March 09, 2009

Storytelling with Twitter? I don't think so.

Question: is Twitter, the social messaging utility, a good platform for storytelling?

Short Answer: No.

Not that I heard anyone say it was. But with Twitter being the "in" tool this year, and storytellers jumping in, I wanted to add my two cents.

Do I use Twitter? Yes. I appreciate its functionality for those times when I need to be connected in real time. I'm impressed that its fans have been able to build online relationships despite the tools built in limitations, namely, the 140 character limit for each message.

I don't see these two primary features (real-time messaging, and limited length) as essential to storytelling.

That there's a tool, ie Twitter, that lets me receive messages in real-time from friends, relations, colleagues, celebrities, politicians, and NASA missions is cool. I like being connected, being reminded on these people-- those that I have a relationship with in real life, well, it helps "grease the wheel" of that relationship during that time when we're not in contact. But Twitter is about the "what I'm doing now" not about "remember when we..." or "once upon a time."

Could you use Twitter to tell a story? Yes, of course. But it's an inelegant tool.

(I'll grant that when it comes to stories for journalism, however, Twitter is useful as a tool for gathering information of stories-as-they-happen, as events in San Diego, Mumbai, and the Hudson River have shown us)

But in terms of spinning narratives: using Twitter is like selecting a toothpick to paint on a canvas that's meant to fill a room.

Partly it's the 140 character limit. Now, Flash fiction is nothing new. Storytellers from Vishnu Sarma to Aesop to Jesus were using the short short form long before the publishing world took a shine to very short tales in the 1990s. Setting limits, even arbitrary ones, can prompt some very creative output, so I can see the appeal of using Twitter to share these mini works of fiction.

Some of my favorites:
This bit of magical realism/spy novel and this melodrama from David Vanadia.

This retelling of a fable from Jerrold Connors.

Two writers in particular, I've found, who use Twitter to write nanofiction. I would categorize their work as character sketches and platforms --more seeds of stories that could be than actual beginning-middle-end kernels, but sometimes worth a look:
@nickwarren (I especially like Nick's use of first person, since it plays within the Twitterverse milieu nicely)

Smith Magazine, home of the six word story, set the bar higher (or tighter, I guess. You can fit a lot more than 6 words on Twitter). It's difficult to pull off a good six-word story, so you have to wade through a lot of dross to find the gems, and then, there's not so much a haiku feeling as a "wish they served dinner instead of hors d'oeuvres"... still, Twitter seems an excellent channel for them to utilize: @smithmag

Portland Story Theater sneaks around the limitations of length and genre with a serial format:

Do you follow anyone on Twitter that is creating interesting stories? Post them in the comments!

(And just so we're clear: "creating interesting stories" does NOT mean "promoting their business" (story-based or otherwise)


So maybe you're not looking for Twitter to deliver bite-sized stories. Maybe you just think it'd be cool (for this year anyway) to receive real-time messages from working storytellers. In that case, here are some current storytellers with active or semi-active Twitter accounts:

Baba the Storyteller: @Djeliba
Hope Baugh: @Hope_Baugh
Karol Brown: @Browntones
Buck P Creacy: @BuckPCreacy
Lynn Duddy: @storywoman
EthNohTec: @ethnohtec
Tim Ereneta: @tereneta
Stephen Hollen: @mountainstories
Sean Buvala: @storyteller
Terry Free: @TerryFree
Rachel Hedman: @StorytellingAdv
Priscilla Howe: @priscillahowe
Dale Jarvis: @DaleJarvis
Carol Knarr: @ckanrr
Debra Olson-Tolar: @storytolar
Laura Packer: @storylaura
Ellouise Schoettler: @ellouisestory
Tim Sheppard: @TimSheppard
Dianne de las Casas: @storyconnection
BZ Smith: @bzsmith
Teresa Clark: @teresaclark
Limor Shiponi: @Storyteling
David Vanadia @Vanadia
Eric Wolf: @Ericwolf2

(Yes, I left out a bunch of "organizational narrative" and "corporate storytellers" who are very active on Twitter. That's by design. They've got their own blogs. When the day comes that they tell a story around a campfire, then I'll add them to my list here.)


