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  • Writer's pictureNina Sud

Literature vs. Twitterature: Examining Social Media’s Influence on Literature

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Two Tasks: to defend the new against the old and to link the old with the new (Nietzsche, qtd. in Rabinów 101)

“All media are platforms of human communication and expression, and in this sense, all media, including literature, is social” (Brienza, qtd. in Baker)

Art Imitates Life. Literature as art, adapts in order to survive. While there are many of us who might be critical and disdainful of the overwhelming presence of social media in people’s lives today, there are none that can deny its influence. Much has been written about the effect of technology and the internet from the point of view of the readers, but the impacts it has had in the formation of texts is far more radical. By slowly dissolving the barrier between the writer and the world, it has altered the way writer’s research, draft and, ultimately, conceive of their work giving rise to completely new and diverse forms of writing that arise from and are then published through the internet. The role of Social media in our lives today has slowly come to force us to reconsider not only our use of language and expression but also what it is we think of as ‘serious literature’.

While many people tend to think of social networking and social media sites as one and the same, there is a fundamental difference between the two. The former is defined as web services which facilitate users maintaining a semi public or public, bounded profile through which they can “articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection” (Boyd and Ellison 210). Social media on the other hand, despite not being mutually exclusive does not assume the prior familiarity of its connected users in an offline world. Social media sites can be said to necessarily incorporate the following three characteristics- (1) the information being posted is not directed at anyone in particular; (2) the information being posted can be edited and/or discussed by all who see it; and (3) the information posted includes an easy way to share it with people not included within the scope of the original post. (Brooks 55)

All over the world readers have access, through twitter, to 140 character aphorisms, poetry and fiction that have now come to be known as ‘Twiction’ ‘Twitterature’ or ‘TwiLit’. As the internet attempts to cater to people who demand more information in less time, written texts that are considered literature are invariably growing shorter in length and without necessarily needing to adhere to conventional forms. Like any new work, these forms are facing opposition from those who stick to older definitions of what it means to say ‘proper literature’. While the internet allows for a space where everyone can be a writer, editor and a critic, the same freedom is used as reason to criticize the quality of content coming out of it. We only need to look at the works of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce to know that despite opposition, new forms of writing can come to impact literature in way’s people wouldn’t have imagined at the time they were written. The absence of concrete structure, the use of unconventional narratives and experimenting with newer modes of publication by no means implies a lack of literary worth.

The limited amount of characters that twitter allows for ensures that those who write must aim at being relevant and interesting while being concise, a skill that isn’t considered new for good writing. It also allows readers to skim through byte sized quotes gathering as much information as possible within the shortest time. Twitfiction as a genre has gotten so popular over the last few years that not only does it have major literary supporters like Margaret Atwood but also its own literary festival that promotes the work having arisen out of the websites. The festival aims at developing the art of storytelling on twitter while at the same time increasing its acceptance.

When it comes to intersection between social media and literature, we also have published texts that despite not starting off on the electronic world mimic it, gathering material from social media and ordering it into a print novel. For example, Eleven (2006) by David Llewellyn is a book comprising solely of e-mails sent and received by the then would be author to tell a story of their own. Besides this, we also have books set in the world of social media. It is interesting to note that most Young Adult novels published in recent times have at least grappled with the influence of the internet if not built a plot solely around social media. Even though the presence of the internet is overarching, it is young adults who are most influenced by it, reflecting in the literature they read.

If this isn’t novel enough, there is also now, the crowd sourced novel. While crowd sourcing isn’t a very new concept, asking for peoples words instead of their money, is. The Collabowriters, started by William Chyr asks people to help write a novel one sentence at a time. “Chyr explains the experiment as a kind of democratization of the novel.”(Hasan) Each user involved is asked to submit a line, no more than 140 characters which is then included only if voted in by the users themselves. This goes beyond changing ideas of established literature to changing stereotypical ideas of the writer. Literature is no longer only the product of a sole individual genius but can be something that arises out of 3000 people writing together. This might previously be unthought of but is not longer impossible.

“To position social media and literature in opposition to one another, with some kind of Manichean unsurpassable divide between them, is to misunderstand the use of literature. In itself it is media, a tool for messaging, communication, and art, and more often than not is social, reliant upon an interaction with at least one other human being.” (Baker) In the initial part of the previous decade, the texts of the internet mimicked the printed forms. Articles online were most often long and detail oriented. As the internet adapted itself to cater to the people who used it, the length of written material shortened itself to cater to shorter attention spans and people with busier lives. Just as bite sized articles, 6 second films; shorter news videos flooded the internet trying to deliver the most information in the least amount of time.

The emphasis on 140 characters essentially forces the writer to capture the essence of what they’re trying to say in the least number of words possible. The people who write on the internet are also at most times, their own editors. While there are many who claim this emphasis on length is leading to unnecessarily shortened literature. Though what we now define as Twitterature existed even before the website came into being. For example W.S. Merwin (1952), the well known post modern writer, published in 1973 the book ‘Asian Figures’. A collection of Asian poems, aphorisms and riddles that consisted only of a few words each. For example, one poem consisted of only two words- “Beauty/costs” and others like “Folly Parades/Wisdom watches” most of no more than four words. While the form existed before the advent of social media, social media is pushing it towards the forefront. What we think of as internet literature and pose again print literature is not always so. As Jacob puts it- ‘Why couldn't the form of just two words have its own unique esthetic challenge that is just as valid a self-imposed restriction as a rhyme scheme or the seventeen syllables of a haiku? If a haiku is no less a poem than an epic, why should a two-word poem be any less a poem than a haiku?

