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.