It’s Who You Don’t Know: Fictional Characters on Twitter

Posted on April 28, 2013


by Alena Smith

At this point, a condescending attitude toward Twitter as a legitimate medium for literary achievement is still widespread. (The prominent novelist Jonathan Franzen, for one, has publicly deemed Twitter to be “unspeakably irritating” and “irresponsible.”) However, this attitude is shifting, and fast. On the heels of Franzen’s dismissal of the medium, the New Yorker, as prestige-obsessed a literary outlet as they come, proudly debuted a serialized short story written just for Twitter by Franzen’s peer (and National Book Critics Circle Award rival) Jennifer Egan. And this experiment had already been attempted three years ago by highly-acclaimed author Rick Moody, under the aegis of the online literary magazine Electric Literature. Twitter itself recently hosted its first-ever Twitter Fiction Festival, with a panel of prestigious novelists-cum-curators who selected the stories that would be featured, and promoted, as part of the festival.

Yet stronger evidence that Twitter should be, and inevitably will be, taken seriously as a field for literary accomplishment (which is to say, for great writing) lies simply and obviously in the sheer number of talented, active, curious, engaged creative minds that write, read, listen, think, and communicate with each other every day on this still- persistently misunderstood social network. In the journalistic and literary worlds alone (that is, to say nothing of people in the television, film, comedy, fine arts or theater worlds) the followers of my fictional account @TweenHobo include writers for The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Slate, Rookie Mag, Fast Company, Grantland, Vanity Fair, the L.A. Review of Books, the A.V. Club, the Believer, N+1, xoJane, Wired, McSweeneys, Mashable, BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, the New York Observer, and NPR. Here’s my non-humblebragging point: these writers, these thinkers, these culture-makers – these are the people on Twitter. These are the people who follow each other, too, in a complicated and ceaselessly morphing web in which an exchange of thought, opinion, style and social commentary is conducted on a daily and nightly basis. It’s been said, and I agree, that while Facebook is like an endless wedding where you’re trapped with your family, friends, and everyone you know, Twitter is more like a 24-hour digital cocktail party, where at any moment you might rub elbows with a figure of some renown.

With that said, here’s the thing: the literary “establishment” that I’ve been focusing on, these pre-existing cultural institutions now attempting to graft themselves onto, or at least grapple with, this brand-new medium – they’re only a fraction of the story of what’s going on creatively, right now, on Twitter. And anyone who’s on Twitter, including those employed or published by the above-listed institutions, knows that – and probably relishes it. The incredible thing about Twitter right now is that it hasn’t been fully co-opted into a recognized, demarcated forum for the production and consumption of cultural value. Twitter is a massive free-for-all, with a fundamental absence of censorship. (You may only have 140 characters to build a tweet, but what you fill that space with is absolutely up to you.) To go back to my “cocktail party” analogy, perhaps the more apt metaphor would be a food fight – in some gigantic school cafeteria that includes a seat for Barack Obama and a more or less equal seat for the disgusting “Florida Man,” whose feed is nothing but an aggregation of actual Sunshine State headlines such as “Florida Man Asked Cops Not To Cut His Penis Off During Naked Acid Rampage.” Brilliant tweets can be written, and circulated, by and though an utterly non-exclusive congregation of millions, with an infinite array of social perspectives, contexts, and agendas. This leads to all manner of fascinating encounters, none of which has to pass through or be vetted by any exclusive bastions or arbitrators of social significance. Insofar as Twitter is still underestimated, still seen, as through Franzen’s eyes, as a trivial, “irresponsible” medium, a medium for wackos and illiterates (the 140-character limit is always invoked as evidence of a lack of literary seriousness – a claim that seems to forget old sayings like “Brevity is the soul of wit” or the classic Strunk and White motto, “Omit needless words”, which might suggest that fitting a clear and concrete message into 140 characters is actually a bit of a literary feat), insofar as Twitter has not yet been made into one big “official” Fiction Festival, but rather goes on and on as a crazy unregulated carnival of words and messages, that is the extent to which Twitter can, and does, currently function as a singularly subversive space for literary expression.

