Twitter Lit: A New Creative Outlet

A scathing BP satire, a sitcom and a host of mimics: Twitter inspires creative voices--albeit succinct ones

  • Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

    In the wake of the deepwater horizon oil-rig explosion, a top source of insight into the disaster on Twitter has been @BPGlobalPR. (For the uninitiated, @ is the symbol that denotes a Twitter account.) Since its May 19 launch ("We regretfully admit that something has happened off of the Gulf Coast. More to come"), the account issued such damage-control gems as "The good news: Mermaids are real. The bad news: They are now extinct." And "We've created something that will affect your children's children. Can YOU say the same about YOUR life?"

    @BPGlobalPR is not, you might have guessed, the actual voice of energy giant BP. It's an anonymous, satirical Twitter account. Within a week, it had 10 times as many followers as the official @BP_America feed. Maybe its tweets were just more amusing. Or maybe they rang truer than the anodyne messages from the company ("BP is committed to openness and transparency in our response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico").

    Either way, its success was another landmark in Twitter's emergence as a literary form. Last month, CBS announced a fall show, $#*! My Dad Says , based on @shitmydadsays, in which comedy writer Justin Halpern collects the sayings of his senior-citizen father. The TV program looks to be a fairly conventional sitcom, starring William Shatner, of Star Trek fame. It's Twitter, on the other hand, that's boldly going forth as a creative medium.

    Yeah, I said "creative." As Twitter became popular, some writers pooh-poohed it: What could you say that's worthwhile in 140 characters or less? As Halpern and the fake BP people show, an awful lot.

    The history of literature is the story of writers shaping their work to exploit technology. The popularization of the printing press led to the novel. The pamphleteers of the 18th century used self-publishing technology to become the bloggers of their day. Samuel Johnson's epigrammatic, acerbic dictionary was a collection of proto-tweets — and naturally, @DrSamuelJohnson is one of the funniest and most pitch-perfect fake Twitter feeds out there today ("iPad [n.] Mister JOBS' ornate Picture-Frame, rever'd and pric'd as if it were a Window 'pon the SOUL"). Alexander Pope would have killed on Twitter — true Twit is Nature to advantage dress'd — and is capably imitated by @MrAlexanderPope.

    Like any other kind of literature, Twitter lit — or Twitterature, to borrow the title of a recent book that condensed literary classics into tweet form — has its strengths, rules and tropes. Twitter is pure voice, an exercise in implying character through detail and tone. Halpern's inaugural @shitmydadsays tweet is so economical that it should be taught in writing workshops: "'I didn't live to be 73 years old so I could eat kale. Don't fix me your breakfast and pretend you're fixing mine.'" Instantly, we know how old Dad is; we know he has a fine-tuned b.s. detector; we know he is fond of pleasure and not of rabbit food; we can infer that his breakfast-fixing adult son has moved in with him. All in fewer than 120 characters, including quotation marks.

    Because Twitter lit is immediate and telegraphic, it's suited to social commentary. Because it's first-person, it's a natural for parody; fittingly for a service named for a bird noise, Twitter attracts mimics and mockingbirds.

    So Twitter quickly developed an ecosystem of fake accounts spoofing figures from Andy Rooney to action director Michael Bay to Jesus. Twitterers invented accounts for their cats, for dead celebrities and for authors and fictional characters. There's the journalism satire of @FakeAPStylebook ("When writing about Heidi Montag, please don't"); there are several feeds for Darth Vader and numerous variations on the Hulk, including @drunkhulk and @feministhulk ("HERE TO SMASH GENDER BINARY"). There's something funny about forcing the diminutive form of Twitter on behemoths and supervillains, like putting a gorilla in a propeller beanie.

    Hence the fake BP account. A project like @BPGlobalPR mocks not just BP's environmental record but also the empty cuteness of corporate p.r. (From the fake account: "Due to public outcry, our 'Spill or Be Spilled' flash game will be taken off our BP Kidz Klub website.") Twitter's wits are taking precisely what long-form writers have criticized about Twitter — its potential glibness — and turning that into one of the new genre's strengths.

    When the government response to the spill has seemed so tentative and bland and BP's has hardly inspired trust, guerrilla satire has been the perfect retort. And it's shown that no format is so limiting as to quell the gushers of sardonic rage. (Hours after the May 31 Gaza flotilla incident, @IsraelGlobalPR was live.) Give people 140 characters and they'll take a mile.