About Sean Buvala said...

Twitter is not a tool for storytelling. Agreed.

You need bodies communicating to tell a story.

Twitter is a possible tool for storytellers. It's been very good to me. All of a sudden, so has Facebook. Both take work.

Agreeing with your Inference: Too many "corporate storytellers" out there who can't actually tell stories. All theory, little real ability to deliver content in the story mode. OTHOH, there many performance storytellers who think they can just jump into corporate telling who don't understand the application of story in business settings. "Hey, Sean, how do I go from performance storytelling to corporate storytelling?" "You don't."

How else may I pontificate for you tonight? LOL.


Anonymous said...

Yep, not for storytelling. Messaging an entire story - not a good or interesting idea either. It does serve me as an attractor or pointer to other stuff on the web, for non-sense items that are great for my mental health and it did inspire me to create a 140 word story competition as part of our WSD event marketing efforts. That idea attracted a huge amount of surfers to the event's blog and created a buzz item. I assume we'll come up with some more ideas in the future. The main problem over here is that most cellphones do not use short code...

Hope said...

Thanks for the shout, Tim! I was wondering why suddenly all* these storytellers I didn't know were following me on Twitter! (hee hee) Now the pressure is on to be interesting and relevant! (Hah!)

I am on Twitter because I like the occasional nugget of useful storytelling business info that I receive from the fulltime tellers that I follow on Twitter. I also like keeping in touch with people I know "in real life" and consider friends, but whom I rarely get to see in person.

However, the main reason I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon was because I was intrigued by its possibilities as a unique art form. A friend told me she follows Shaquille O'Neal (sp?) not because he is a celebrity but because his tweets are funny.

I am not creating tweet-art, yet, and maybe never will, but in the meantime I enjoy the discipline of deciding which brief thing to say once or twice a day.

I agree with Sean, though, that being a content provider for Twitter is a lot of work - not quite as much as maintaining my blog, but not insignificant either. I send my tweets to Facebook to make them do double-duty as status updates there.

Hope Baugh
Indy Theatre Habit (blog)

*"All" means three, so far. :-)

Unknown said...

I think of Twitter as sometimes (not always) providing "story fragments." Some people think this kind of fragmentation is harmful to storytelling; others think it's a new form. I find this kind of fragmented storytelling a bit frustrating for two reasons:
1. People will post a cryptic tweet; e.g., "I'm mad as hell." In a sense this fragment is sort of a story prompt because followers will inevitably ask, "Why" or "What's wrong?" or the like -- which will sometimes, but not always, solicit the full story -- or as full a story as it can be in 140 characters.
2. People post tweets that are responses to other tweets, but the way Twitter is set up (as opposed to Facebook's setup, e.g.), it's impossible for third parties to follow the thread of the conversation (or story fragments, if you will).

Twitter may or may not foster storytelling, but it could do so to a slightly greater extent with a few tweaks, IMO.

Tim, good idea for us applied/organizational storytelling types to post our own list of folks to follow on Twitter.

Anonymous said...

Agree with your premise.

Here's a cool use of Twitter with storyL Twitter can be used for posting story prompts and other types of story triggers.

Am saddened you've left people like me off the list who do not have blogs on story work yet research and promote its use in business, which benefits many professional tellers. Maybe you'll reconsider in a world framed from abundance . . .

Kind regards,
Lori Silverman,
author of Stories Trainers Tell and Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results

Karen Dietz said...

Yep -- Twitter is not a place for oral storytelling. It can be a place for short written narratives like the 6-word stories you cited.

Twitter can also be used as a tool to trigger stories that are told orally off-line.

BTW -- I'm one of those corporate storytellers who does tell stories around the campfire but not mentioned in your list. There are those of us who do have our feet solidly in both camps -- storytelling and organizations. IMHO it's more important to bring org professionals into the storytelling tent than set up questionable divisions.

About Sean Buvala said...

Karen said:
"IMHO it's more important to bring org professionals into the storytelling tent than set up questionable divisions."

Yes yes yes yes yes. I couldn't agree more.

