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The New Yorker celebrates #twitterfiction, but does it do authors any good?

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Creating a persona on Twitter is easy; building a name for yourself is something else

Twitter Fitzgerald Treisman
Twitter Fitzgerald Treisman

For every new medium, there are two kinds of artist: the A-list creators who experiment with their time-tested formulas, and the relative newcomers who have decided to use it in unexpected ways. Twitter has had its share of both. From the world of print media, there’s Jennifer Egan, the award-winning author whose story "Black Box" was tweeted 140 characters at a time, for ten nights, over The New Yorker’s fiction account earlier this year. Egan wasn’t the only major author to test the waters, but her piece took surprisingly effective advantage of Twitter’s format, offering the suspense of a multi-night run and dozens of pithy aphorisms ripe for retweeting. But although the story was one of the first of its kind, it’s doubtful "Black Box" was the first fiction most people read on Twitter.

"If you want to create an account on Twitter, you can be anyone you want."Outside the existing literary community, thousands of Twitter accounts create new worlds and characters that play by different rules than traditional fiction. In a talk at New York Public Library, Twitter Media Team member Andrew Fitzgerald prefaced a discussion with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman about "Black Box" with some of the more successful ones, including the Clint Eastwood-inspired "Invisible Obama" and @MayorEmanuel, a fake account that led Rahm Emanuel on a surreal journey involving infinite Chicagos and ended up as a book, The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel. "If you want to create an account on Twitter, you can be anyone you want," Fitzgerald told his audience, discussing the fresh ideas that could come from its broad sharing and instant feedback. "We’re only just beginning to understand how storytelling works on Twitter."

For all the enthusiasm for Twitter fiction, though, it’s not necessarily easy for authors who are better known as a fictitious Twitter persona to move on to new projects. "Black Box" is seen first and foremost as a story by Jennifer Egan, but something like @MayorEmanuel is seen as a discrete work, and it’s not guaranteed that another account by the same author will be followed the same way fans of one book by an author may look for another one. Transitions are often difficult, Fitzgerald admitted to me, pointing to "Text-Only Instagram," whose author Josh Helfferich attempted to turn it into a personal account earlier this year. Backlash was immediate, and the account was taken over by another author who returned it to its original purpose. In some ways, you could call it a kind of meritocracy, but it also means that readers and authors both end up starting over when an account’s story arc ends.

"It was a new way of reading."@MayorEmanuel saw more success; the account and book were praised by publications from Wired to The Economist. Its author, Dan Sinker, had published the zine Punk Planet in the 1990s; although his identity wasn’t known at the time he started tweeting, he wasn’t exactly a novice author. It’s obviously possible to find incredible success on Twitter, but it’s more difficult to monetize than personal blogs and harder to maintain a unified identity across different projects. Some of the most effective users are comedians like Kelly Oxford, Fitzgerald says: people who can leverage their Twitter material to build and publicize a real-life identity.

As Twitter grows, it may be able to provide more support for fiction writers. A newly announced Twitter Fiction Festival, which will run from November 28th to early December, aims to feature "creative experiments" from 12 to 20 authors; it’s currently accepting applications. User-generated accounts like Nanoism have also sprung up to help curate the form, though they tend to focus on short stories, not fictional accounts. For all kinds of Twitter fiction, it benefits readers and writers alike if authors can make a name — not just a character — for themselves, especially when Twitter fiction has the opportunity to offer something completely new. "[Black Box] was very, very familiar to me," said Treisman. "But when I sat there watching it come up, I would keep refreshing to look for the next line, and it was full of suspense... it was a new way of reading."