Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 10, 2014

the experiment that wasn't

A couple of days ago this showed up in my Twitter stream:

I had followed Cole on Twitter for a couple of years but eventually unfollowed — I don't remember why. In fact I thought I was still following, something that can happen when the people you follow on Twitter retweet someone a lot. But I went to check it out, and sure enough, something was happening: a story was unfolding.

You can read the whole story here, under the title "Teju Cole orchestrates his Twitter followers into a collective short story," but the really important thing to note about this event is that it was not a "collective short story" — though that's what it appeared to be at the time. When I checked it out the story was about a dozen tweets in, and my assumption (which was also the assumption of thousands of others) was that Cole had gotten the story going and then was choosing the replies that in his view best moved the story along. Now that, I thought, was interesting.

But as it turned out the many people who submitted their own tweets in hopes of having them chosen as parts of the story were wasting their time: Cole had written the story in advance and was just asking some of his followers to tweet parts of it, making sure that the last word was given to a TV host with three times as many followers as Cole:

The tyranny of the single author continues unchallenged!

Later, Cole wrote:

Well, sort of. When the story depends on people agreeing in advance to tweet its parts, parts written for them by someone else, and on their being retweeted by the author according to his plan and his schedule, the collaborative "we" element of this is trivial. A number of people in my own feed expressed some disappointment that the "event" wasn't anything like what it had at first appeared to be.

What Cole did may be sort of cool — maybe — but it wasn't a "collective story" and it wasn't what some called it, an "experiment in narration." But if someone actually tried what thousands of us thought Cole was doing....