Twitter Poetry and the Re-use Era: the Creation of Meaning

On: October 9, 2009
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About Marta Colpani
I was born in Piacenza, a little city in the North of Italy. I grew up with five brothers and sisters and various adopted and hosted children who temporary lived with my family. In 2005 I moved on my own to Pisa to study Film, Music and Theater and later (2006) I moved to Haarlem to study Information Science in Amsterdam. I graduated in August 2009 and then started the post-graduated program New Media, at the same university (UvA). Simultaneously I'm studying fine arts at the Rietveld Academy and running a stage at Technische Unie in the Product information & eBusiness department.


Twitter writing poetryAs I wrote in the last post about my new media research on Twitter, this new social networking site offers a very specific new format for communication. It gives a constraint of 140 characters to write a status update. Although Twitter asks the user to write “what he is doing”, this space is used by different users in different ways. A very interesting research on Twitter population and the different uses of the technology is to find in the master thesis Twitter: Expressions of the Whole Self, by Edward Mishaud (2007).

Like the now extremely popular sms technology, introduced on mobile phones and spread all over the world, Twitter introduces a new format in writing. While sms took the place of voice mail or phone calls, Twitter has appeared in a totally different communication context: that of on-line writing and social networking sites. When sms became popular, sms format begun to be introduced in writing novels and books, both by a single author and in collaborative projects. Sms technology changed the way we communicate with each other through a mobile phone on a very personal level, and constructed new narratives that were translated and reflected into story-writing techniques.

However, the way sms developed as a service within societies is not what this technology was intended for. Sms was originally integrated in mobile phones as an emergency tool that would warn the phone owner in case it would be needed. The present role and functions of sms have been literally shaped by society. This is an excellent example of the “Social Shaping of Technology” (SST) theory by MacKenzie & Wajcman (1999).

So is Twitter, in a way. By creating new constraints in communication, Twitter also stimulates new forms of expression. The tool is used in different ways, such as for news report, debates, personal communication, marketing, political purposes, groups coordination, etc.  Poetic expression can be seen as one of the possibilities. It is very unlikely that all these new ways Twitter is used by different groups have been foreseen by the developers of the service from the very beginning.

Twitter lessonBrand on twitterTwitter directionsTwitter chatting coffee

On Twitter there is a special channel dedicated to poetry (probably more than one, but this is just an example). Not poetry in general, but Twitter poetry. This channel called @twihaiku refers explicitly to Haiku poetry, a Japanese form of poetry that has a very strict structure, limiting the length of the poem to 3 verses, and therefore could have certain affinities with Twitter. Also, Haiku are very often associated with images from every-day life, which play a very big role on Twitter. The short format of both Haikus and tweets forces the writer to be very concise. Written text resembles very much an image, a photograph. @twihaiku publishes a selection of submitted Twitter Haikus. Another Twitter channel that publishes collected Twitter poetry is @twittems. Twittems is a project started by a group of anonymous writers. They also collect tweets that they think express something interesting, as they write on the website.

Besides these channels that collect Twitter poems, a number of remix of Twitter content exist, that can be seen as forms of poetry. One bigger project is  Twistori, also interesting for his appealing graphics. Tom Watson found his own way to transform the information flow on Twitter into poetry. In his blog he writes how this idea came to be and how he creates his own poetry using tweets by other users. I also found this girl, @iThomasina, who sees Twitter as the longest poem in the world, and remixes it in video.

These reinterpretations of tweets show an interest for what is expressed on Twitter by other users, and at the same time a need for reading and expressing our own emotions. This way of using user generated text to create a new text reminds me to Levy’s idea of the hypertext and text virtuality as expressed in his book Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age (1998). According to him, digital text is not always virtual. Virtualization of text occurs only when a creative process takes place in the human interacting with the digital content. A virtual text is not predefined, but is “made” by the reader and acquires new different meanings according to how it’s read. According to Levy, virtual reading implies writing in a way.

“It is no longer the meaning of the text that concerns us, but the direction and elaboration of our thought, the accuracy of our image of the world, the fulfillment of our plans, the awakening of our pleasure, the thread of our dreams. This time the text is no longer crushed and crumpled into a ball, but cut up, pulverized, distributed, evaluated in terms of an autoparturient subjectivity.” Levy, Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, 1998

Twitter can then be seen as a very big hypertext, that is constantly expanding. This big hypertext can become a pertinent text, a poem, a story. Something that makes sense for a very specific user. The content on Twitter can assume new meanings by being read and remixed by Twitter’s users.

A number of aspects of my story go beyond the Twitter phenomenon. Remix culture is very alive and does not only concerns Twitter and text, but also images, sound, video, etc. The tendency to reuse digital content to create new media products (and thus new meaning) has been described by Larry Lessing very extensively in his books and during several conferences and presentations. Obviously, Lessig is defending his ideas of a free culture and advocates for the extension of the public domain. Apart one’s personal opinion about Creative Commons and Lessig’s ideas, I find this presentation very illustrating for the point I want to make in this post.

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