Judy Malloy, Editor







Dene Grigar
On the Art of Producing a Phenomenally Short Fiction Collection over the Net using Twitter:
The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project

Process: interactive and collaborative strategies for the creation of narrative


The Author at the Beginning of the 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project


Dene Grigar, who works in the area of electronic literature, emergent technology and cognition, and ephemera, is an Associate Professor and Director of The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver.

Created with compelling narrative constructs that poetically address place, community, and community issues, her works explore telematic storytelling, collaboration, and performance, using multimedia and/or social media. She is the author of Fallow Field: A Story in Two Parts and The Jungfrau Tapes: A Conversation with Diana Slattery about The Glide Project, both of which were published by The Iowa Review Web, and When Ghosts Will Die, (with Canadian multimedia artist Steve Gibson) a work that experiments with motion tracking technology to produce networked narratives. Her most recent project is the Fort Vancouver Mobile Project, a locative / mixed media effort that brings together a core team of 23 scholars, digital storytellers, new media producers, historians, and archaeologists to create location-aware nonfiction content for mobile phones to be used at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Dene Grigar is the editor (with John Barber) of New Words: Exploring Pathways for Writing about and in Electronic Environments, (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001) and she serves as Associate Editor of Leonardo Reviews and Vice President of the Electronic Literature Organization.

In her essay for Authoring Software, she describes the creation of The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project, a performative collaborative work for which she edited her stories about living in Dallas, Texas into twitter-sized literary texts and posted one every hour for 24 hours -- inviting others to contribute. The work evokes historic global communication projects that were based on narrative -- such as Roy Ascott's La Plissure du Texte and Fortner Anderson and Henry See's The Odyssey Project, as well as, as she notes in the essay, Robert Adrian's The World in 24 Hours Project.

The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project combines the jazz energy of real-time creation of online art and micro-literature with elements of poetic narrative and locality. And as the author camps by her computer, entering her own narratives, inspiring contributions to the work, The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project captures the imagination of the contemporary generation of users of social media. "The project resulted in what can be considered an international anthology of micro-fiction comprised of over 85 stories and submitted by over 25 participants from five countries." she notes.

As a central part of her discussion of the project, Grigar looks at the place of micro-fiction in literary and new media culture, raising questions -- which although they may be approached differently by other new media writers -- it is a complex and diverse field -- serve to invoke a much needed larger discussion of approaches to electronic literature.

For more information about Dene Grigar, visit her website at http://www.nouspace.net/dene



Dene Grigar: On the Art of Producing a Phenomenally Short Fiction Collection over the Net using Twitter: The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project

The Project

The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project centers on a collection of 24 stories about life in an American city in the 21st Century and involves 140 characters or less delivered -- that is, "tweeted" -- on Twitter over a 24 hr. period. The launch date of the project was Friday, August 21, 2009 beginning 12 AM PST. Each hour until 11 PM, I posted one story, a method of delivery I chose so that others from other parts of the world who wished to participate could do so at a time convenient for them. These "participants" were encouraged to do more than simply read and respond to my work; they were actually invited to tweet their own stories. During the 24 hours of the project as I posted my stories, I also monitored and collected the participants' stories, adding them to the Project Blog. The project resulted in what can be considered an international anthology of micro-fiction comprised of over 85 stories and submitted by over 25 participants from five countries. In this essay, I address assumptions and viewpoints surrounding the art of producing a phenomenally short fiction collection over the net using Twitter.


The Problem(s) Defined

In envisioning the work, I admit to being painfully aware of two schools of thought about fiction writing. The first one agitates for brevity and pithiness and finds among its heroes the 1960's counter-culture writer Richard Brautigan, whose "The Scarlatti Tilt" gave, in 34 well-chosen words, a logical rationale for murder; the other argues for the long-winded novel, rambling sagas, epic-length narratives that can spend, like Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, several pages on the death of one minor character. Both approaches require genius, yet most of us realize that those who produce the former must, in the scheme of things, come across as not very serious about the art of literature since the latter better promises excellent reviews, Nobel Prizes in Literature -- and that their works will, at least, remain in print. In fact, short fiction is, according to Camille Renshaw, clearly "defiant". [1] She tells us that this is so because this kind of work "defies length, boundaries, and expectations," three very important aspects of respectable writing.

