mar 11/18 • zwitschermaschine
This week, I’m taking a look at Jennifer Egan’s Black Box.
How I read Black Box: I typed “from:nyerfiction since:2012-05-24 until:2012-06-04” into Twitter’s search bar and scrolled to the bottom to start at the beginning. I read the story on my iPhone.
What I liked about reading it this way:
- I was reading on the same platform the story was intended for
- I could see how people had interacted with individual tweets (replies, retweets, likes)
- I could see what else was tweeted from @NYerFiction between installments
What I didn’t like:
- the tweets were released according to a schedule, so the break would often occur in an unnatural place, and I might have to scroll back to a previous tweet and refresh my memory
- @NYerFiction wouldn’t always introduce the story before it began, so the change from their typical tweets (mostly promoting stories on their website) to Egan’s fiction was sometimes jarring
In contrast to David Mitchell’s The Right Sort, which read like a short story arbitrarily divided into tweets, the tweets in Black Box act as the main character’s mental mission log and feel like an appropriate medium for the story. Some thoughts/tweets stand alone, and could be retweeted and understood without context. But knowing how the story was originally published (one tweet per minute for an hour each night, for ten nights) I would not have wanted to experience it that way. Some serial TV is meant to be binge-watched, being easier to follow when you can digest an entire season over a few days or weeks instead of months–I think Black Box functions in a similar way.
In the years since this story first appeared on Twitter, the platform has changed. The character limit has doubled from 140 to 280. Twitter supports “threads,” connected series of tweets which allow the user to read them in chronological order, rather than most recent first. Both of these changes open up new ways for people to use the platform. There were also several aspects of the platform that Egan didn’t take advantage of: immediacy (allowing story to unfold in real time rather than through scheduled tweets,) interactivity (readers’ ability to impact with the characters/story), or multi-media (using images, videos, hyperlinks, etc.). I don’t think these elements are necessarily right for her story; I don’t think Twitter is necessary for her story.
Jennifer Egan, “Black Box”
David Mitchell’s “The Right Sort”
Sceptre Books [timeline]: The Right Sort (read the story on Twitter, but in chronological order, top to bottom)
more tangential thoughts on twitter fiction and serialization below:
In “Staggered transmissions,” Andersen points to @I_Bombadil as an example of a story that needs Twitter, and brings up Henry Jenkins’ “transmedia storytelling”–and this is where I see real opportunities for Twitter. I’ve used Jenkins to talk about transmedia storytelling before, in reference to Pemberley Digital‘s projects, most notably, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Watching characters from the story interact in real time afforded the story verisimilitude, but often these interactions had limited impact on plot, for a couple reasons: one, the writers were limited by what the characters would plausibly tweet, and; two, the bulk of the plot was in Lizzie’s video diaries.
Stories across multiple accounts can be difficult to archive, however. And relying on external tools like Storify (due to be shut down in May) to help organize our stories puts us in a vulnerable position. This, to me, is Twitter’s big storytelling weakness–it’s difficult to preserve the reading experience.
When it comes to modern serialized literature, I think there are better examples than Twitter. Fanfiction, for one, or writers posting on Wattpad, where readers eagerly await the next chapter, and the writers can read readers’ comments as they go. Webcomics like Homestuck, which incorporates gifs, animations, and instant message logs, and unfolded over seven years.
Can you think of other examples?
Tore Rye Andersen, “Staggered transmissions: Twitter and the return of serialized literature” in Convergence 23.1 (2017) (.pdf)