though slightly different conclusions:

The dialectical tension between hierarchical and dialogic modes of collaboration mirrors the historical tension between the individual and society; the pragmatic tension between goal-directed work and process-oriented play...[T]he phenomenon of collaborative writing calls up all of these dialectical tensions....What seems...powerful to to allow the free play of the paradoxes animating collaborative writing to raise questions of power, politics, historiography, and ideology... (Ede 136, emphases added)

While Singley and Sweeney’s Bakhtinian definition might readily endorse the aforementioned view of the Internet as free and democratic, Ede and Lunsford’s reference to the “paradoxes” of collaborative writing reveals reluctance in line with that of Galloway to idealize such collaboration.

In emphasizing the dynamics of play (or no) within collaborative writing, we might consider the self-re/presentation of authors Aciman and Rensin. Would the Twitterature authors characterize their project as “playful”? Is Twitterature, according to Aciman and Rensin, “serious” business? The image provided on the Penguin website of Twitterature’s authors is telling:

Ingleton fig.1

Here they are, the tweeting twosome; arguably the only nineteen year olds in America to have detailed knowledge of the works of everyone from Cervantes to Pushkin, Sophocles to Proust. In this photograph (which appears both on the book’s website and the back cover of the book itself), Aciman, on the left, appears mid-laugh, casually dressed in a polo shirt, seeming carefree and, well, young. Rensin, on the right, is too cool for school, so to speak; laidback (literally), eyes closed, above it all. Their bios include talk of card magic and dreams of owning John Lobb shoes. In sum, there is a concerted effort to appear not only apart from the publishing world, but in opposition to it. Here the modern literary rebels at play.

In The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter tackle marketing schemes and product classifications similar to those incorporated by Aciman, Rensin and Twitterature, exposing their sub/countercultural attempts as fraudulent—or at the very least misinformed. Heath and Potter write how “[i]n the countercultural analysis, simply having fun comes to be seen as the ultimate subversive act,” but oppose this claim by asserting that “[h]aving fun is not subversive, and it doesn’t undermine any system” (Heath 9). To apply this argument to Twitterature, we see how Aciman and Rensin’s pet project performs rebellion against and subversion of some kind of assumed, legitimate “literariness” in order to undermine the system, but in the end does no more than reaffirm it. Twitterature is not operating at the margins of the cultural sphere; in fact, as a published book, it is operating at its centre.

For that matter, the idea behind Twitterature is nothing new. Adaptations, (satirical) reinterpretations, reworkings, (unauthorized) sequels, prequels, fan fictions...“literature” could be said to be in the process of being rewritten from the moment it is published. Various forms of adaptation as commentary are practically the groundwork for all of postmodern fiction, where a hyper-aware intertextuality becomes a playground of “adaptation, translation, parody, pastiche, imitation, and other kinds of transformation” (Oxford). Twitterature seems to implicitly proclaim its removal from this tradition of adaptation, but the persistence of the “literary” clings, not least of all because of its explicit adaption of “the greatest works of western literature” (Twitterature).  

Perhaps the most necessary challenge to the Twitterature project is the question of whether a tweet is really a tweet if it has never been tweeted. Thus far this discussion has been reliant on Twitterature’s relation to new and particularly social media—to the Twitter application, to the free (or not), democratic (or not) space opened up in which Shakespeare’s longest play might be reduced to a few lines for all to read and retweet and respond to. But save for a few example tweet series of Harry Potter, Twilight, The Da Vinci Code—are these really canon fodder?—Hamlet and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Twitterature’s tweeted adaptations have not actually been tweeted. In fact, the @AcimanandRensin Twitter account was only established as yet another promotional tool for the book. It did not even exist before Penguin agreed to publish the manuscript. Put simply: these tweets are cheats! Reviews like that of Jerry Langton writing for claiming, “what the authors...must do [is] convince people to pay for something on Twitter when Twitter is free” (Langton) are unfounded—because Aciman and Rensin’s Twitterature is not actually on Twitter.

Twitterature, therefore, represents an odd straddling of the realms of print and web. Despite invoking a form of writing born in and (presumably) reserved for the Internet, it exists only on the same pages as the eighty or so written and printed works it attempts to adapt. In so doing, authors Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin have delimited the critical commentary they set out to provide and unintentionally exposed the limitations, as well as the structures informing social media/Web 2.0. Even if we endorse the collaborative potential of Twitter and the Internet more generally, based on the “play,” provocative or otherwise, which may ensue in this conversational space, this potential is in many ways reduced the moment Twitterature is published instead of tweeted, denying the community access and solidifying a final and authoritative version of the text.

