TWITTERATURE?! Can social media become an artistic medium?
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TWITTERATURE?! Can social media become an artistic medium?

In English Language and Literature (ENLL) this term grade 10 has explored the English language from a historical perspective. We looked at how and why English has changed over the centuries. In the second half of the unit we explored one of the most recent steps of this development: social media English.

By Sara d’Orazio, ENLL; picture: Twitterature by Alexander Aciman (Penguin)

With the advent of the internet and smarter technology platforms, such as smartphones, this variety of English is acquiring increasing space in our lives. We use it every day, and it follows conventions that are different from other varieties of the language.

Social media English is used to share ideas and feelings. But is it just a utilitarian tool for communicating with each other? Could it have the potential to become something more meaningful, artistic even, as other forms of English have done in previous centuries? A few years ago the publishing house Penguin asked itself similar questions, and as a half joke perhaps, it launched a volume of Twitterature . Similarly, for a few years a group of writers ran a Twitter Literature festival.

Twitter version of Beowulf

In the wake of these linguistic experiments, our students have also undertaken to explore the potential of the latest stage of the history of English. This exploration culminated in a creative task in which they had to test the creative limits of the new medium and its language.

This was the final creative task they experimented with:

  • Scenario: Penguin is preparing to publish a new ‘Twitterature’ collection. But this time, it is focusing on classic Epics to show readers around the world what the future of Literary English might look like.
  • Task and audience: Write a twitter version of a short extract from the Old English classic epic ‘Beowulf’ with artistic merit.
  • Audience: young adults, and non-literature specialists.
  • Purpose: 1) to entertain your audience, 2) to expose them to Literature they would probably not know without your help, and 3) to prove that Twitter can have artistic merit.

Check out some of their creative used of the twitter medium:

What the students thought:

‘I learnt about how English developed as a language and how different people and periods of time are the main reason for changes. I also learnt how to use modern language conventions to be able to present the same ideas as old literature does efficiently’. 

‘In terms of creative writing, I learned about putting more consideration into how I want to display information, and how that affects its efficacy; I also learned about managing the balance between making content and organizing the content, to make sure they both complement each other without taking away from either’

‘I appreciated that we had the ability to express our creativity and that we had free choice of what or how we wanted to write it. We had the freedom to use the section that we wanted and the characters that we wanted to add. Usually in class we must stick to the traditional form of writing, but in this exercise, we got to add our own personal knowledge of social media to the story’.

‘I enjoyed the fact that we did something different and something I can relate to. It was fun to bring and incorporate slang, that is normally inappropriate in class, and include it in my final piece’.

‘At the beginning, I found it challenging to not get carried away in using too much slang, instead of focusing on the literary choices I was making. However, towards the end, I was able to overcome this and focus on the literary choices.’

‘I found it challenging since, although we were using a twitter format, which is something we are familiar with, we had to stick to the traditions of classical writing. This made us create a combination of classical and modern language. The story of Beowulf itself is an old tale dating back dozens of years, putting that in a new format gave all of us a proper challenge.’

‘I do not think twitter has the potential to become a medium for literature in the future. Twitter is a way for people to express their feelings in an easy and relaxed atmosphere. I think if it were to become a medium for literature the app will become less popular. This is because social media is a way for people to escape from their work and I don’t think people want to be exposed to more literature on their free time. However, this varies for everyone, but personally I wouldn’t use the app. In addition, twitter is supposed to be easy and to make it literature engaging may take a lot of time for others, so I don’t think they will enjoy the app as much.’ 

‘I think it is likely that twitterature will grow in popularity, and become more regularly used. However, I do not think it has the potential to become a medium for literature in the future as it is difficult to describe complex storylines and characters. Though there are ways of making this clearer to the reader, you cannot achieve the character and setting description possible using modern English.’

‘Twitter has the potential [to become a literary] medium […] and to some extent already is with story threads, conspiracy threads, comedy and poetry. And is unique as the creator interacts directly to whoever is consuming their content.’

And this student summarized it all beautifully for us:

‘I enjoyed this unit learning about the development of the English language, the origins of certain words and how the English language came to be like it is today. I also enjoyed creating a written piece that was different to what we usually do. I did find it challenging to really create a story using only short tweets, however I found that using pictures and emoji creatively could add to the story in a different way. Now that I have completed this project I think that Twitterature has the potential to become a medium of literature. I don’t think that it will replace literature as it is now but that they both exist together with each their own limitations and advantages.’