How to Use Twitter to Tell a Story

By the time I read “How to Use Twitter to Publicly Humiliate an Attempted Adulterer” yesterday afternoon, the essay was already on its way to becoming the latest internet meme. Of course, I’m using the term “essay” loosely. More than anything, it’s a series of tweets strung together to tell the story of one woman’s encounter with a would-be adulterer. Yet over the course of 20 tweets, the woman in question, Melissa Stetten, gives us a complete (if somewhat tragic and embarrassing) narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

What’s more, this brief narrative makes good use of Twitter’s unique format and takes full advantage of the application’s peculiarities. In short, it’s a piece written with both a particular medium and audience in mind: by playing to Twitter’s strengths, Stetten has written what is arguably the perfect Twitter narrative. By way of contrast, Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker and which was tweeted with some degree of fanfare last week, is not.

This isn’t to say that Egan’s story is bad — not by any stretch of the imagination. “Black Box” is a highly engaging page-turner that does everything a good story should do. It gives us well-developed characters, creates a believable world, sets up tension, and resolves that tension in a satisfying way. Even on my best days, I wish I could write half as well Egan. My concern, however, is with the story’s form. Specifically, why was it tweeted? And why was the print version of the story made to look like a series of tweets — or cookie fortunes, depending on your point of reference?

With respect to the first question, I’m guessing it had something to do with the fact that this was the magazine’s special science-fiction edition, and what could be more sci-fi, more forward-looking and futuristic than telling a story via a medium that’s been around since 2006? Additionally, Egan is well-known for experimenting with different media to tell stories. One of the most memorable and moving chapters in A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” is written as a PowerPoint presentation, so conveying “Black Box” as a series of tweets probably seemed like a natural fit.

The problem, however, is that when Egan gave us a story in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, she took full advantage of PowerPoint’s unique qualities. Not only did she give us very few words per page, but she also gave us flow charts, graphs, blank pages, Venn diagrams, and other graphic representations of the narrator’s thoughts. That is, she pushed the PowerPoint format to its limits and created something new. She gave us art. “Black Box,” on the other hand, does none of these things, nor does it play with our understanding of how Twitter works or what it can do. In effect, it’s a PowerPoint presentation consisting only of text, a series of declarative sentences meant to be read in a particular order.

That is, it’s a traditional story.

That happens to be broken up.

Into short bursts.

To no apparent purpose.

Stetten’s tweeted narrative, however, offers more than a series of sentences, each of which is under 140 characters in length. Instead, it plays the same kinds of games that Egan’s “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” played. It gives us pictures and allows them to do some of the storytelling (as opposed to simply illustrating points). It offers links. It provides an IMDB bio and a revealing interview with the would-be adulterer. It also implies a degree of interaction between Stetten and her followers, as one tweet includes a response: “Yes, this is BRIAN!”

As readers — specifically as an audience steeped in the habit of reading tweets — we know how to fill in the blanks and figure out what’s going on in this short, sad narrative. In fact, we revel in it. Just as “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” was a joy to read because it forced us to gain our bearings and piece the narrative together little by little, Stetten’s narrative also engages by making us think not just about what we’re reading but, at some level, how we’re reading.

And this is where “Black Box” fails.

9 thoughts on “How to Use Twitter to Tell a Story

  1. Insightful post! And the first I’ve heard of Stetten’s tale.

    Telling stories through Twitter seems more like participatory art than storytelling to me. Then again, all art forms can tell stories… It would be interesting to see how sharing the same story through various methods influences readers (watchers?).

    • I agree! I used to teach a course on Film & Literature in which we examined books that had been adapted to film, and it was always interesting to discuss the effect of moving from one medium to the next not only on the content but on the — end-user?

  2. Ugh… Doesn’t Twitter

    make all

    stories seem


    From what I’ve seen of Twitter, it’s all random punchlines and status updates. Very occasionally those updates can be useful, like when someone publishes a book or is running a marathon for charity, but much of it is banal. I don’t use it myself, but my husband shows me stuff from time to time…

    I’m not saying that it isn’t nouveau, it is somewhat. I just find the act of filling in all the blanks myself… unsatisfying. Okay, didn’t mean for the comment to go THERE, but I think you already get what I’m saying.

  3. I just tried to read Black Box. I got bored with the third person conditional statements, e.g., may be seen, sounds ominous, etc. It was too repetitive. I didn’t mind the style (tweets) so much. Much like poetry or experimental fiction, tweets offer their own benefits. But knowing the entries (paragraphs?) were tweets, I felt a little strange that replies weren’t printed in miniature, indented, under the entry. Sure, they are “tweets” but it isn’t really Twitter. On Twitter, you get replies. Where were the replies?

    Anyway: Meh.

    • Replies would have been pretty cool… I wonder what a novel in tweets, complete with replies, re-tweets in new contexts, and other Twitter-ish effects would look like.

  4. I read Egan’s story in The New Yorker, not on Twitter. I really liked it, but I don’t think the narrative form was supposed to emulate Tweets or fortunes at all. In fact, I’m not sure why The New Yorker released it that way. It’s a spy story. The short sentences are a play on the instructions that one would get either via an implanted earpiece that a “boss” is using to send you important information or, more likely, an actual direction manual on how to be a spy. I read it like the messages one would get on Inspector Gadget or some other spy show… you know, the “this message will self-destruct” kind of thing. I’m not saying that the form couldn’t be a commentary on the way we deliver and receive information these days; I’m sure that it is. But, if this was a story about the way technology affects information or narration, I think the story itself would have been different. I don’t think it would have had that spy-esq plot. I thought it was a clever tactic that turns the traditional aspects of spy stories on their heads.

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