Twitterature’s privileging of the printed form evident in both its reverence for those texts it seeks to adapt and in its own publication format, recalls the persistence of print (as both a format, and as a discourse) interrogated in the opening section of this paper. Like those critical works by Hayles et al, Twitterature exposes the insistent transitory nature of so-called “new” media (and their related, emergent forms of writing) in its frequent recollections of the prominence of print-based media. Would our reading of Twitterature be any different were it a web-based work? To begin with, it would certainly make Penguin considerably less money. Its media exposure would be greatly reduced as it would not, as some reviewers suggest, have made the transition to a form that matters: “Twitterature, unlike other Twitter incursions into high culture, is making its way into the real world—published in proper book form, and by Penguin no less” (The Blob). According to this comment, only as a printed book5 does Twitterature become “real” and “proper.” Is there a possibility, then, for sub/countercultural rebellion if Twitterature were composed solely via a Twitter account? Or, is there a certain power latent in this reversal of publishing influence: the appropriation of a web-based format in a print-based publication? The previously referenced arguments put forth by Galloway and Heath and Potter suggest that this is not necessarily the case.

Twitter and the Politics of Short-form Writing

Twitterature is not the only publication to take up the tweeted form in a printed book—though, unlike Twitterature, most Twitter books actually are collections of previously tweeted material. Around the same time as Twitterature was released, New York Times technology columnist David Pogue published The World According to Twitter: Crowd-sourced Wit and Wisdom, a work comprised of the responses of numerous Pogue “followers” to various questions he had tweeted across a single year. While Pogue refers to his work explicitly as collaborative, it is his name and not “Twitter community at large” or “Pogue followers on Twitter” that appears on the cover—and it is Pogue who profits from the book’s royalties. In a similar vein, Nick Douglas’s Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 Characters or Less, identified as “An Authorized Collection of the Funniest Tweets of All Time,” collects and categorizes tweets from Twitter’s early days of popularity and from some of Twitter’s most (in)famous participants. Other Twitter-based works include The History of the World Through Twitter, co-written by Jon Holmes and Mitch Benn, and My Shorts R Bunching. Thoughts?: The Tweets of Roland Hedley, a collection of tweets composed by fictional Doonesbury character, reporter Roland Hedley. There are hundreds of other Twitter-related titles, published over the past few years,6 most frequently those works offering how-to Twitter help and innovative suggestions to the business-minded.

Among the most interesting early print releases to emerge from the Twitterverse was Twitter’s “official” style guide: 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form, written by one of Twitter’s co-creators, Dom Sagolla. The guide is sold in both print and digital formats; the application/hypertext edition is available for Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad and is, according to the website, updated frequently with new content (currently operating as version 1.5). The following section analyzes the precepts of Sagolla’s guide, a guide that claims both to inform and be informed by the tweets of the greater Twitter community. The stated goals and style suggestions of 140 Characters, interestingly enough, align suggestively with the implicit goals of Twitterature outlined earlier in this paper. Just as Twitterature is presented and marketed to highlight its humorous, subversive and yet canon-endorsing qualities, likewise 140 Characters proclaims a Twitter standard that is defined by both movement within, and the rigidity of,7 a standard form. According to Sagolla’s guide, there is room for humour and subversion, but only within agreed-upon bounds—bounds Sagolla continuously (and somewhat ironically, given the nature of the 140 Characters project) asserts need be and are established democratically.

The purpose of 140 Characters, as explained on, is “to document and standardize this new language as a short form of communication.” As a component of this standardization project, Sagolla welcomes the input of the Twitter community, stating, “we’ve only described 1% of this new medium. The remaining 99% is up to you. Everyone is welcome to participate in the definition of short form” (Sagolla). Sagolla claims the challenges facing the short form are unique to the form itself: “Short-form communication is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Those same features are also the bane of the medium. Interruption and distraction can appear at any time, and anywhere. The weakness of short-form communication is the need for filters” (1). Here “interruption” and “distraction”—arguably two touchstones of subversive artistry—are deemed “weaknesses” and are consequently disposed of. Instead, the “need for filters” becomes the guide’s working mantra, which, while perhaps a necessity to the construction of any style guide, seems an inappropriate stipulation given a medium/space frequently heralded (as has already been discussed) for being free, democratic and conducive to collaboration.

