washingtonpost.com
Short(est) Stories
The Art of Twitterature Means Making 140 Characters Count

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The whole world is on Twitter. Yawn.

Tweets, people will tell you, rot our brains. They ruin our attention spans, inflate our egos. Maureen Dowd would rather be eaten alive by ants than be Twittering, or so she said in a recent column.

So let's keep this thesis statement short, shorter than the 140 characters allowed by the micro-blogging service:

@Naysayers: Twitter is more complex than it looks. It might even be art.

Almost everyone appears insanely boring on Twitter.

This is because the question Twitter asks its approximately 7 million users is, What are you doing? And because users can respond to that question via mobile device, the answer is often: waiting.

They're waiting at the DMV. They're waiting for dinner. They're at the airport, waiting for a flight, and when they get home they can't wait to see "Wolverine."

Ashton Kutcher, the much-heralded Twitterer with the most followers -- approaching 2 million -- is no exception.

"We are in the middle of a tornado watch," he, as aplusk, tweeted recently, waiting for production to resume on a film set. But we don't care when movie stars are insanely boring. Their insanely boring days fascinate us.

Here's something odd:

There are some non-celebrities who amass giant followings. Thousands of strangers tune in for regular updates of these nobodies' lives.

And something else odd: The next few months will see a slew of books about Twitter. Most of these tomes are 200-plus pages, meaning the books teaching you how to use Twitter are 3,000 times longer than the longest thing you'll ever write on Twitter.

Either scads of publishers are fiendishly preying on our technological insecurities . . . or creating the perfect tweet actually requires learned skills.

Those in the know say it's the latter, and offer some guidance.

Make It Participatory

"There has to be something useful and fundamentally unselfish about a good tweet," says Laura Fitton, author of "Twitter for Dummies" (insert obvious joke about Twitter already being for dummies), who as Pistachio has 30,000 followers on Twitter. The best tweets, Fitton says, provide more value to the reader than to the person writing it.

The masses of people who "blurt-tweet" and unthinkingly brain-dump into their account, Fitton says, will never achieve anything more meaningful than a public diary.

A few weeks ago, Fitton watched as her young daughter took a nasty fall. Wanting to let out her concern, she briefly considered Twittering the incident, until she realized that would help nobody and be white noise to almost everybody. Instead she ultimately wrote, "What do you do when something really scares you?"

What could have been a myopic update instead became a participatory discussion -- dozens of users began responding to her question, re-posting it in their own feeds.

Twitter is full of questions like this: Why do people change their minds when it's too late? writes one person. What do you do when Plan A doesn't work? another asks.

The most compelling tweets aren't the ones that merely answer "What are you doing?" but rather the ones that create ripples throughout the online community. They prompt discussion, self-reflection and philosophizing -- if of the dime-store variety.

Make It Universal

Several connoisseurs of Internet culture, when asked to nominate brilliant Twitterers, suggested tracking down fireland.

"I follow him purely for aesthetics," says Clay Shirky, author of the social networking bible "Here Comes Everybody." "It's like he has aphoristic dyspepsia. It's not quite poetry," but each of his tweets has a self-contained pithiness.

A recent fireland post:

"Flowers, sailor suit, flask, proof of employment, Ativan. OK, I think I'm ready for Mother's Day."

And:

"If I jump out of the car now I'll probably break my leg but at least I won't have to think of something nice to say about her scrapbooking."

Fireland is Denver copywriter Joshua Allen. The scrapbooking detail is incidental to the story -- this tweet is more about universal gender differences: Girl wants to talk, confrontation-averse Guy doesn't want to hurt her feelings.

"I never want my tweets to rely on specific context," Allen says. "I want them to be something anyone could read and understand."

That's a primary difference between Twitter and, say, texting or Facebook status updates. Both of the latter are based on reciprocity and personal knowledge. Tweets, on the other hand, are one-sided -- sent out to people you may not know, with the goal of attracting more people you may not know. "It's more of a performance," Allen says.

For example: "Alexis has to go pee in a cup at the doctor's office" is actually a terrific Facebook status update -- if you know that Alexis is pregnant and this is a very positive doctor visit.

As a Twitter post, it would be a complete failure. It's at once too vague and too specific. A good pregnancy tweet would say something about pregnancy in general, or about doctors in general, or better yet, about excitement and anticipation.

