“A new medium will enact and express a new kind of subjectivity” — Katherine Hayles’ My Mother was a Computer
In a recent article for The Social Times, I pondered on the possibility of storytelling on digital platforms. I wondered whether or not story was possible on spaces like Facebook and Twitter. I asked, and The Social Times community answered. Several of our readers responded to the article, and a few commentators directed me to an intriguing and successful Twitter account that not only demonstrates the capacity for narrative on social media platforms, but also changes the way we engage with story in a hyper-textual atmosphere.
@VeryShortStory is a Twitter story told in a series of tweets, or “twitter-sized fiction for your entertainment,” as the Twitter profile describes. Writer Sean Hill started the story two years ago and quickly gained a following of fans through his innovative use of the social information network. The VSS (short for Very Short Story) stream started on April of 2009 with the following tweet: “Rick reached into the mousehole feeling for the ring. No luck. He peered inside. Mouse stuck out his tongue. Rick went to fetch the cat.” And so it began—a very short story that grows increasingly longer each day, like the song that never ends.
In the first ten tweets of VSS, we’re introduced to several characters, including Officer Rick (who is dead) Martha (who loved Rick) Rita (who’s on a diet) Hanna (who forgot her sandwich) and Fritz the dog. Just over two years and 743 tweets after the story began, @VeryShortStory has 74, 311 followers and is listed by 4,257 Twitter users. The account has been featured on StoryBytes.com and was recently printed in Wired Magazine.
Very Short Story is authored by Sean Hill, a Twitter user registered in Austin, Texas. @sean_hill’s Twitter account makes no secret of his fictional approach to social media: “WARNING” his personal Twitter profile reads, “I make things up.” His profile (@sean_hill) also takes credit for the VSS Twitter feed, as he writes “I’m also the author of Very Short Story.”
Hill’s VSS evidences the potential for story on social media platforms, but how does it change the way we engage with story? Skimming over the #vss hashtag, I’m inclined to assess the success of the narrative based on the conventions of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc) but how useful are these classical modes of literary examination in the new world of social media? In other words, can we deconstruct VeryShortStory with the same critical tools we’d use to break down, say, Ernest Hemmingway’s A Very Short Story?
If you read VSS searching for character, plot, and narrative, you may feel disappointed, or a little lost: Where am I in the story? you may ask, or Who is speaking? Where are the characters? What’s more, you may be confused by where to start: do you scroll all the way to the first tweet authored in April of ’09? Do you start with the most recent tweets and work your way backward , or do you pick up somewhere in the middle and read around?
Our cultural reading practices have trained us to consume stories chronologically: novels and even news stories contain beginnings, middles, and ends, and readers rely on these conventions in order to be guided safely thorough the patterns of plot. VSS upsets these practices by drawing attention to the ways we consume narrative and by forcing us to abandon chronology and let go of order. Instead, readers must embrace the fragmented form and swallow the fact that they’re engaging with a story that has no shape, no arc, and no intended ending. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading—Hill’s tweets are sometimes hilarious, sometimes provocative and strange, and sometimes deeply poetic.
In addition to upsetting chronology, VSS also thwarts are ability to finish a story. When reading a printed story, you know when you’re going to get to the end because you can feel the pages thinning in your right hand: Three more pages and the story is over, One more page and I’ll know how it ends. Classical modes of story telling had knowable and tangible endings, but hypertexts are completely open-ended, boundless, and limitless. Does the story die with Sean Hill, or will he stop tweeting when he feels the story is over?
VSS also challenges authorship and allows for a collaborative and polyvocal writing/reading experience. While Sean Hill authors the story, he also accepts comments and suggestions from his community of followers. “Send me a noun” says the VSS profile, “and I’ll use the ones that inspire me in a story.” By engaging with a communal audience, VSS has spawned a number of spin-offs and adaptations, including “Dissection”, a short film that visually renders the tweet “The dissection didn’t go as planned. Mary displayed the symptoms but we can find no evidence of the devil inside her.”
Twitter may be the new frontier for telling short yet ongoing narratives— yet we have no idea what this form of expression means or how it will be interpreted; we won’t know until much later how historians and literary critics fifty years from now will regard spaces like Twitter and streams like #VSS. What’s more, we don’t know where this form of expression is going: will Twitter last, and how or when will VSS end?
If a new medium enacts and expresses new kinds of subjectivities, as cultural critic Katherine Hayles suggests, then we must ask: what kind of subjectivity does the hyper-text perform and convey? While VSS may seem like just an entertaining stream of tweets, we point to the story as evidence of the shape-shifting nature of narrative. What’s more, we can start thinking about how VSS, as a cultural expression, could represent the fragmented and sporadic identities we now occupy in our online worlds.
Stories have forever reflected and perpetuated the way we understand and know the world, and hypertextual narratives like VSS demonstrate the technological zeitgeist of our time while also capturing the fractured subjectivity we culturally inhabit. Where we’re going, we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the story as it unfolds.