The affordances of social media are indeed contributing to a more social experience of reading and writing fiction. Writers and readers become more actively aware of each other. Social media like Twitter and events like TFF appear to be an “outlet” for literary producers’ creativity and urge to experiment with different forms of fictions writing.
The practice of tweeting has inspired various literary experiments: from Nigerian writer, Teju Cole’s Small Fates, a non-fiction narrative of his hometown Lagos created 140 characters at a time; to Jennifer Egan’s novel Black Box, shared tweet by tweet through The New Yorker’s Twitter feed (@NYerFiction). In November 2012, Twitter Inc. latched on to this trend by curating the first Twitter Fiction Festival (#TFF) with the help of its @TwitterBooks account.
According to the account’s manager, Andrew Fitzgerald, the intent of this five-day literary experience was to “showcase live creative experiments in storytelling created by participants from five continents and in five different languages”. Projects like these, and the festival in particular, inspired us explore how socially mediated practices, such as tweeting, are affecting how we experience what we read and write .
One important change is the increase of fragmented production of texts which can be enjoyed, much like short stories, in one sitting. As Henry Jenkins (2013) pointed out in his work Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture, fragmented production of texts inspires readers to move in and out of different media environments in search of text snippets . As they engage in this process of gathering and assembling narrative elements, the readers ownership of their literary experiences increases. In some cases, that ownership is increased even more by producing additional elements often labelled as fan fiction.
In other artistic disciplines, like music production, this process has been studied from a producer’s perspective . In relation to literature, however, the implications of participatory culture for the literary producer have remained largely unattended. Regardless, popular discourse about literature in the digital age often associates practices such as fragmented reading, remixing and self-publishing with the demise of attentive reading, rich narratives and printed books .
Another change that has inspired a pertinent question among scholars is the constant and almost ubiquitous stream of information enabled by the rise of digital media. In his essay The Lost Art of Reading, literary critic David L. Ulin (2010), explored how the buzz of society’s social discourse and numerous digital experiments have affected the way we perceive and experience literary fiction . Based on his exploration, Ulin opposed the dominant view that both reading and writing fiction are practices ‘best’ performed and ‘only’ enjoyed in solitude. Formal education has long supported and helped to reproduce this dominant view where writing is seen as solitary practice separated from reading, listening, and speaking . This view has effectively obscured many of the social processes by which literary work is created, spread, consumed and appreciated.”
“Digital media have contributed extensively to the ongoing transformation of our understanding of literary practices from “a thoroughly private experience … [to] an exuberantly social activity” Jim Collins (2010), Media Scholar.
Writing and reading as social activities are in not in any way “new” types of activities. However, with the rise of social media environments like Twitter, we are afforded with opportunities and challenges to perform these activities more often, in different ways, and with different actors in our social networks. Designers and developers of these social media contexts often claim that it is their intent to provide users with tools which support and potentially improve these practices . In Writing on the Wall, journalist and literary critic Tom Standage (2013) pointed out that our activities within social media environments often “build upon habits and conventions that date back centuries” (p. 5).
Though often not new, the intertwining of literary and social media practices and their ongoing development causes a shift in our understanding and attention towards literary experiences. Indeed, the growing body of academic work on social media and literary participation reports that social media practices seem to assist in enhancing the social experience of engaging with literary fiction .
Thus far, research has primarily focused on “social reading” or the technical aspects of writing and reading through social media . Few researchers, however, have focused on the “social writing” that is supported and potentially enhanced by social media.
Many scholars have stressed the importance of as social approach to literary studies. A social approach to literary studies considers writing and reading as overlapping and nonlinear social activities that support a relationship of mutual dependence between actors in the literary field . In her paper Textual interpretation as collective action, Elizabeth Long (1992) argued that such an approach is crucial to gain a proper understanding of the social or institutional context that helps to determine the availability and worth of literary works, and provides instructions on how to perform literary activities such as reading and writing . In addition, literary scholars Daniel Allington and Joan Swann (2009) emphasized that this approach to literary studies requires empirical explorations of the practices and positions adopted by people in the social world surrounding literature .
A social approach to literary studies thus takes into account the many social experiences related to writing and reading like literary festivals, book clubs, reading groups and parents and teachers reading to children as well as the more formal literary workshops.
