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Twitter as story: a work in progress

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Stephen Colbert mocking the national Christmas tree’s Twitter account shows that the frivolousness of the plucky social media tool is still up for debate. No doubt Twitter’s popularity offsets some of the mockery, and it has contributed to newsgathering and crisis reporting. But does it have any storytelling potential?

Twitter has been a home for crowdsourced fiction, sometimes with involvement from storytelling superstars. Neil Gaiman launched a Twitter story more than a year ago in partnership with BBC Audiobooks America. Even before that, comic bloggers and artists over at Monkey on My Back solicited text for comics via Twitter, and then created the visuals to complete the story. More recently, the Toronto International Film Festival has joined with Tim Burton to launch a Tworror story that is currently being crowdsourced to completion.*

We’ve previously noted conceptual artist and Storyboard contributor Peggy Nelson’s development of a “Twitter movie.” And a few users, such as @VeryShortStory, have created truly minimalist stories in 140 characters or less on Twitter:

On the nonfiction side, news organizations are learning how to use Twitter not only as a newsgathering tool to troll for sources or to find specialized information but also to curate tweets for a kind of snapshot of a moment in time. (See The Washington Post’s coverage of victory and concession speeches after the November elections.) These collected tweets tend to reflect a series of opinions or to recreate the experience of a community without necessarily telling a story in which there is movement from A to B.

But in October, TBD used Storify to show how curated tweets can engage the devices of fiction – suspense, forward motion and characters – in a story that unfolds close on the heels of real events. Images paired with tweets reconstructed the first hours of confusion after a death outside a nightclub in D.C. This TBD piece may be a game-changer in showing the narrative potential of social media.

So what are the differences between the fictional and the nonfiction storytelling on Twitter? The self-consciousness of doing crowdsourced fiction in a fixed time period tends toward action narratives – or maybe that’s ACTION! NARATIVES! – without much breathing space or opportunity for future readers to enter the story by making connections themselves. As contributors compete for the attention of project curators, their tweets tend to drive stories toward ever more improbable and outrageous outcomes.

The encapsulated nature of shared Tweets does lend itself to projects audiences are used to reading in book form with minimal text-per-page ratios, like children’s stories and adventure comics. But it will likely take a while to suss out how to apply Twitter to stories that need a slow-building, longer arc.

Crowdsourcing tweets that already exist seems to have more immediate potential for nonfiction storytelling. Curating tweets in the wake of news events fosters creation of a story with less self-consciousness in the voices that emerge. And the real-time nature of Twitter preserves reactions from newsmakers and audiences to events, sometimes before they’ve been swamped by a common interpretation or spun out of self-interest. Twitter’s conversational language provides some of the material for the natural trivia that can make fiction work (humorous asides, what’s for breakfast, what’s on TV), fleshing out the action and surprises necessary to any story.

If Twitter continues to build its user base, journalists will have an expanding pool of  millions of voices and characters on hand with individual stories authors can weave into a larger nonfiction narrative. We’re not there yet, but as more and more people get used to watching news unfold via feeds, it’s easier and easier to imagine.

And as for that Tim Burton project, it ends today. If you don’t read this post in time to contribute yourself, you can at least find out how the story ends.

*Hat tip to Megan Garber at Nieman Lab for pointing out the Burton project to us.




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  1. [...] Twitter as story: a work in progress (Nieman Storyboard) [...]

  2. [...] Storyboard makes the case that Twitter is a great community for building and telling a narrative story, using TBD’s Storify as an [...]

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