Last Sunday I was in Stoke for DATFest, to host the live presentation of Twitterbug. These are some initial thoughts on the process and outcomes of the project.
Although this was the last day of Twitterbug, it wasn't intended as a culmination of it. It was one output of a 'multi-genre, multi-platform performance writing project' (as I described it in a tweet). We didn't necessarily understand that that was what it was, at the start, and that was one of the great things about the project, set up by Catherine Edwards – it was an opportunity to play and explore.
I've heard it reported that the guys who invented Twitter have said, “it was like we put the bat and ball in the room, and the users invented baseball.” This is a really nice analogy I think, although it's maybe more like one of those games played by kids down the park – in different parks all over the country – that is somewhere between baseball and cricket and the exact rules and conventions depend on where you're playing it.
Twitterbug felt like a miniature of this. The project introduced writer/performers Jarrod Cooke, Eve Steele and Danielle Henry to Twitter and other social media platforms under the guidance of Hannah Nicklin, and then we all got to ask: Well, what can we do with this? What opportunities for character, narrative, performance, art, intervention, does this give us?
Jarrod, Eve and Danielle's brief was to create a character/persona/avatar and spend two weeks exploring that character's situation/attitude/narrative on Twitter and at least one other platform. Then, at the end of the two weeks, to present a short, script-in-hand presentation of that character. During the two weeks, Catherine and I threw in extra daily tasks, to create formal connections between them, and to give 'what if' discovery opportunities – ask at least 6 questions, prepare for an evening out and report back, relate a conversation.
Some of the earlier discussions and questions are blogged about in the last entry here, and by Catherine, here, and Hannah, here. Here are a few more questions from my notebook:
- Who do we follow on Twitter and why? I follow interesting characters. I follow good company. I don't follow people for narrative – but I might deliberately follow a story unfolding via a hashtag – using Twitter for the news.
- Can we have “unpleasant” characters on Twitter? Following someone you don't like is very different to, for example, spending time with Begbie in Trainspotting.
- Who is listening? People using twitter like the inner monologue in detective fiction. The outsider/observer.
- Walking is our base unit of travel – this has come up a lot in our discussions. Allows for observation, as does public transport. Both allow for 'live' tweeting.
- Do the characters know each other in real life? On Twitter? How much can/should they respond to each other?
- How much can/should they respond to other people online – some of whom will not know they are “fictional”?
- How plot driven? Life's narrative isn't structured.
- Locating character/playing with form/more cryptic?/genre influences?
- How serious? How playful? How silly?
What was really interesting to me was that Eve, Danielle and Jarrod, all starting from very similar experience of social networking and responding to the same brief, were able to use social media differently and then present written pieces that were formally different to each other, and worked with/against their online lives differently, too. Unsurprisingly, Catherine and I felt a compulsion to play along, and I found myself using the opportunity in a different but related way, too.
The two-weeks 'live window' was a comparatively short time to develop a work online, and we found that the characters did become more plot driven towards the final weekend – the brief also included taking the characters to Stoke at the same time as the performers, who were charged to turn the location settings 'on' on their tweets.
Danielle's character was the most fictional: @Honey_henry, a honey-trapper, cynical, world weary – a contemporary take on the private detective archetype. She advertises her services online, and tweets observations on human relationships, perhaps as a way of dealing with any compromise she feels about her job. Danielle's live presentation, the most poetic and stylised of the three, recounted @Honey_henry's feelings on the occasion that her status quo is challenged – the night she falls for one of her marks - and the consequences. So the present-tense of @Honey_henry's live presentation took place on a number of occasions in the proceeding two weeks.
Jarrod's character, @zombiejarrod, lived Jarrod's own life, as if he were a member of the formerly living. Played comparatively straight, @zombiejarrod, a very nice guy by all accounts, was also looking for a date to a wedding in Stoke. Jarrod's presentation found his zombie-self standing outside the church, stood up by his date - an opportunity to retell his character's story, putting in more detail and background than we got from following him on Twitter. The text was therefore positioned at a specific point in the timeline of the previous two weeks – in the 5 minutes leading up to the sending of a tweet hashtagged #worsttimestobestoodup, on the afternoon of the last Saturday.
Eve's character, @_evka_ was the most real world of the three – a slightly reframed version of her own life, focussing in on one way of responding to that situation. The actions in the real world (going on protests, for example) were all done by Eve and @_evka_ simultaneously. It was only in the final two days that @_evka_'s timeline became fictional, as she deliberately didn't collect her kids from her ex-husband on the Saturday morning (preventing him from going on holiday) and went to stay in a hotel in Stoke. As some of @_evka_'s followers didn't necessarily know that she was a character, Eve was keen to make it clear that she wasn't abandoning her kids indefinitely, just having a weekend away to recharge her single-mum batteries. Eve's text for @_evka_ was a series of video messages sent to her kids and their dad over the weekend, which stood alone, but could also be fitted into her online narrative if you'd been following that.
I'm interested in how these characters each felt like they were referencing another genre, whilst still exploring what social media could do for them. I noticed that the avatar I created to try things out alongside performers, @stagcaptain, started as a fairly conceptual way of exploring ideas about routine and ritual, and quickly evolved into a Lad-Lit short story – a genre I am fairly familiar with.
Over the two weeks up to last weekend, the online characters had largely been in the same place as their writer/performers. At the time of the presentation this was clearly not the case, so I asked them, live, where, in their online timeline, their three characters 'were now'.
@Honey_henry was still holed up in her unexpected love-nest. @Zombiejarrod was on a train back to London. @_evka_ had just finished sending her final video message from the cafe of the Museum we were in, and was about to get the train home to Manchester, to pick up her kids...
Beyond that, I don't know if those particular characters will continue online, but I'm pretty sure that this initial exploration has sown the seeds of future projects for some of us.