In doling out his restrictions, Sagolla is quick to assert the “we” of the project, displacing arguments that might suggest that a filtered “free-for-all”—to return to Will Hammond’s description of Twitterature—is, in fact, a paradox: “We build our own short code collaboratively. The French call this Oulipo: a loose gathering of writers creating works using constrained writing techniques. We decide together, in small groups at first, what is acceptable according to the constraints. When an innovation appears, it takes the form of a pattern” (76, emphases added). That Sagolla chooses to compare the short-form writing of Twitter to such an elite and context-specific writing practice like “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” or Oulipo,8 a practice literally defined by constraint, is revealing. 140 Characters appears in these and other descriptions provided in Sagolla’s book as the new media city upon a hill: “We stand at a frontier in writing. This wilderness grows wilder and less civilized as more and more writers create more and more content. We must establish a form to this frontier, and develop 140 characters as a standard worthy of literature” (1). Sagolla’s constant reassertions that this city/standard will be built ensemble—“we...can...invent a potent new language together” (1, emphases added)—do little to assuage the uncomfortable, unspoken connotations that this work, like the American Dream haunting the margins of such grandiose exclamations, must come at the expense of the voices overwritten in the process.

Sagolla argues for a hierarchy within the short form he aims to standardize, or attempts to imply that such a hierarchy is already in place and in need only of being recorded or rendered official. Aciman and Rensin similarly position their project, engaging with, but stressing their position as well apart from, the medium of Twitter (thus placing themselves atop the hierarchy). It is interesting, then, that Sagolla references Twitterature in his style guide, in a sense authenticating it as a legitimate contributor to the formation of an acceptable short-form standard: 

Folks, the short format does not leave room for the epistle. You won’t be writing a novel, a epic poem, or a canto. There is no room for foreshadowing, allegory, or subplot. Do not burden the reader with embellishment or exaggeration. Paraphrase instead. It’s become hip to rewrite a longer work in 140 character increments. A pair of college freshmen have dubbed this “Twitterature.” (75)

Taking up perhaps the most common comparison proffered in reviews of Twitterature, Sagolla then asks, “What is Twitterature if not the Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes? I submit that it is much more than that; many distinct and persistent literary forms may be reduced to 140 characters without dissolution of their essence” (76). In his characterization and contextualization of the Twitterature project, we see Sagolla both assert a compositional directive (i.e. “paraphrase” and “reduce”), but also, much like Aciman and Rensin, he couches this directive within a framework of traditional literary touchstones (genres and patterns). Sagolla’s approach to formulating his style guide (and the very existence of a “style guide” in the first place) once again harkens back to a more literary tradition,9 a move made here, even in its simultaneous distancing from the forms of such a tradition, to legitimize the emergent short-form. The tweet, a form of communication borne of the text message, becomes the counterpart of the novel, the poem, the pretentious experimental writing. The very frequency of print-published Twitter material (Twitterature included, as well as the additional texts listed earlier) suggests a continued critical reliance on the frameworks of material print in writing produced by and within new media.

As Sagolla continually asserts is true in 140 Characters, Twitter participants are sold on the idea that one can say or type/tweet anything on Twitter. However, this is not to say that tweeting is entirely undirected. The 140-character “update” box that constitutes the Twitter application was originally designed to function as an answer space for the question, “What are you doing?” This question appeared at the top of each Twitter homepage, indicating that all tweeting was to proceed from this question. On 19 November 2009, Twitter changed this leading question to “What’s happening?” in response, according to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s announcement on Twitter’s official blog, to participants’ habitual reinterpretation or manipulation of the original question and thus the application more broadly:

People, organizations, and businesses quickly began leveraging the open nature of the network to share anything they wanted, completely ignoring the original question, seemingly on a quest to both ask and answer a different, more immediate question, "What's happening?" A simple text input field limited to 140 characters of text was all it took for creativity and ingenuity to thrive...The fundamentally open model of Twitter created a new kind of information network and it has long outgrown the concept of personal status updates. Twitter helps you share and discover what's happening now among all the things, people, and events you care about. "What are you doing?" isn't the right question anymore—starting today, we've shortened it by two characters. Twitter now asks, "What's happening?" We don't expect this to change how anyone uses Twitter... (@BIZ)