+  +  +

Recently, in an interview for Paper Magazine about Tween Hobo, I was asked to name my three favorite parody Twitter accounts. To make sure I wasn’t forgetting about any really good ones, I went to my own following list and scrolled through, looking for fictional or satirical figures, expecting to find maybe one or two that hadn’t popped into my head immediately. The number of “fake” (parodic, fictive, or at least overtly pseudonymous) accounts I found there, just in the limited list of who I’ve personally chosen to follow, really surprised me. (A partial list: Wise and Cranky Kaplan, Paddington [the Bear], Emily Dickinson, Ice Cube Tray, Coffee Dad, Listen Up Lady, Goldman Sachs Elevator Gossip, the Studio 60 Writers [Matt Albie & Danny Tripp], Betty F*ckin White, Florida Man, Preschool Gems, Gus The Fox, Kim Kierkegaardashian.) I hadn’t actually realized how much of my day-to-day experience of my Twitter feed (which, even as the creator of a fake account myself, I still tend to think of as a place I go for “information”: breaking news, factual content, or perhaps to be entertained by celebrities and comedians who we know by their “verified” blue check marks to be, at the very least, playing themselves) was populated by these explicitly fictional or theatrical entities.

The shadowy, imaginary creatures of Twitter are, by virtue of the medium, treated exactly the same as the “real people”: they have their own pages, their tweets come in an identically bland format, they have individual, self-selected avatars which, on the receiving end, we accept as fair representations of their identities. The fake and the real are constantly interacting on Twitter, as participants on equal footing within a social exchange. When you notice this, the cocktail party (or food fight) that is Twitter reveals a loopy, ambient surreality, like something out of Alice in Wonderland or a novel by Haruki Murakami. Furthermore, these categories (fake and real) are in many cases furiously blurred.

Take all the products, brands, and corporations who represent themselves on Twitter as non-human entities (like Tween Hobo’s nemesis, Real Cap’n Crunch, who hollowly promises to “Crunchatize” children if they Instagram a photo of their Crunch Berries). These corporation-controlled accounts have the setup of a parody, but lack the punchline (because, as branding tools, they can’t deliver any truly imaginative or subversive twists). Or, at the other pole of Twitter discourse, take the loose (and, frequently, corporation-antagonizing) aggregation of people who make up what has recently been referred to as “Weird Twitter”: accounts like @dogboner, @woodmuffin, @fart, and @dril. These tweeters are not “characters” in the sense that Tween Hobo or Gus the Fox are. They don’t attempt to tell stories or establish stable narrative contexts for their utterances. Quite the opposite, in fact: they gleefully and intentionally shred context – the contexts of who is speaking, where they are speaking from, and why. Their tweets seem to emanate from some Dadaist oblivion (which may, indeed, be an accurate emotional representation of how they feel or see themselves while tweeting, since most of these people, with their tens of thousands of followers, are not actually “famous in real life,” but only “Twitter-famous”). In terms of identity, an account like Dogboner is certainly not “real” in the straightforward sense of a person who puts his actual name, photograph, and hometown on his Twitter profile. Yet Dogboner is also not a “character” in the way that Tween Hobo or even Real Cap’n Crunch are, because “Dogboner” is not meant to be perceived as a separate entity, with a life of his own, distinct from a “real person” who authors the tweets (in the case of Real Cap’n Crunch, a Quaker Oats marketing employee; in Tween Hobo’s case, me). Rather, Dogboner is a mask, worn by a real person, in order to tweet in a playful, anonymous manner. This cocktail party is, ontologically speaking, getting pretty freaky.

+  +  +

The story of how Tween Hobo first came into existence is not too interesting. I joined Twitter, on the advice of a friend, in the fall of 2011 (as plain old Alena Smith). Like most people who come to Twitter from Facebook, and try to apply the rules of Facebook socializing to this new social-media territory, I first followed, and was followed by, mainly people I actually knew in real life who happened to be on Twitter (a grand total of approximately twelve). This was pretty boring. Nobody else was following me, except spambots. I didn’t really get the point of Twitter. (Sidebar: I have a theory, which has to do with Facebook, about why so many people still talk about Twitter in a tone that suggests they think it’s all a bit gauche. It’s because, with Facebook as their paradigm, they think a tweet is just like a status update. But the social ethic of Facebook is different from Twitter. On Facebook, it’s hard to “unfriend” someone, because chances are you have a mutually recognized, real-life connection to that person. The best you can do is “hide” them from your newsfeed. On Twitter, however, where following is not “friending,” unfollowing is not a major taboo. There’s a pressure to keep your tweets interesting/ funny/ informative, or deal with the consequences. The stereotypical obnoxious, narcissistic Facebook status update – something like “Loving these carrot muffins with my hubby!” – would never fly as a tweet. With tweets like that, if you’re not Justin Bieber, you’d probably lose followers.)

