This is not an essay: fragmentary reflections on the experiences of reading and writing on Twitter.

Twitter is a gigantic, unstable cut-up text. Tweets jostle, create striking juxtapositions. The banal, the poetic, the humorous, succeed each other with mercurial rapidity. Shifts in register resemble The Waste Land. Occasionally something memorable and lasting emerges. 

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We don’t read an ever-lengthening time line, a text forever in the process of being written, in the same way we read a novel or a newspaper. Reading is hasty, happening in short bursts. We scan, skim, sometimes pausing for half a second to fav or RT. And then we move on, like restless toddlers, to the next bauble. 

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Twitter infantilises us. Colourful treats are presented to us. Buy this product, buy this idea. We react intuitively, emotionally, often irrationally. We don’t think too hard. This is why so many people get themselves in trouble with the police when using Twitter. 

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As a result of a polemical tweet, one of my followers accused me of having made an assertion. Of course I have, I retorted; Twitter is not conducive to substantiated argumentation. 

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Twitter is an environment that favours monsters of the id. 

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Be bold and unreasonable, gain followers. Be sensible, lose them. 

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I’m not bemoaning our infantilisation by social media. It has dangers, certainly, in encouraging our uncritical acceptance of consumerism and its root cause, capitalism. But it also gives us an opportunity to indulge our sense of whimsy, to enjoy the mad ideas streaming down our smartphone screens, maybe even to experience a child’s enchantment in an online world that is perpetually surprising.

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Tweets are retweeted because they have provided a moment’s entertainment or struck a chord. Common feelings and prejudices flourish. But there’s still room for minority interests. The internet connects the disconnected, those who believe themselves alone in their philosophy or interests. A Twitter readership is a community. 

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On Twitter, the reader becomes the writer’s collaborator. In retweeting, the reader expands the distribution of the author’s material. Sometimes, a reader might respond to microfiction by tweeting the author a continuation, variation or pastiche of the piece. The author, flattered or amused or impressed, might retweet this response to his work, and in so doing partially blur the distinction between himself and his readers. Creativity becomes a shared experience, a game in which anyone can participate. 

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Authors who have Twitter accounts and proclaim, “I am the Author!” are missing the point of Twitter.

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Twitter is a dismal marketplace. It’s up to us to invade it with music and laughter.

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Interactivity is one of the most interesting aspects of Twitterature. Many of my fiction tweets, particularly those to do with the Bird King and his grotesque world, have stimulated responses from my followers in a similar vein. At first, I was ambivalent about this: I enjoyed seeing the Bird King develop outside the nest I’d made for him, but I also felt a little insecure, as if the character I had created was being appropriated by others. But I soon realised that some of the most productive creativity on Twitter comes about via this challenge to the traditional categories of author and reader. 

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There’s a danger that writers of Twitterature are crafting their microfiction too carefully, making exquisite, perfect, predictable, bland work. 

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Too much short-form fiction is neat and rounded. What a wasted opportunity to challenge, annoy, agitate, enchant!

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Microfiction should be no more bound by conventions of structure, narrative, characterisation and genre than the novel is.

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Once upon a time, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to sign up with Twitter and tweet, not about my life, but in the third person, narrating the surreal adventures of a fictional character. So, on 1 October 2011, I created my @badbadpoet account (@badpoet was taken), and began tweeting the continuous narrative that I was later to collect into a piece called “Still Life.”  In the process, as I started exploring Twitter and following other users, I realised that hundreds of other people had beaten me to it, and were tweeting microfiction, micropoetry and all sorts of inventive lunacy. Among them was Jeff Noon, an author I’d admired since the 1990s. Jeff and I struck up a rapport online, and in March 2012 I was very lucky to be one of the eleven writers who made up Jeff’s collective Twitter entity @echovirus12. Echovirus works like an online version of the surrealist exquisite corpse, the rules being simple:

1. Write a fiction tweet. 

2. Echo the previous tweet. 

3. Don’t follow your own tweet. 

Writing for Echovirus is a game, ludic and competitive. Through playing it and setting up another group called Chimera I have met some of the most talented and original writers and artists on Twitter. 

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Everyone who has ever tweeted is a published author. 

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