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Sarah Schmelling

Sarah Schmelling

Posted: July 15, 2009 09:50 AM

Every Status Update Tells a Story: Twitter Novels and Facebook Lit


Last week, I found myself typing into an online thesaurus at 11:30 p.m. I have a toddler. I don't stay up this late on purpose. But I'd seen the "first draft movie lines" microtrend exploding on Twitter and I suddenly needed a new way to say the line "The Dude abides" from The Big Lebowski. The idea was to write funny/awkward alternatives to famous film quotes, and even the Twitterati were joining in. Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker was doing it ("Then, Dorothy, repeat these words: 'Home is one of my top travel destinations.'"), as was screenwriter Diablo Cody, ("Make sure I get paid adequately."). In the end, I went with "The Dude is content to stay on this course."

I don't usually get sucked into Twitter the way I do into the vortex of Facebook (I never really wondered what character from Grease I am, but I better take this quiz to find out!). But the movie-lines exercise represents a lot of things I love about social media. It's a creative challenge, it allows you to connect with millions of strangers through trivial cultural knowledge. And, to me, it feels a bit like Facebook Lit.

I know. The term sounds like a make-your-own-course title for a sixth-year undergrad at a progressive college. But Facebook Lit has been my creative challenge--and my job--since the night a year ago when, with a newborn and few functioning brain cells, I began to wonder what Ophelia would have posted on Facebook as she strayed to the fun side of sanity. What I wrote, with my English-major baggage and a postpartum carnival of hormones, was the story of Hamlet in Facebook news feed form.

The piece, published on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, led to my forthcoming book of Facebook Lit, Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float. Since then, others have written news feed versions of everything from the Book of Genesis to The Aeneid, not to mention Slate's ongoing Obama news feed and a Facebook group of world leaders in The Atlantic. There are also, of course, Twitter novels -- classics and those solely in tweet form.

I know some people may see this as a corruption of literature, just like some people prefer their Jane Austen zombie-free. But it's all meant in fun: a companion (or what my husband calls a gateway drug) for the classics, not any attempt at revision. Besides, the classics have been parodied -- and survived -- for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. What's new to parody is 5-year-old Facebook (and even younger Twitter). And what I've found interesting about this project beyond, of course, creating an Event page for The Canterbury Tales or engaging Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain in a status update quip-off, is how much it demonstrates the literary quality of social media.

Facebook amazes me with its capacity for narrative storytelling. People become friends and end relationships and join groups and profess their love of things. A friend will write about his job application, then his job interview, then his job offer, then, inevitably, about how he hates his job. People detail full pregnancies, then their children's infancy to toddlerhood and beyond. And then there's the dialogue. On any given update, I can have comments from former coworkers, a high school boyfriend, my husband's cousin and a woman I just met at my son's play date. It's a bit This Is Your Life, but it's also fascinating reading material.

Twitter, too, is full of stories. It may be a cacophony of voices, but you can still easily "follow" someone through the establishment of their problem, rising tension, conflict, climax and resolution. And the trends like "first draft movie lines" can also be narrative entertainment: they're like the movie scene where someone starts singing and little by little everyone, even that unlikely thug in the corner, eventually joins in.

Is it just the writer in me that sees this? (And one who's spent too much time studying literature and Facebook simultaneously?) I don't think so. I think we tune in to social media, in part, to see how everything turns out.

Follow Sarah Schmelling on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sschmelling