Celebrating what we already do. Why not?

Today is the beginning of the #TwitterFiction Festival, “an all-day, all-night celebration of storytelling on Twitter” which runs until Sunday 16th.

I’m new to this festival, as it’s not exactly been well trailed. It’s a bit of an inchoate concept and one that is quite hard to wrap my head round, with one of those vague, corporatey mission statements: “Our goal? We’re bringing fiction to life with Twitter.” No, me neither. Was fiction dead? I missed the obituary.

The idea seems to be that there are several threads of the festival, “Embracing, exploring, and developing the art of storytelling on Twitter” (and, apparently, the Oxford comma):

  1. To encourage writing of fiction using Twitter.
  2. To encourage reading of fiction on Twitter.
  3. To get professional writers using Twitter creatively.
  4. To get regular tweeters to join in.

The big question is: why?

I’ve tried rootling around their official website, which is a script-driven monstrosity that wants you to allow a raft of advertising trackers and scripts and cookies to view it properly, and I’m still not much the wiser. It seems like a noble enough enterprise – to do something a bit daft – but it also seems to be, well, a bit patronising: as if people aren’t already doing this sort of stuff anyway.

Twitter is already a mature medium, and people tell little stories all the time, usually about real life, but often whimsical tales that are clearly fictional. Moose Allain is one of the masters, and his interchanges with his robot son Archie are always a delight. Similarly the time when Moose “left the room” and Jake Gyllenhaal took over his account waffling on about chitlins and grits in an unconvincing accent will be remembered by his loyal followers. But it was silly and clearly not true, even if we played along.

Spoof accounts, both good and bad, have been around forever, and there’s a middle ground, between affectionate silliness and outright libel, that is occupied by thousands of fake politicians and film stars and long-dead people pretending to get on with their days, with levels of skill that range from funny to outright rubbish.

My point is that all of this is already there. Twitter is its own celebration of this sort of thing, with an inbuilt peer-review system of favourites and retweets that lets quality (or utter trainwrecks) become more visible. It’s hard to see how a hashtag and an account makes this better, or somehow “celebrates” it. The festival been running for a few hours now and not one person among the 300 or so I follow has retweeted or mentioned anything from it. Early days, I know, and to be fair it does seem to be aimed more at the US, being sponsored by North American publishers.

It just seems that the remit is so broad they have spread out into encouraging creativity in ways that is, to my mind, a bit ill-considered.

Their example for “Crowdsourcing“, for example, is this tweet

The idea of which was that she would RT someone else’s suggestion and append a picture of a gravestone to make it sound like an epitaph. That particular one got a grand total of one RT and two favourites, hardly striking up a firestorm of applause.

Attaching a picture to inaccurate text is hardly writing fiction, is it? It’s more like surrealism or Dada (which, are both, of course, also valid uses of Twitter). The classic “H from Steps’ grave” gag that’s been going for years is pretty much the same thing and, despite the eternal perennial reposting of what I think was originally a B3ta.com joke, was arguably much more spontaneous and creative.

For the “Images/Vine” section they use the controversial story invented by “Elan Gale” which was supposedly about a woman being offensive and obnoxious in an airport and his “hilarious”  attempts to get her to shut up, which were followed by another hoax that she had been a terminal cancer patient trying to get home for one last Thanksgiving. None of it was true, it was all fiction.

Yes, that was an interesting use of Twitter, and I can see how engaging people to gauge their reactions and expose their own prejudices was an experiment, but it did leave a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s what “trolling” actually means.

It also exposes the problem with another category, “Multiple Characters/Handles“. They don’t link direct to the example tweets but have pictures of them and describe them thus: “Creating fictional accounts to tell a story lends realness to a narrative… Elliot Holt Tweeted simultaneously from three handles, as if they were party guests who witnessed a woman’s death.”

Given the tinderbox nature of Twitter, false reports can pretty quickly zip around the world, so I’m not sure if this counts as fiction or a creative use of crying wolf. Unless it’s clearly signposted it will probably annoy people when they realise, if at all, they’ve been duped. Fake stories get thousands of RTs, the retractions barely any. But again, trolling as artistic détournement perhaps has its place, bearing in mind there is a very fine line between artistic trolling and just being a dick.

Probably the only seam of this whole thing that makes any sense is asking professional authors to do short stories and plays and seeing how well they do, and what the formal restrictions of the medium can add, so let’s see what we’ve had so far and what we can look forward to.

Friend of the blog – well, friend of everyone, really – Alexander McCall Smith kicked off proceedings today with a story called Sociopaths’ Ball. I suspect it’s really called The Sociopaths’ Ball, but this is Twitter, definite articles be damned. It was a  shaggy-dog story about whether sociopaths would want to or could socialise. Though Sandy is a master of serial fiction – with 44 Scotland Street‘s short episodes appearing daily, for example – I’m not sure whether the much, much shorter format really worked. The staccato delivery suggests that he was engaging in a kind of Exquisite Corpse where once he wrote a line he didn’t necessarily know where he was going next, which would make it more of an exercise or inspirational game than a piece of finished fiction. Still, I hope he had fun. There are a few more in the pipeline, Scandanavian Noir, The Intern’s Story and Love in the Alps.

Next up was Anthony Marra, who did a short scene from an imaginary episode of Downton Abbey (and, I note, gaining about 50% more followers than he started with in an afternoon, which isn’t bad going) which had some nicely turned phrases.

The difficulty is, perhaps, with these works is that we’re not used to seeing people tweeting so regularly. When someone slaps up a whole wall of tweets in quick succession our brains tend to slide off them, scrolling up to something with more of a point, a punchline. Timelines can be hard to keep up with, and our brains are trained to notice and ignore sequences that look like spamming, even when they aren’t. The tweet is the unit of currency we use to buy attention, and we usually try to cram as much information in each one, so that confronted with something like this

it can bring you up short. Still, it was a good effort.

Andrea Cremer was next up, and this is beginning to feel like a real book festival, because I missed it, waiting outside the tent for Katie Fforde by mistake. I’ll give them this, there’s a LOT going on.

Catching up, though, I see that she’s interspersed her story with RTs of praise and comment, which I suspect might be pre-scripted or even from sockpuppets and friends to add to the authenticity. It’s a story about exploring an attic that ends rather chillingly. It works very well. Until she started tweeting normally again, which kind of spoiled the effect.

Katie Fforde, though, seems to have implicity understood the brief, even if it left her sounding like Helen Fielding, a fact she cheekily alludes to by having her heroine reference Bridget Jones. She writes tweets in the voice of someone actually using Twitter, down to replying to herself.

Which is a nice touch.

Actually, despite my complaints, this is shaping up to be something quite interesting. I’m still not sure why it’s being done, but – as long as no-one goes and starts a riot by claiming a police station has been burned down or something – I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and give it a “hell, yes… why not?”

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