Anyway, having joined Twitter, and being kind of bored with it, I noticed the existence of joke accounts, and thought it would be fun to start one myself. As a “very serious” New York playwright, and not a professional comedian, I had no awareness of entering into a field of humor-competition, and no intention of “winning” at some kind of game. I say this because I’m sure Tween Hobo would never have worked as a project if I’d started the account with any sense of career pressure behind it, or any intention of impressing other people. Rather, the whole motivation behind Tween Hobo was, quite simply, to goof off. I wanted to start a parody account to entertain my approximately seven to twelve real-life friends who happened to be on Twitter. One of these friends was my BFF Emma Rathbone, a novelist, who I’ve been exchanging stupid jokes online with since 1997. We used to have a blog (that nobody read) where we wrote half-assed “Shouts and Murmurs”-type pieces just to crack each other up (since the New Yorker would never have accepted any of them), and one time for that blog I’d written a monologue in the voice of a tween-age hobo. Looking through the blog for parody account ideas I figured that one (as opposed to say, our entry about a badass bald eagle, which could also have worked) might be a funny voice to tweet in. I registered the handle @tweenhobo, google-image searched “tween hobo” and found that rather miraculous photograph that is Tween Hobo’s avatar (actually the work of an Oklahoma photographer; it’s a picture she took of her daughter in a Halloween costume), wrote the bio and location (“I’m only twelve, but I’m a hard twelve”; “Railroad to Bieberville”), followed my seven to twelve friends, and the account was launched.

+  +  +

When I started Tween Hobo I didn’t know how apt a symbol I’d struck upon for the Twitter experience itself. Every tweeter is a kind of beggar. You tweet with your hand outstretched, throwing yourself on the mercy of others, never knowing who out there in the Twitterverse will, with a retweet or an #FF, toss you a bone, make you one “fav-star” richer. Those who follow you are “jumping on board,” ready for you to take them “on a ride.” In the Twitterverse, change is constant, and life is weird; the feed replenishes itself with new data, new jokes, new links; you gain and lose followers; and every now and again something incredible happens (the Pope tweets; a congressman accidentally sends all of us a crotch pic; a celebrity you worship replies to you out of nowhere). Here’s a passage Jack London wrote in his seminal hobo memoir The Road, which, if altered slightly, could easily work as a description of life on Twitter:

Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is protean – an ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment. He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance.

Or, as Tween Hobo rephrased it, “A hobo’s gotta live by the whimsicalities of chance. For example I keep my iPod on Shuffle.” Which brings us to the “tween” part of the analogy: on Twitter, where we all gossip, snark, giggle, LOL, and emoji at each other day, where human adults communicate through phrases like “spraaannggg braaaaakke,” well, you can see where I’m going with this. Tweens and hobos. That’s what the internet is all about. And I haven’t even mentioned Kickstarter. It’s funny that “tramp” can mean both homeless vagabond and also slutty young girl. (Tween Hobo: “All my tattoos will be tramp stamps, regardless of location.”) On Twitter, we tramp around like poor little sluts, never paid for our tweets, looking for love.

Out on “the road” of my fake Twitter account, I have had adventures, strokes of luck, reversals of fortune. And all of it has been bound up in the shadowy activities of people I don’t know, can’t see, have never met. In this way, Twitter has given me a kind of huge faith in people – a sense of cultural comradeship, of being on the level. I’ve learned to take leaps with these faceless companions, who consistently seem to get my jokes, who keep on riding this weird train with me, and who, in a strange way, keep me honest about this fictional girl. Recently, when Tween Hobo arranged her own fake funeral, the communally-hashtagged mourning that ensued was a group-generated, real-time act of make-believe – a kind of creative writing that could never have occurred in any other medium. Some of the people who “spoke” at Tween Hobo’s funeral were famous, others were not. They all got the joke. They all participated. And in order to find this creative audience, I never had to go through any “gatekeepers.” I never had to apply to a fiction festival. I just started a Twitter account, and people played along.

Alena Smith is a playwright and screenwriter. Her play THE BAD GUYS (2ST Uptown, NYC) was recently adapted into an independent film by director Carlos Rincones. Alena is the creator of Tween Hobo, a fictional Twitter account, which the Believer magazine called “one of the most imaginative uses for Twitter so far.” She lives in Los Angeles, where she is at work on a book about Tween Hobo, to be published in the fall of 2013 by Gallery Books (a division of Simon & Schuster). She is also working on a TV pilot and a serialized 21st-century radio drama.

Posted in: Uncategorized