Activities like the Twitter Fiction Festival create opportunities for social and situated learning by providing access to a multitude of discourses where people can express ideas, ask questions, and create meaning through literary work or in relation to it . As such, writing and reading activities support the social and cultural development of a writer and readers . Furthermore, the social practices of writing and reading also serve as a system of identity making and enculturation into the social life of a community as “fiction’s are the most powerful of all the architects of our souls and societies” .
This system of identity making and enculturation involves a symbolic process that develops out of and in conjunction with talking, drawing and playing .
As Jenkins argued in his book Convergence Culture (2006), digital media have made it much easier, for experts and novices alike, to combine and experiment with various forms of representation. More importantly, however, Jenkins pointed out digital media have contributed to the rise of participatory culture where “rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands” (ibid, p.3).
Much like the experiments and oral traditions of poets from the middle ages, today’s writers are exploring the potential of different literary practices and narrative forms in social media environments. They are seeking and trying out various methods to connect more directly and more deeply with readers and to evoke their senses. From a writer’s perspective, this transformation involves adapting to the new spaces and infrastructures for experiencing literature, as well as renegotiating the various expectations that exist within society towards producers of literary texts .
One example of this transformation process is literary writing and participation through Twitter.
To explore the convergence of practices and people’s (roles) in the production of literary work on social media, we explored the practices and perceptions of festival participants during the first 2012 Twitter Fiction Festival. We analyse the features and affordances of microblogging for literary production and focus on two main questions: (1) what types of ‘social writing’ practices are being created through Twitter, and (2) how is this affecting the distribution of roles and acting possibilities for producers of literary fiction?
We explored the convergence of practices and socio-cultural roles in the production of literary work on social media based on a case study of the 2012 Twitter Fiction Festival and more deeply explored:
- The Author as Artist
- Tweeting as literary production
- Retrieving the practice of fragmented writing
- Obsolescing opportunities for curating literary narratives
- Reversing literary communication from solitary writing practice to responsive performance
- Enhancing playful experimentation with literary communication practices
The participants’ descriptions and reflections have provided a valuable source for identifying different kinds of social reading and writing practices that are emerging within the artistic space created through Twitter. Though our overview and descriptions are only tentative, they have allowed us to analyze the features and affordances of microblogging for literary production. Furthermore, they have allowed us to shed a light on how these practices and their affordances are affecting the acting possibilities and expectations of producers of literary fiction.
Our work suggests that the affordances of social media are indeed contributing to a more social experience of reading and writing fiction, as is often claimed – implicitly or explicitly – by developers of social media. The opportunities for instant interaction and communication are making the various actors in the social system of literature increasingly visible. As a consequence, writers and readers become more actively aware of each other. It is clear from the participants’ reflections that this awareness seriously influenced how they conceived of their project for TFF.
In addition to the visibility, the opportunities for interaction and communication also seem to stress the loss, or better, the lack of control over the narrative by the “author”.
Each participant responded to this in a different way. While some made attempts to seize control over the narrative by carefully planning and affording readers the role of critics or “beta-readers”, others seemed to embrace the loss of control and opted for improvisation, experimentation, and social playfulness as a means of artistic co-creation. By employing the latter approach, producers of literary fiction can take advantage of the affordances of social media to recognize readers’ creative efforts, not as a tribute to their work, but as part of their work and the narrative world which they help to curate.
Social media like Twitter and events like TFF appear to be an “outlet” for literary producers’ creativity and urge to experiment with different forms of fictions writing. They present to producers an opportunity to try out something new, which mostly involves repurposing existing styles and techniques for creating fiction in a digital context.
Nonetheless, the descriptions and reflections of the participants have clearly shown that fiction writing on social media involves much more than “mere words”. It involves an intricate mix of various modalities, such as images, videos and sounds, but also hyperlinks, hashtags, mentions and retweets.
Participants who incorporate these mixed modalities in their work are inspired to contemplate the expectations related to traditional labels “writer” and “author”. The participants suggest that labels such as literary “artist” can help to broaden the interpretations and expectations of what is considered literary fiction.
The label “artist” also serves as a form of recognition of extended skillset required to create literary fiction in a social media environment where embodiment, responsiveness, timing, and ingenuity are key qualities.
To read the full paper: “Twitter, the most brilliant tough love editor you’ll ever have.” Reading and Writing Socially during the Twitter Fiction Festival. Published by First Monday (2016).
Dr. Joachim Vlieghe, Dr. Kelly L. Page and Dr. Kris Rutten
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