Stone’s comments ring uncannily similar to those quoted earlier from Sagolla. The same anxieties are there, with Stone continually reinforcing the “open nature” and “fundamentally open model” that (presumably) defines Web 2.0. Stone feels the need to reassert himself as authority on Twitter in response to the subversive manipulations of its original incarnation, broadening the question to account for the diversity of tweets that have occurred regardless, independent of such cues. But why the need for a question at all? If Twitter creators “don’t expect this to change how anyone uses Twitter,” what does this say about the question, and Twitter more generally? By representing the innovation as having organically emerged out of everyday Twitter participation, just as Sagolla claimed a similar organic materialization of a short-form style, Stone stakes a claim for democracy—and in the process ironically proves the verity of Galloway’s control model.

All things considered, in examining these discussions of Twitter and Twitterature, it becomes more and more evident that we lack sufficient critical means for articulating—and thus for comprehending—the advent and impact of the communicative functions of new media technologies. As a result, critics, authors and new media creators can be witnessed sifting through old models and drawing endless comparisons, all in an effort to legitimize, authorize and revolutionize these spaces and practices. As new forms of offline-oriented online writing and online-oriented offline writing continue to emerge, these discourses must be attended to in order to better understand the negotiation of textuality, authority and control in an increasingly web-dominated society.

The Question of Authority: Online Writing and the Academic Imperative

I feel it is important at this point to own up to my own involvement in perpetuating these discourses, reverting back to old forms in order to critically address new ones. Consider my reaction to Rensin’s initial Facebook contact: somewhat taken aback by his message and eager to determine what it might critically mean, I tweeted the following: “Why my work is different: Odds are Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot et al will NOT add you to Facebook upon discovering you’ve written about them.” While my comment was intended as a joke, now that I reflect on it further, I wonder what Rensin and Twitterature really have to do with that particular smattering of “L”iterature. Why are we—and why was I—unable to talk about or conceive of online writing apart from offline writing, the digital apart from more traditional print, and what might we be able to accomplish—both in terms of criticism and new forms of writing—if we could?

As has been alluded to already, the perpetuation of more traditional discourses on writing has a lot to do with permitting only the same kinds of arguments about authority and how it is constructed. There is considerable overlap between the anxieties of social media and those of the figure of the author or of authorship more generally—regarding identity, freedom and control, authenticity and legitimacy, copyright and ownership, “quality” and value, both in an economic sense but also in more abstract senses (e.g. moral value). By no means distinct, these concerns speak to each other and are complexly interwoven, and are certainly to be found in the study of both new media and authorship. The desire or imperative to retain a concrete conception of “The Author” stems from concerns regarding the authentic and legitimate voice of a text—a frequent concern in academia, and gradually of greater concern in the realm of social media.10 Attentiveness to these discourses recalls the manifold ways that academic authority can be instated, complicated and even denied in social media, as well as the residual reliance on the concept of authority in an academic system where the link between the author and his or her name as realized through publication remains paramount to individual success—a link many fear is weakened in virtual space.

We might ask, therefore, how the tendencies identified throughout the body of this essay relate to current academic social media projects explicitly attempting to bridge the gap between print and the digital, like those of Gary Hall, Clare Birchall and others’ open access Culture Machine and Liquid Books, academic blogs like Henry Jenkins’s Confessions of an Aca-Fan and group blog Crooked Timber, or Facebook-inspired academic applications like and Alan Liu’s forthcoming RoSE, or Research-oriented Social Environment? In its brief description of its innovative open access journal, Culture Machine seemingly cannot help but temper its call for “open-ended and experimental” writing with the need to be “useful” and “practical” (Culture Machine); in their first post, the blogging cohort known as Crooked Timber oddly bind their “new enterprise” to “the approval of readers of judgment and taste” (Crooked Timber); in his oft-blogged urges to “[take] down the walls…that isolate academic research from the larger public conversations about media change” through social media participation (Jenkins, “YouTube”), Henry Jenkins ultimately locates this participation in, and is himself supported by, the “university” proper; and Alan Liu draws his own literary parallels when he asserts that social computing and social reading amount to “studying literariness” in the digital age; that social computing can and should become an “object of literary study,” and that the “computer can help us discover what we’ve been doing all along” (Liu)—in other words, digital or online writing is different, but one can overlook or overwrite this difference as is convenient to render it simply more of the same in order to critically address it as such. I do not line up these examples merely to denounce them. But it certainly seems that the inevitable outcome of attempting to reconstitute disciplinary modes of production is the perpetual maintenance of the actual and assumed schism between “new” media and old, or in this case, digitally produced text and print literature. Furthermore, those explanations and analyses provided by academics attempting to account for social media given their embeddedness in the still largely print-based world of academia are, in part, just that: the clinging justifications of an older world faced with the onset of change. How can we trace/account for change with discourses that are always already insufficient? How might we avoid “rearviewmirrorism” (Fiske and Hartley 3) given our own inevitably limited perspectives? These questions/tasks are not simple, and most usefully begin with a recognition and persistent awareness of discursively bound disciplinary anxieties.