But if, short works of fiction in print are perceived with difficulty by some audiences, then one has to wonder how phenomenally short works of fiction of 140 characters or less for the web will be received. Add on top of that the issue that the mode of web publishing is a form of social media considered by some better suited for celebrity gossip or millennials with too much time on their hands: Twitterature. Or Twillers. Tweets -- terminology that thwarts any sense of gravitas required for literary art, much less august theory (thweory?) and criticism that must accompany it.

And if the brevity of Twitter based fiction is too subversive and not serious enough for traditional literary types, it comes along and muddies up the waters for e-lit artists whose conventional wisdom holds that electronic literature is "born-digital work" requiring "computation . . . at every stage of [its] life" and cannot be "printed out". (Strickland [2]) So this means that, on the one hand, Twitterature is not electronic literature because works of this nature may or may not require computation until they are uploaded to the Internet and can very easily be instantiated in analog form without harming the integrity of the work. But, on the other, neither are they "e-books or digitized versions of print works, and other word-processed documents". (Strickland [ibid.]) because, well, they are dynamic, composed on the fly and published on a site that, until 2008, constituted the biggest Ruby on Rails site on the net and, today, is instantiated by way of Ruby, as an "open source web application framework that closely follows the Model-View-Controller (MVC) architecture," is compiled into a standardized portable binary format for Java Virtual Machine, and "expressed" more "concise[ly], elegant[ly], and type-safe[ly] using Scala." And then there is this thing where people respond among each other and to the information everyone posts. And this means that works on Twitter move. Down. With each piece of information we access, each person we respond to, the page shifts. Downward. Words we post completely disappear off the page if we follow a lot of friends and access their tweets. So while we can print out our page of tweets and see our work exactly as we keyboarded it into the textbox, we need to do it pretty quickly before accessing other tweets. And those tweets are indexed dynamically by Twitter itself. Seen any hashtags in a Norton Anthology index lately? Not exactly the stuff static digital texts.

And if we disregard sleeping on the floor of my home office next to my computer with an alarm set to wake me on the hour from 1 in the morning until 7, Twitter works can be participatory in real-time without too much of a strain. So much easier was it, technically, for me to share stories over 24 hours at Twitter in The 24-Hr. Micro-Elit Project from Vancouver, WA to 25 people across five continents in 2009 than it was for Robert Adrian who sent out telefaxes Slow Scan TV images, Computer Mailbox, and telephone sound in "The World in 24 Hours Project" from Linz, Austria to 14 groups across four continents in 1982. [4] There is, indeed, love, Roy and Eddie wherever you are, in the telematic embrace.


The Big One

And it was a rather big group hug, which only serves to further demonstrate the problem with twitterature: the individual, lonely genius be damned. Yes, I set up a sleeping bag in my office where I would lie down between tweets and sleep. But when the alarm would go off before the hour, I would get up and rejoin my computer for the next 20 minutes or so of interaction with my followers on Twitter. My cat, Gracie Growlie, remained with me during the night, sleeping on the chair I had set up for her next to me or moving to my sleeping bad to nap beside me.


Author with cat at 3 PM

A total of 972 hits are logged on my project site, 28 less than I had hoped for, but certainly not a bad turn out. I think about performances I have been involved in, seating 100 or 72 or 150 people comfortably in a makeshift space and, perhaps, putting on two shows to accommodate everyone. Nine hundred and seventy-two people participating -- not just reading or viewing -- in a day is not a bad number, comparably. A visit to the archived site shows a page where all of my personal tweets are archived.

