Twitter Storytelling

As we enter the second month of Azrael’s Stop, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the use of Twitter as a storytelling platform -- both on its own or as a driving platform, and as a smaller part of a transmedia story. Twitter has already been used in a lot of innovative ways for storytelling. Caitlin Burns had a great article about it last year, with several good examples. A now-common trope is for fictional characters from other stories to have Twitter accounts -- like WriteRCastle from ABC’s Castle. Caitlin Burns herself has three of her characters from her indie transmedia production Jurassic Park Slope tweet regularly and to each other (and talks more about the use of Twitter on that project’s production blog).

Such a use of Twitter is a great way to develop characters. Audience members can get a feel for the characters outside the direct plot of the driving platform, see the kinds of things that interest them, and even interact with them through @replies and the like. Some of the characters from the browser game Echo Bazaar have Twitter accounts as well, and will occasionally interact with each other (shedding the tiniest bits of light on some of the deep secrets that that game is built upon) and with players who @reply them.

But there are lots of other uses for Twitter in storytelling.

Twitter can be used to present micro fiction, individual stories in 140-or-fewer-characters. An account called @twitterfiction presents these (or presented them, last year). One called @thepoetrybean does the same for short short poems. A writer named Nick Warren presented similar twitter fiction, and is now working on a related project that explores a character through Twitter over time.

It can also be used to tell longer-form stories over time, such as a novel tweeted bit by bit. The so-called "Twiller" is one example of this, with one author tweeting a novel sentence by sentence. The problem I see with this method of Twitter storytelling is that it doesn't really take advantage of the medium. Like a lot of poorly made adaptations of stories, it's simply trying to shove one medium (the novel) into another (Twitter) for which it was not designed.

But another kind of Twitter novel exists that does take advantage of the medium, and that's the crowd-sourced novel. One example of this was done by BBC Audiobooks and Neil Gaiman, called Hearts, Keys and Puppetry. Gaiman tweeted the first sentence, and then the audience was invited to continue the story, with each subsequent sentence chosen from a bundle of submissions. The final story was compiled and produced as an audiobook. Tim Burton conducted a similar experiment, choosing each sentence after his own first one to put together a complete short story.

While a story writer may be willing to give up some control of a story to an audience (depending on the desired level of audience participation and influence) he may not be willing to give up all control, as a crowd-sourced story almost does. Perhaps a better way to tell a complete story (rather than something tacked on to a separate driving platform) that takes advantage of the medium is to follow what Caitlin Burns says when she writes, "Twitter is not just a journaling of events; Twitter is theatre."

In 2010, a group of rabbis got together to Tweet the Exodus, with different Twitter accounts taking different roles and playing out the story of Exodus over the course of March 16-29.

Another group of writers and actors is crafting a science fiction story at starvoyageonline, chronicling the characters' interactions and difficulties along the way.

These stories take more advantage of the medium, presenting a kind of live theatre for an audience, ongoing over several days, weeks, or months, with interactions among multiple characters, but still within a contained story.

On this spectrum of authorial control -- from crowdsourced to contained -- there's a lot of grey area. One of those areas is in role-play. This is where a situation is set up and audience members are invited to participate as characters in the storyline, interacting through Twitter. Pandemic 1.0 did this to some extent at the Sundance Film Festival this year, with characters on twitter played by actors, but also inviting the audience to interact with them and create their own characters in the story. Jay Bushman, a twitter storytelling innovator, has conducted a few such experiments, such as The Talking Dead, which I participated in last Hallowe'en. In that, players were invited to create dead characters (including celebrities) whose ghosts had been drawn back to the world, and then interact with each other. Over the course of the weekend, the authorial voice imposed a few changing situations for us to react to, culminating in a fun climax. (Jay Bushman and Caitlin Burns were together guests on the Transmedia Talk podcast last November, discussing the use of Twitter.)

This method allowed the author to tell and direct a story, but it was the players that really created the narrative through their interactions and their responses to the story cues. (In this way, it was much like a game of Dungeons & Dragons.)