While Aciman and Rensin and the various scholars addressed here can be found reverting back to more traditional frameworks for understanding digital/online writing (themselves armed with particular investments in these more established, arguably more marketable forms), their commentaries are not necessarily representative of or equivalent to working understandings of digital forms as they are experienced and interacted with online. Blogging (on sites like WordPress and Blogger) and microblogging (on Twitter and Tumblr) and everything in between (newer social media start-ups, like and Storify), after all, increasingly need be classified as distinctly “new” forms of writing, marking decided and significant ruptures with more traditional, literary forms. One of the latest applications to appear on the social media scene, Medium (created by Blogger and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his team), openly addresses the reluctance on the part of both the Internet and its critics to think beyond a print-based world in the process of being transformed: “some things haven’t evolved as much as we would have expected…And in many ways, the web is still mimicking print concepts, while not even catching up to it in terms of layout, design, and clarity of experience” (Medium). In framing the introduction of his latest social media venture in this way, Williams appears perceptive and keenly aware of the remediation (to return to Bolter’s term) of social media and the longstanding history of literature and print. He is not discouraged, nor surprised by this tendency; if anything, he seems buoyed by it. Perhaps, then, it is the coming days of applications like Medium and the continuance of Twitter and other short-form, microblogging platforms that will demand and evince more context-specific discourses, and new ways of conceiving and articulating digital/online writing.

The Internet and social media are changing the ways we write and read, as well as the ways we think and talk about writing and reading. Which is not to say that the space between something like the print tradition and digital media is an easy one to solve…or dissolve. After all, when Emmett Rensin, the author of Twitterature, private messaged me on Facebook, asking for a copy of the paper I had delivered at the 2009 NeMLA conference, I decided, in the end…not to give it to him. This was a paper I had worked on for a whole term and submitted for grading in a course on (ironically) collaborative authorship, a paper I hoped to adapt into a journal length article and one day publish. This was “serious business.” Mr. Rensin may have composed Twitterature on a whim, but he was certainly not going to see my critical reading of his experiment. After all, what might he do with it? And how could his exposure to my criticism jeopardize my attempt to market the paper for academic capital? I was able to speak on Rensin’s work but he was never exposed to mine, merely tempted with the suggestion of it. Our interaction was brief and, ultimately, shut down by me.

This paper has attempted to reveal and critique the persistence of literary and print-based discourses in discussions of emergent digital/online writing and its criticism/theorisations, as well as the more general tendency in new media scholarship to constitute the innovative within the bounds of the old, the former, the past. As it turns out, even—and perhaps especially—my own work remains caught between the traditions and innovations of my discipline and of writing more generally. That having been said, I hope by examining the relationships between these two modes of production, these two technologies, more closely, we can amplify our understanding and employment of them.

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

Aciman, Alexander and Emmett Rensin. Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.

Bennett, James and Niki Strange, Eds. Television as Digital Media. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Blob, The. “Twitterature arrives on Australian bookshelves.” Windows Live. 3 Nov 2009. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

Bolter, J. David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. 2nd edition. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. Print.

Castells, Manuel. “The Net and the Self: Working Notes for a Critical Theory of the Informational Society.” Critique of Anthropology 16:1 (1996): 9-38. Print.