As an organizational professional who uses the moniker "storyteller," I can tell you that there's plenty of division coming down the pike at me. LOL.

However, we need to find ways to help many org professionals to be able to say the word "storyteller" without choking on it. We have come a long way. How do we continue that progress?

Karen Dietz said...

Sean said:
However, we need to find ways to help many org professionals to be able to say the word "storyteller" without choking on it. We have come a long way. How do we continue that progress?

Well, org professionals choke on the word storyteller for several reasons: 1) we've talked a lot about how storytelling is linked to core org activities but we haven't framed the conversation for storytelling being a core competence for organizations; and 2) we haven't done the work of providing enough hard-core application tools; 3) we haven't linked with enough professionals in other fields; 4) we have few quantifiable results to share, 5) we haven't done the work yet on how to evaluate effective storytelling, and 6) there's not a nationally recognized story training program for OD folks, trainers, and others in business.

Once those things start happening, we should see some different results. We've started on the path. There's a lot more to do.
Karen Dietz

Karen Dietz said...

And something more -- until org story professionals tackle issues of quality, ethics, professional standards and training, we will continue to be marginalized.

We still are not having conversations about what doesn't work, what happened when a gig/engagement/session did not go well, or talking about quality in our work (or the lack of quality we see in our profession). Dave Snowden and a couple of others have tackled some of these issues, and we need to do more of this, IMHO.

It's great that Tim asked the question about storytelling on Twitter because it helps us discuss some standards of excellence.

Unknown said...

Apropos of this post, i just came across this:

Tim said...

This is the post that generates the most comments? Go figure.

Tim said...

Hmm. Looks like MIT student Xiaochang Li beat me to it by several months. Check out here analysis of Twitter as a tool for distributed collective story creation here: link

Anonymous said...

You say that Twitter is an inelegant too. A haiku, is a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 17 morae (or a unit of sound) in three metrical phrases of 5, 7 and 5 morae respectively.
To many, a haiku is inelegant. To others it is the the most elegant form of poetry.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

About Sean Buvala said...

Tim explores his need.
Choices to communicate.
Twitter is a tool.

Tim said...

I actually thought about the formal limits of haiku in writing about Twitter.

But "beauty" in the eye of the beholder is also about context.

I find haiku a wonderfully expressive written form... for capturing an image, a moment, a feeling.

It's not a tool for narrative. Or technical writing. Or oratory.

But while I admire haiku as a poetic form-- in an oral context, nine times out of ten, the form is too brief to connect with audiences.
(even in the tenth time, and that's in comedy improv, where you play a scene where you have to speak in haiku, the audience's delight comes in watching the performers struggle with the limitations of syllables-- AND at their own attempts to simultaneously listen for formal syllables and content at the same time (it's not something our brains typically do).

I've also worked with haiku in a recorded format. In such a case, at least listeners have the option of playing a track multiple times to let the words sink in. (I haven't been able to listen to this CD straight through... the brief images come too fast)

Dale Jarvis said...

Well, just to add my few words on the subject, I used Twitter last year to tell a full folktale, one sentence at a time, over the one-week course of the St. John's Storytelling Festival. Did anyone read the whole thing? I have no idea! But it was a fun little experiment.

About Sean Buvala said...

aaaaaannndnd...we're spent.

Mr. Word Player said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I've been creating one movie pitch a day at my blog and was considering using Twitter to expand one of the pitches into the outline of a full script, tweeting one new scene a day. I'm gonna think about it a little more before I decide against it, but your article raises some solid points on why it wouldn't work.

michaelnau said...

Great post-I'm glad I found this. While I agree with your assessment of twitter's inherent limitations, there are tremendous and unrealized possibilities for the platform. Integrating twitter identities, narrative streams, and dialogue into an already existing serial story on another platform (i.e. television), has not yet been tapped by networks. Character twittering within the frame narrative-between episodes and seasons-leaving a trail of bread crumbs or red threads for fans can only supplement other narrative platforms.

Dale Jarvis said...

Have you seen this yet:

Holly said...