A group called Reorbit has put together a number of individual Twitter plays reimagining real-life people or fictional characters, like tweenage Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath, and the Big Friendly Giant.

David Levithan has an account for his book The Lover's Dictionary, presenting essentially bonus content to go along with the novel.

There are a lot of different and interesting ways that Twitter can be used as a storytelling medium, both part of a larger project or all on its own. But there are certainly some difficulties to keep in mind as well.

Time and Barriers to Entry

I talk a lot about barriers to entry of a transmedia project, because I have come across them so frequently. When you read a book, it's easy to get into, because everyone knows you can just pick it up, open to the front, and start reading. If you're trying to get into a Twitter fiction project it becomes harder -- especially if it started months ago. How do you get to the beginning, especially if there are multiple feeds? Do you have to know everything that's happened so far to understand what's happening now? What if you want to know what's happened before anyway? Is there an easy way to do that?

As soon as an audience member finds some barrier, some point where they might have to do some extra work to get into the story, you've potentially lost them as an audience member. And with Twitter, which is so heavily based in time, and which could have multiple characters or accounts tweeting to each other, and could have audience participation and so on, this becomes a major potential problem.

You could have a separate site that compiles everything that's happened so far -- but as Caitlin Burns points out in her Twitter fiction article, is that missing the point of using the medium, if you have to go to another medium as well to make it work?

I think if you're doing something like trying to tweet a linear novel, you are missing the point. But a separate website could be just the thing you need to help catch people up and bring them into the current part of the story. Or, if your story is enjoyable no matter when people come it, a separate site could serve as bonus material for those who do want to delve into the archives.

But there's another barrier to entry for Twitter stories -- and that's twitter itself. Compared with the number of people who watch movies, say, or the number of people who use the internet, or who use Facebook even, the number of people who use twitter is miniscule. And a lot of the people who don't are very adamant in their refusal to use it, and furthermore don't understand the tropes of the medium (@replies, hashtags, etc.). If they're asked to follow a story on Twitter, they will likely simply refuse. You will be unable to reach that audience segment, and it's a significant one.

I think that's another place where a separate page of some sort could be useful, a way to translate what you've done on Twitter into another format -- admittedly, one less suited to your purpose (otherwise you'd have chosen it as your driving platform) but one that allows a wider audience to appreciate and follow your work, even if in a manner that is not quite ideal.

Rights

If I craft a story that invites audience participation, who controls the rights to what the audience submitted to my story, when done over Twitter? I'm honestly not sure what the answer to this question is, and might require a look at the Twitter terms of service. But it's an interesting question, given the Neil Gaiman novel, and given similar examples -- such as Tweets from Tahrir, compiling twitter accounts of the Egyptian revolution into a book.

Azraels Stop

Clearly these are things I've been considering for Azrael's Stop, and as I began that project and tried to get all my friends to follow it, the barrier to entry of Twitter itself was one of the first and most common problems I faced. That's why I quickly exaplined how to follow along on the twitter page without having a twitter account, and that's why I've also created the Archive page, for people to catch up and follow along. I may do more things like that in the future -- things that will help people get involved, but without compromising the benefits of using twitter as my medium in the first place.

Another consideration I made in the initial design was the issue of time. If you follow over time, you'll get a better sense of the characters and their evolving relationships and troubles, but my hope and goal is that you don't absolutely need to have started from the beginning to follow along. You can jump in, and start finding out who these people are (perhaps after the briefest of introductions, such as you get Inside the Stop).

Finally, as Caitlin Burns notes, the medium of twitter intrinsically invites participation:

Twitter invites direct response by the audience in a way that other media do not. Twitter breaks the fourth wall by inviting the audience to reply, simply by using the platform.

...and I'm interested to see if that goes anywhere as well.

Twitter fascinates me in its potential for storytelling, much as transmedia does overall. There are clearly a lot of different ways Twitter can be used as a storytelling medium, with fiction, theatre, and social interaction. There are of course problems associated with it as well, but I think as long as those problems are kept in mind they can be worked around.

Do you know of any other good examples of Twitter-based storytelling? What worked? What didn't?