Cowan, Matt and Andrew Stern. “Twitter entries satirize works of literature.” Reuters. 23 Oct 2009. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

Crooked Timber. 2012. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

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Douglas, J. Yellowlees. The End of Books—Or Books without End? Reading Interactive Narratives. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.

Douglas, Nick. Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 Characters or Less. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.

Fiske, John and John Hartley. Reading Television. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Hartling, Florian. “Hypertext and Collective Authors: The Influence of the Internet on the Formation of New Concepts of Authorship.” Literatures in the Digital Era: Theory and Praxis. Ed. Amelia Sanz and Dolores Romero. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 289-96. Print.

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Honeycutt, Courtenay and Susan C. Herring. “Beyond Microblogging: Conversation and Collaboration via Twitter.” Proceedings of the Forty-Second Hawai’i International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-42), January 5-8, 2009, Waikoloa, Big Island, HI, USA. 1-10. IEEE Press. 15 Sept 2012. Web.

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Lang, Kirstie. “Front Row with Kirstie Lang.” BBC 4. 29 Oct 2009. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

Langton, Jerry. “Will Canadians embrace ‘Twitterature’?” 10 Nov 2009. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

Liu, Alan. “From Reading to Social Computing.” NeMLA. 9 April 2010. Keynote.

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McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Print.

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Pogue, David. The World According to Twitter: Crowd-sourced Wit and Wisdom from David Pogue. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009. Print.

Rebecca. “Twitter book infuriates English teachers everywhere.” Zooloo. 24 Jun 2009. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

Singley, Carol J. And Susan Elizabeth Sweeney. “In League with Each Other: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Collaboration.” Common Ground: Feminist Collaboration in the Academy. Ed. Elizabeth G. Peck and JoAnna Stephens Mink. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 63-77. Print.

Taylor, Marisa. “‘Twitterature’ to Hit the Bookstores.” Wall Street Journal Blogs. 24 Jun 2009. Web. 15 Sept 2012.

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1“Community, Rebellion and the Reinforcement of Authority in @AcimanandRensin’s Twitterature

2It is interesting to note that I had, in fact, attempted to establish contact with the authors using the @AcimandandRensin Twitter account while preparing the paper, in the hopes of conducting an informal interview, but the only response I received directed all queries to their publicist.

3Of course, reading new media alongside print culture is by no means the only comparative approach adopted in new media scholarship. For example, James Bennett and Niki Strange’s anthology Television as Digital Media (2011) “analyze[s] digital TV as part of digital culture…to understand the relationship between television and digital media” (Bennett and Strange).

4Bearing in mind that the “literary” clings in part in this particular case as a result of Aciman and Rensin’s explicit adaption of literary works.

5Granted, since Twitterature’s initial publication, it has appeared not only as a paperback, but also as an e-book. However, even as an electronic copy, the Twitterature manuscript is unalterable and must be purchased to be read.

6To give a better sense of the overall timeline, Twitter celebrated its six-year anniversary in March of 2012.

7Sagolla’s website even provides guidelines on how one might “properly” tweet or retweet about 140 Characters on Twitter.

8Interestingly enough, Oulipo is frequently referred to in criticism of digital/online writing as another of its many proto-texts.

9Sagolla brands Twitter “a new genre of literature” (Sagolla xv) and a “literary movement” (75).

10For example, on 11 June 2009, Twitter introduced a “Verified Account” option for well-known and celebrity tweeters. Verified accounts were from this point forward literally branded with a “Verified Badge” (it appears as a checkmark beside the users’ names), “to establish authenticity of identities on Twitter. The goal of this program is to limit user confusion by making it easier to identify authentic accounts on Twitter” (Twitter). This is a salient example of the drive to authenticate and legitimize the authorial voice outside of the academy.

Biography: Pamela Ingleton is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, writing a dissertation on online authorship and the discourses of social media. Her work has been published with Flow (“‘Mechanisms for non-elite voices:’ Mass-Observation and Twitter”), In Media Res (“Lacking ‘honesty’ and ‘a human quality’: Sorkin and the Anti-Social Network”) and Palgrave Macmillan (a contributing chapter of J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter, Eds. Cynthia J. Hallett and Peggy J. Huey). She can most often be found “researching” on Facebook, Twitter (@PamelaIngleton) and the blogosphere.


© 2012 Pamela Ingleton, used by permission.

Technoculture Vol. 2 (2012)