Make It Count

For the fleet-fingered and adventurous, individual tweets are merely a starting place. Writer Matt Richtel recently tweeted an entire novel (a "twiller," he called it) about a guy who wakes up with amnesia and begins to think that he might have committed murder. Its brief installments read like disjointed interior monologues, peppered with the misspellings common in real tweets (sorry, Oscar de la Renta!):

"back to blond. inhale her oscar de la rente. memory pierces amnesia; saw her once with bloody hands. Where? Jesus. Gin please. Please."

Drama is necessary, lest some astute Twitter critic (twitic?) respond to your masterpiece with a posting like this recent one, from blondediva11: "Your tweet was 'cute' but it had some dull stretches."

Is Richtel's novel quality writing? Debatable.

But for users like him, and the hordes of would-be writers of Twitterature, there exist iPhone applications like Birdhouse. Birdhouse, invented by Californian Adam Lisagor (lonelysandwich on Twitter) is a new publishing tool that allows Twitterers to draft their tweets -- sometimes dozens of times over the course of weeks -- before making them public.

"Sometimes it's a matter of, this is the perfect idea but not the perfect phrasing," Lisagor says. Or maybe the phrase is 144 characters long, but if you sit on it for a few days, you'll come up with a shorter synonym.

Lisagor sounds a little nuts, but then again he's the one with 14,000 followers tuned to his every keystroke.

Of course, some might say that drafting a tweet defeats the purpose of a tweet -- if it's not spontaneous and it's not about something happening now, what's the point?

Which brings us to . . .

Make It . . . Art?

"Every new medium has the potential to be an art form," says Tim O'Reilly. Famous for helping coin the phrase "Web 2.0," O'Reilly is also the co-author of "The Twitter Book." "It just takes a while for [the medium] to adapt. When we first started making movies, we just pointed the camera at something, like a stage play. Why do we think that literature won't change, too?"

Twitter may have begun as a simple answer to a simple question, but as it has matured, good tweets have taken on specific characteristics. The best ones are intimacy wrapped in aphorisms topped off with self-deprecation and a dash of ambiguity. They capture individual moments in time, but allude to past and future. They are not memorable quotes so much as they're miniature stories.

O'Reilly suggests subscribing to California investor Chris Sacca's Twitter feed for a few days, promising laughter and at least a few "huh" moments.

Over the course of a recent week, Sacca (who initially invested in Twitter and tweets as sacca) sporadically narrated a trip to New York:

"Found 'em! The last two people who didn't know you can't bring metal through an airport metal detector. Glad we're past that now."

"The suit I'm wearing to my NY meeting looks like it got beat up last night, by a time machine."

Funny, clever, but is it literature?

Dinty Moore, an Ohio University professor and editor of literary journal Brevity, thinks it counts. When sent about a dozen anonymous tweets from various prominent Twitterers, and asked if any of them have the hallmarks of art, Moore selects two. Both belong to Sacca.

"They raise questions," Moore says. "They don't answer questions. You want to know more about these airport people." You want to know what that suit looks like. "Like poetry, very short prose pieces are all about compression. Every word and detail must do triple duty to set a mood." Sacca's tweets leave enough detail in for intrigue, letting metaphor and irony do the rest.

Nearly a half-million people agree with Moore's assessment: Sacca is one of the few non-famous people to regularly appear as one of the 100 most-followed Twitterers, according to Twitterholic.com, an independent site that ranks users by followers. He had 417,000 when research for this article began and gained 30,000 more in the course of a week.

Following Sacca's feed over the course of several days reveals more about his Twitter personality: impish, winking, often faux-clueless.

"It will be unsettling," he comments one day, "when the oldest woman in the world dies and then we don't have one anymore."

Some earnest literalist immediately writes to correct him, to inform him that the next oldest woman will simply get a promotion.

"Oh, good point," Sacca responds. "Well, definitely after that woman dies then. Then we're done. Right?"

The more one follows him, the less it feels like reading about a stranger's day and the more it feels like keeping up with a favorite satirical author. "In a medium like Twitter, the literary work isn't the tweet," O'Reilly says. "It's the persona that you're putting together."

Whether volumes of Twitterature will enter the literary canon is unknowable.

But if Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde were still alive, they would probably all be on Twitter.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company