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literature | Não Zero


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A proposal to classify Tweets as distinc literary genres

This is just an initial version of this text, a first attempt to formulate an idea. I wish I had more time to review what has been written about the topic, but I am hoping this post will bring constructive criticism to help developing the idea. This post is being revised on the fly by my friend and collaborator Barbara Dieu.
The post has two parts, an introduction to the topic and then a presentation of the "genres" I have attempted to classify so far.


User generated content: The aim of this post is to advance a way of classifying literary genres of Tweets. However, not all content published must belong to one of the genres. Like YouTube and other social media venues, Twitter has roughly two kinds of contents: on the one hand, there is material produced professionally (like news messages and adverts that circulate among users) and, on the other, what is normally called "user-generated content". I am interested in this second group. These authored messages are not obvious for those with little or no experience using Twitter, but they have become a fundamental part of the experience for those who adopted Twitter as a regular part of their daily lives.

A distinct medium: As a communication tool, Twitter imposes restrictions on the user. It is only possible to send text messages of up to 140 characters. It is not a channel for audio or video broadcast, unless you add a link to another page to the content. It also offers particular advantages: the information is broadcast automatically like a chat or instant messaging solution, but without demanding immediate attention (1) and it has the attribute of allowing single-sided connections (2), which created a window for niche-celebrities to have access to a personal broadcasting tool.

The evolution of Tweets: I have recently learned about the concept of “concept of “media "remediation", which explains how a new medium is adopted based on previous experiences. For instance, the first TV programs were mostly video versions of radio programs, but time and experimentation made professionals develop their own formats and aesthetics. I suggest that Twitter is going through the same process. It started - or was originally intended to function - as a variation of phone text messaging, (3) through which users could share short flashes of their routine with their personal networks, but after four years of intense use and a large and loyal user-base, this evolved and has fostered the creation of original and recurrent forms ( modes or genres) of messages.

Adaptations and reinventions: I just said that Twitter has its own literary forms (modes or genres) and I would like to differentiate what I consider to be "adaptations" from what I call “reinventions” (4) - although I am very much aware of the fact that the frontier of this distinction is certainly blurred. Adaptations are a conscious attempt to make a traditional genre fit 140 characters, like for instance, micro short-stories and poems. Reinventions, on the other hand, may resemble a specific genre; however, they did not emerge as a result of a conscious attempt but from daily practice. This is an important aspect: the kind of Tweet I am trying to classify is still unnamed because it is being forged, developed and disseminated without the intention of becoming a genre. People are using Twitter to express themselves under the conditions it offers and, as a result, are occasionally coming up with posts that are somehow more "natural" in this conversational environment. These styles are adopted - in a "Darwinian" sense, because they are more effective carriers of information for Twitter - and their creators become references and this movement is, as a result, forging informal “schools” of styles.

The Internet and creative writing: It is relevant to recognize and name these genres because most people usually learn about literary movements and schools indirectly and from a “safe” distance. Until the emergence of blogging, only a fraction of those who learned to write attempted to develop a voice and write beyond practical situations. Blogging seems to be the tool that reverted this situation and Twitter appears to be expanding the effects of this change by engaging more people and also changing the dynamics in which this content is produced.

Writing for blogs and micro-blogs: Like in blogs, micro-blogs (Twitter is still the by far the most successful example of micro-blogging tools) provide a medium for people to interact with others that is similar to a conversation, but there are differences. Blogs generally demand a greater one-time effort to produce a text, while on Twitter this effort is fragmented throughout the day. The blog also normally needs a computer to be read and especially to write, while Twitter is an "amphibian" platform as it fits perfectly both the screen of a computer and that of a smartphone. Finally, for these reasons, it seems to better suit what could be called general communication: it attends to more generic situations - from sending a private message to broadcasting a help request , and all its users are interconnected through a single web service. So the distance between writing something useful in the practical sense and writing something useful in the existential sense blur and this is when the genres appear; not as a conscious attempt but as the result of a situated communicative experience.

Twitter users as authors: I don’t think people realize that they are being creative while using Twitter or, at least, I don’t think they see themselves as authors like those who published their work in books, but some tweets are the product of the same creative process that forged other literary works. I believe that realising this can potentially bring a positive effect on the writer because it makes her or him more aware of his creative possibilities and of the alternatives enabled by the medium, as well as of language in general.

Some "genres" of tweets

I will now briefly state one possible way of categorizing Tweets - specifically the Tweets that represent this native kind of production, the production that is blooming as part of daily communication through Twitter.

My aim is to help build what could eventually become an analytical framework to think about Twitter messages as original literary creations that fit defined or semi-defined categories.

Fiction: I believe there is fiction on Twitter, but it is not the fiction as we find it in books. The traditional notion of fiction is a story invented by an author who is a “real person”. I want to suggest that in the Tweetsphere, fiction is what happens when a user invents a character to express one side of his or her personality. This character can be original or can be somebody or something that exists: a celebrity, or even God. These accounts are normally referred to as “fakes”. I am interested in discussing what other situations could be called “fictional” under this conceptual perspective.

Non-fiction: I will call “non-fiction” everything that is published by someone who discloses his or her actual identity.

From this perspective, there is the sort of Tweet that could be called “hard news” as it attempts to summarize a lived situation in 140 characters. The fact I call "news" does not mean that it is something produced only or mostly by communication professionals, i.e. you are going to work and see a crime, and pass on this experience in one post (or a few, but not more, otherwise you risk massive unfollow ) - example in English needed.

Humour has also flourished on Twitter. There are messages that, in 140 characters or less, tell a story that ends with a comic punch line, which is not necessarily a joke but a funny commentary - example in English needed.

There is also a genre that could be called “chronicle” as authors narrate events of their lives associating certain experiences with reflections that can be philosophical, moral, metaphysical, or other - example in English needed.

There are two types of Tweets that are almost identical to previous literary forms: the aphorism and the haiku. Both are traditionally short, so they simply benefited from the fact Twitter imposed a restriction of size.

The “aphorism” is - as described in Wikipedia - an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic and memorable form - example in English needed.

The Tweet haiku that I am referring to is in many aspects different from the traditional Japanese Haiku - and I think there will be better terms to describe it, but, for now, I am referring to a Tweet that is written in prose format - with or without literary consonance - and that offers a quick lyrical image or suggestion. I am not versed in poetry so it would be great to receive help on this topic - example in English needed.

I think this is as far as I can go by now. In case you agree or disagree with this framework and want to share your thoughts, you are welcome to do so at the comments area. Thank you.


1. I am drawing, here, from Stefana Broadbent’s notion of attention economy - published here - to analyse media that impose more or less effort to the user, but I also acknowledge Daniel Miller’s understanding that different cultures may interpret these tools differently - here and in other recent work.

2. This feature arguably was key for Twitter’s success as it allowed both a many-to-many group communication platform and a one-to-many broadcasting solution.

3. Twitter originally was meant to be integrated with SMS. Tweets have up to 140 characters to fit in a 160 character text message. Twitter’s early one phrase explanation invited users to say what they were doing and this made sense in the context of a communication tool for closed network circles. As this characteristic changes, the idea of saying what you were doing generated confusion as users saw no reason to broadcast things like “I am reading a book”.

4. A good example of reinvention would be Orson Welles’ radio version of HD Wells’ War of the Worlds, which was not an adaptation - in the conventional sense - of the novel to radio, but a recreation of the plot and the story to the language of radio.


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