1. If you are on Twitter, you might notice that many tweets are now beginning with numbers, like this sentence.
2. These tweets link with other tweets to form a sequence. It’s a new (or newish) genre, the Twitter essay. And it’s taking off.
3. I have some special insight in this genre because I’m credited, wrongly, with creating it. I’ve certainly helped popularize it.
4. Since 2012, I’ve written countless Twitter essays on everything from Rob Ford’s racism to the sci-fi elements in John Donne’s poetry.
5. “Why Twitter essays?” you ask. Why not write blog posts or magazine articles or newspaper columns or books?
6. With strict 140-character limit & cacophony of competing voices, Twitter seems like worst place to write an essay.
7. To critics, a Twitter essay is like life-size replica of the Eiffel Tower made from chopsticks: perverse enterprise.
8. I fell into Twitter essay form accidentally: News item (plagiarism cases, Rob Ford’s crack use) would enrage me & I’d start writing.
9. After a while, just doing a string of tweets wasn’t satisfying. I wanted the tweets to have some direction.
10. A cluster of tweets ranting on one topic is known as a Twitter storm.
11. I noticed tweeters like @davidfrum would start numbering their Twitter storm, creating a clump: not a Twitter storm but a snow pile.
12. My innovation, shared with others at same time, was to realize that with just a little forethought a snow pile could become a snow castle.
13. Instead of just grumbling about Rob Ford, why not zoom in on one aspect, say his habit of making ethnic slurs?
14. With a properly focused topic, a set of tweets allows you to ruminate on a subject, to circle around it: to make an essay.
15. An essay in original French meaning of term is a trial, an attempt, an endeavour: a provisional thought about something.
16. At the very root of the essay form is its experimental and makeshift nature. An essay isn’t a definitive judgment but a first survey.
17. The ephemeral nature of Twitter gives it a natural affinity with the interim and ad hoc nature of the essay form.
18. A Twitter essay isn’t really an argument; it’s the skeleton of an argument.
19. Tweets are snowflake sentences: They crystallize, have some fleeting beauty and disappear.
20. To write snowflake sentences is liberating: They don’t have to have the finality of the printed word.
21. Fugitive thoughts quickly captured.
22. But again: Why do this on Twitter rather than any other medium or outlet?
23. One characteristic of the Twitter essay, at least as I practise it, is commitment to real-time thinking.
23. When I start a Twitter essay, I have a few basic points, but no definitive plan. I’m thinking out loud in public.
24. Because Twitter is a social medium, tweets generate responses: so as I’m writing I get replies.
25. These replies sometimes shape the course of the essay as I write it. Sometimes even change my mind on a topic.
26. There’s an inexplicable digital intimacy that forms from Twitter conversations in general & collaborating on Twitter essays.
27. There are people I’ve never met whom I consider to be friends based solely on Twitter table talk & call-and-response of Twitter essay.
28. I developed a good Twitter rapport with the great writer @tanehisicoates.
29. When @tanehisicoates took break from Twitter, I was genuinely saddened, like a friend moving to another city.
30. Writing is usually a solitary and lonely activity: a struggle with language facing a blank screen amid silence.
31. But writing a Twitter essay turns writing closer to something like stand-up comedy or musical performance.
33. Protip: A Twitter essay is performative writing.
34. After it’s done, a Twitter essay can be gathered on forums like Tumblr or Storify but that doesn’t fully capture the form.
35. A recording of a live concert is not the same as experience of concert. A preserved Twitter essay is not a real-time reading.
36. Why are numbers so important? My Twitter followers resist anything but numbers: hate letters or combinations like 33A.
37. One problem: keeping track of numbers. Sometimes I miss one.
39. Numbered sentences add up to a list. We’re living in age of the listicle on Buzzfeed & elsewhere.
40. “The 28 Most Distressing First World Problems”; “17 Hitler Cat Photos”: Why so many lists?
41. Father Walter Ong, student of Marshall McLuhan & a formidable media theorist in his own right, offers clue.
42. Ong noted one of earliest syllabic scripts (Linear B for recording Mycenaean Greek) was used largely to make lists.
43. Writing began as a memory aid: a way of organizing thoughts into useful sequences.
44. Ong further noted many earliest post-Gutenberg books compiled numbered rules of behaviour: lists again.
45. It could be that the emergence of new media is tied to list-making impulse: to giving structure to thought.
46. If Ong’s ideas are right, then listicles & Twitter essays follow in distinguished trajectory of both script and print.
47. As the Twitter essay has increased in popularity, there has been a backlash.
49. Old-school pontificating pundits, used to monologuing to their hearts content on op-ed page, seem especially hostile to form.
51. The open-endedness of the Twitter essay is part of its charm. As it unfolds you don’t know how long it will last.
53. Sorry, but I usually call it quits after 50 tweets. The end.
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