Sometimes you don't need to paint a canvas the size of a room. Sometimes a toothpick is enough to pierce the heart of the story. I have been moved by some I've read and have spent time lost in quite a few. I appreciate the momentary escape in my day or a glimpse into another world to add some perspective to mine. I like a few tweeter-writers you've listed but my current favorite is Geoff Meeker @AStoryIn140 because he not only writes captivating stories (including some on demand) but engages in discussion as well.

Tim Sevenhuysen said...

I agree that Twitter is not a good tool for *traditional* storytelling, but I disagree that it is inherently not a good storytelling tool overall.

It makes no sense to take traditional methods of storytelling and try to cram them into a limited tool like Twitter. What you have to do is create a new method of storytelling that takes advantage of how Twitter works.

One way to do this is nanofiction, which a lot of people are doing. Personally, I tag my nanofiction stories with #nanofic to make them easier to find later.

But I think the most unique way to tell a story over Twitter is real-time narrative. This doesn't mean posting one sentence of a story at a time; it means role-playing a character to whom a story is happening, and posting your character's reactions to the progression of the story on Twitter.

I call this TwitFic. I don't claim to be the first to do it, but it seems to be an underrepresented method of usign Twitter as a storytelling device. Here are links to a couple of examples I've done:

I think real-time first-person storytelling is something Twitter does really well. It's good at building up suspense and getting readers involved in the story. I'm still learning the best way to take advantage of how Twitter works for this, but I think it's a promising "genre".

Lawrence C. @JackNoirPI said...

Twitter has a unigue, and new, pacing and rhythm that should be respected. It is different from the story, the novel, the play or screenplay.

I found immediately that it *really* doesn't lend itself to "chopping up a story", or cryptic little bursts either.

Still working it out, and may just look back in a year and think I wasted my time, but it is very engaging and refreshing...!

About Sean Buvala said...

The last few comments have really put some good thinking into this discussion. Overall, we can't do storytelling on Twitter because storytelling is a live art from, requiring people. Stories on CD are not storytelling. Written stories are not storytelling. Both of those are two other art forms (voice over and authoring) that are equal in value to storytelling but they are not storytelling.

So, can we write stories on Twitter? Seems to be some good attempts going on here. I will look more closely at all of them.

Using Twitter does require a different way of writing and communicating. Doing my daily 2DaysNoonStoryTip has really helped me to hone my ability to narrow and focus. Love it.

@VeryShortStory said...

Personally, I'm having great fun writing very short stories on Twitter. From the feedback I'm getting I would say that readers are enjoying it too.

The challenge, I think is trying to give a complete story in such a small space. I try to make it where the readers brain will fill in the details that I didn't have room to include.


Tim said...

First-person real-time character tweets could be an interesting way to create stories on twitter, both individually and collaboratively. We'll see if it ever gets beyond the Alternative Role-Playing Game crowd and Twitter fanatics to go mainstream (My prediction is that either a television/movie or video game property will attempt this soon, not so much to fill out the world of their latest story as to engage potential consumers).

But I'm still not sold on the 140 character story.

Here's what I like about nanofiction: when it works, it's an elegant form, like haiku, where the reader is free to fill in the blank spaces.

What I don't like: the limitation means that a writer has to sacrifice a key narrative element: either the beginning, the middle, or the end. I've seen a lot of fun beginnings... a character, a goal, and an inciting incident crammed into 140 characters. Gets my imagination going... but, it doesn't finish the job. Narrative interruptus.

I've seen some intriguing middles, where I can infer the beginning, and there's an interesting obstacle. Stakes are raised. Often there's a reveal that has gravitas or emotional impact. And so I can imagine the exciting rising action to come. The nanofiction pieces that do work usually lie here (BUT I still view them as narrative sketches, rather than complete stories, because there's no resolution).

The tweeted endings I've seen leave me asking too many questions. There's not enough information to fill in all that has gone before. Sure, someone dies, or the world ends: it has the words you associate with an ending, but there is no narrative resolution, mainly because there was no narrative to begin with.

I'm excited that people are finding all kinds of ways to use Twitter.

And I welcome more comments on what you find works and doesn't work on Twitter to share stories.

BTW, this is a blog about oral performance. So if you know of anyone using Twitter in live performance, please let me know.