That being said about the form and length, the words we use are slowly coming to change too. Abbreviations, slang and S.M.S language is slowly growing to change not just how we speak but also how we write. This is not only informal acceptance but one in which the words are officiated into the English language by their incorporation into the dictionaries like Oxford and Miriam Webster. While the most popular word, whose incorporation caused much debate is the word ‘Selfie’. Other words like Troll, Hashtag, and Lol have all make their way into the dictionary. For example,‘srsly’ (short for seriously) is now a word. Forced by the limit of characters, twitter users removed all the vowels in the word and the shorter form was used so prevalently that it gained acceptance as a word itself. It isn’t just new words arising from the internet, the internet are also giving alternate meanings to existing words that are gaining official acceptance, for example ‘Troll’. Previously it only meant “a creature that looks like an ugly person” (OED 2013, Def. 1), it has now also come to mean a “message to a discussion group on the Internet that somebody deliberately sends to make other people angry; or someone who delivers such a message.”(Def. 2)

The extent of social media’s influence does not end post the publishing of a novel, whether this be online or in print. The informal, personal interaction that the internet allows between the writer and the reader extends through the writing of the novel to the feedback that it generates after. Writers can reach out to new readers while furthering interaction with the current ones, breaking the barriers that previously existed between them. This is not to say that social media without good writing can propel writers to greatness but it does provide a space for interaction, experimentation and growth that was previously non-existent. Authors who were previously not on social media are building their online presence for interaction with readers, even when not specifically promoting a book. We are in, as Murthy puts it “an age of advertisement, where we are not necessarily advertising products, but rather ourselves.” (1065)

Facebook pages and Author blogs are frequently one of the main spaces for post release publicity, feedback and interaction. Even online journals and magazines, which provide newer opportunities for people to get their work published and provide content for free, are very dependent on social media. Jalada’s Managing Editor, Moses Kilolo, admits “social media is how we announce that there is a coming Jalada project, or when we publish. I bet that close to 99 per cent of the readers we get on the website have been referred to us via social media. It is also one of the ways we get feedback and answer questions.” (Williams)

In the beginning of his paper ‘Towards a Sociological Understanding of Social Media: Theorizing Twitter’, Murthy compares the reaction to the invention of the telegram with the public’s initial reaction towards Twitter. Like the telegram, Twitter can send only short messages and like the telegram is extremely popular but controversial. While some applauded the telegram and claimed it was the bringer of a 'kinship of humanity' (Fischer 2), other perceived it as a threat to human intellect and writing. He writes, ‘’Although these early critics saw the telegraph's immediacy and brevity as a threat to letter writing, ironically, the telegraph highlighted the permanence of letter writing in that it remained an important medium’’. (1060) The comparison he draws is important. It highlights how any new technology or medium is treated with suspicion and/or disdain and only in retrospect can its influence be seen. While social media pervades all aspects of our life, many academic and literary scholars have tried to maintain the ivory tower of literature and keep from accepting what the internet has to offer might not be all that terrible. While it may not always be the best literature, it is still a space of immense possibility for growth, experimentation, idea formulation and interaction.

The paper, as has been mentioned before, aims to emphasize the impact that social media has had on literature. While we can’t claim that all texts influenced by or arising from the internet are necessarily good literature, we also can’t claim that they can’t be termed literature at all.. The most common argument is that of language and length. Many claim that social Media’s emphasis on brevity and usage of abbreviations and slang will decimate our language. While, yes, the internet does allow a huge space for experimentation, this adds on rather than replaces our normal use of language. The emphasis on brevity does not cancel out the verbosity that continues to exist in our spoken language. Also, those who defend high literature against low literature must remember the canons that we now treat as high literature, were, for their own time, out of place. Shakespeare’s experimenting with words that can be termed as slang, Joyce’s and Woolf’s experimenting with structure and Merwin’s two word poems are all examples of what we must remember from the past to put the present in perspective. The impact social media has had on how we write, speak and read is undeniable. Literature adapts in order to survive and will change decade after decade, just as we do. Knowing that, we can argue about caliber and quality or remember that the literary sphere has always been a space where experimentation, interaction and growth can only lead to better writing. And a space that encourages that, for a larger number of people than ever before, must be given a chance.

Works Cited

Baker, Francesca. "Is Social Media Killing Literature." 30 April 2014. The London Magazine. Article. 2 February 2015.

Boyd, DM and NB Ellison. "Social network sites: definition, history, and scholarsh." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (2008): 210-230. Print.

Brooks, Aaron W. "Social Media 101." GPSolo, Vol. 29, No. 3 May 2012: 54-57. Print.

Fischer, CS. America Calling : A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992. Print.

Hasan, Heba. "Would You Read a Crowdsourced Novel?" 29 April 2012. Time. 3 February 2016.

Jacobs, M.W. "Social Media and Literature." 20 April 2014. The Huffington Post. Article. 2 February 2014.

Murthy, Dhiraj. "Towards a Sociological Understanding of Social Media: Theorizing Twitter." Sociology, Vol. 46, No. 6(2012): 1059-1073. Print.

Press, Oxford University. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2013. 3 February 2016.

Rabinów, P. Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contempory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.

Williams, Magunga. "From Twitter to Facebook, social media is bringing literature to life." 14 June 2015. DAily Nation.Electronic Media. 3 February 2016.

Zukiswa. From Twitter to Facebook, social media is bringing literature to life Wanner. 14 June 2015. Electronic Print. 3 February 2016.

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