Twitter Fiction: The Repurposed Magical Tent


To celebrate International Poetry Day today in the UK here is a quick run-down of a Twitter poetry project that I have recently been involved in.

For a while I’ve been interested in the peculiarities of using Twitter as a structural mechanism for delivering illustrated interactive narratives. The original concept was to create a series of parallel Twitter accounts, each belonging to a fictional character. Each has it’s own linear narrative ‘stream’. The reader can become aware of the narrative by entering one stream, and follow that one for a bit. Then, when the character meets another character, a dialogue between the two can take place using Twitter’s inbuilt ‘@’ messaging system. This in turn alerts the reader to the existence of the other character and allows them to change tracks and discover retrospectively what the other character has been doing. This may lead to the discovery of further characters, and so on:

Twitter Narrative Map

Then last Autumn I met with Lytton Smith, a poet and lecturer in English and Creative Language, who was also interested in producing a Twitter-based fiction, although his interest was, understandably, from a poetic perspective. He proposed doing a version of his book ‘The All-purpose Magical Tent’ which is a collection of poems centering around events and characters belonging to a circus in 1930s depression-era America. I was keen to include imagery and see how this might work, and so suggested that we involve some of the BA (Hons) Illustration students that I teach to create images in response to his text.

Lytton reworked his book into a series of tweets to be produced by five characters:

Repurposed Text

These would all be experienced simultaneously, but with some of them messaging each other or referring to each other’s tweets. Lytton was also keen for the entire narrative to loop infinitely, so when it gets to the end, it starts again. This reflects the core theme of the text; the cyclic nature of the circus constructing itself, putting on a show, then being disassembled before moving on and building itself once again.

There was an open call to students, with each choosing the character they would most want to work with. At first I imagined each tweet having an accompanying image, but it quickly transpired that this would be too large a task for the number of people involved, so we worked out a good balance. Each student ended up producing three or four images and there were three to four students per character.

We had two group sessions, one in February where students pitched their roughs to Lytton, and another in April when visuals were presented. After that, they were pretty much left to produce their finals.

Here are some examples of the work produced, by Claire Knight, Jamie Bradford and Sophia Viney respectively:

Carousel Attendant

Lion Tamer

Bearded Lady

In terms of publishing the tweets, we needed a way of automating the process, as having a real person bashing in tweets several time a day forever wasn’t an option. This was achieved using a brilliantly useful application called If This Then That, which allows you to link separate web services together and get events on one to trigger actions on another. These triggers can be events on a Google calendar, and since calendar events can be made to recur once a month, this forms the basis of the tweeting mechanism.

If This Then That

The way the final tweets are presented in the main Twitter website, or indeed through most Twitter clients, is in reverse-chronological order. This is so that the most current items are at the top of the list.

Twitter Version

This is fine for what Twitter is intended for, but means that in the case of a narrative that flows from one tweet to the next, it runs backwards and becomes harder to follow. Images are also not presented alongside the tweets by default, and I was also interested in readers being able to interactively mix the streams together. So this meant building a web app that read in the streams, interleaved them based on their timestamp, flipped them around to run in chronological order, presented the images with the text and gave readers the ability to toggle the visibility of characters on and off:

Web Version

The final result can be found at www.magicaltent.co.uk/repurposed

The individual Twitter accounts of the characters (should you want to follow them) are:

The Bearded Lady: @1beardedone
The Ringmaster: @theringled
The Tightrope Walker: @tropewalk
The Carousel Attendant: @garosello
The Lion Tamer: @leotame


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