Truthfully, I had worked several years on these stories, originally calling the collection "Metroplex" and basing them on experiences I had read about or personally had while living in Dallas, TX. I let the collection languish primarily because I could not, for the life of me, figure out where, in 2005 when I wrote them, they could actually be published. I considered turning them into a hypertext piece where readers could access a map of the city and click on a particular area to read a story that corresponded with that particular site. But by 2005, video, not hypertext, was on the rise. So, I held on to the stories, wanting them to remain primarily text-based and thinking that they would find a venue one day in this form. And truly, the thought that also stayed with me was they could be part of a larger anthology about city life in the 21st century from the perspective of many cities, beyond Dallas -- that others would have their own metro experiences to share and perhaps my stories could serve as a catalyst for others to talk about their lives in their cities.

When I was introduced to Twitter in 2007, I began to dust off the stories and reorient them toward to the 140 requisite characters that Twitter demands. Many gained much from the editing, such as, "She dialed her favorite station but instead found Dvorak's Quartet No12 Op 96 in Fminor whereupon Kurt Cobain finally died once&forall". I liked the way the final four words visually squeezed together as one coherent thought as I imagined the flash of insight would have hit the character's mind in the story. While others could not be sustained by such heavy editing and, ultimately, needed to be posted as a serial of two to three posts or eliminated completely. This meant I had to write several new stories to be able to offer a story for every hour. One example is the one posted at 20:00 p.m., entitled "Good Neighbors" and reads, "Good neighbors, the letter stated, top trees so that we above you can have a view of the river. She gazed wistfully at her 40' pine." This was story would not have been one I would have imagined writing from the plains of North Texas but made perfect sense living, as I do now. in the Pacific Northwest where people will kill for a view of the Columbia River.

In order to provide an idea of the time in which works were posted, I would timestamp the first entry of the hour. Looking at the archive, one can see that this was done on a regular basis. What I neglected to do was archive all of the interactions I had with participants. This was actually a conscious choice because I did not think I could maintain both talking with authors and archiving these tweets at the same time. If I were to continue this project, it would be an activity for which I would get some assistance. I also have considered offering the project as an annual activity with prizes for the best writing submitted. Certainly, the popularly of social media, particularly Twitter, suggests that such a contest would garner more participation in 2011 than it did even in 2009.


Conclusion

So, my fascination with brevity took me to close to 1000 tweets and 231 followers in the The 24 Hr. Micro-Elit Project. The project was a success in that over 85 stories were submitted by 25+ participants from five countries. As a social experiment, it showed that Twitter, and perhaps other social media, can facilitate the making of art -- and in a collaborative way. For a whole day, we turned Twitter into a literary salon that brought together strangers and friends from far-flung places to share their work and love of literature, thus extending the normally perceived use of Twitter. I have to admit, however, I am still nagged by the question about what constitutes serious literature, print or electronic. Yes, I was pleased that the piece was selected for exhibit at the Electronic Literature Organization's (ELO) media art show sponsored by Brown University in 2010 and am heartened by news that Twitter is gaining in popularity as both a mode of communication and site of information. But I will continue to wonder what the perception of micro-fiction will be in the future, if at some point, it will ever be accorded the respect given to lengthier writing, or if my elit colleagues will revise definitions of electronic literature to include twitterature, and other born digital works that can be printed out, as genres of elit. Talking to ebr editor and former ELO President Joe Tabbi recently about non-narratives gives me hope that the day when the novel held sway is over and that "length, boundaries, and expectations" are more fluid notions of what constitutes literary art.



Notes

1. Camille Renshaw, "The Essentials of Micro-Fiction", Pif, June 1, 1998

2. Stephanie Strickland. "Born Digital", Poetry Foundation, February 13, 2009.

3. "Robert Adrian X" in Heidi Grundmann, ed., Art Telecommunication, Vancouver, Canada: Western Front; Wien, Austria: Blix, 1984. pp. 76-80








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