What Would Twitter Do?

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In the final installment of What Would Twitter Do?—where I talk to some of my favorite people on Twitter about their tweeting philosophies and practices—I interview Kenneth Goldsmith. Kenny is the creator of the avant-garde encyclopaedic archive project, UbuWeb. He is also the author of a book of essays called Uncreative Writing and many experimental books, including one in which he transcribed every word he said in an entire week, Soliloquy, and another in which he wrote out an entire day’s New York Times. He also created the project  Printing Out the Internet for which he invited people around the world to help him do just that; he collected over 10 tonnes of paper from 20,000 contributors. He is the editor of a collection of interviews with Andy Warhol, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and is the first poet laureate at MoMA. We spoke this morning over gchat.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: You said that if any artist could make a work of art as great as Twitter… Well, not exactly that, but can you tell me if you think of Twitter as art?

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Twitter is not art. But it inspires me in the way that art used to inspire me. Art used to make me see the world differently, think about things in a new way—it rarely does that for me anymore, but technology does that for me on a daily basis. Rather like the feeling when I first saw a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube. It made me rethink the entire world. It’s Twitter’s combination of simplicity and complexity that is astonishing in the same way that minimalist sculpture was inspiring and enlightening.

SH: How do you think of your own work differently since being inspired by Twitter?

KG: I’ve begun writing more compactly. I now favor the slogan and eschew the paragraph. I’ve traced this change during the ten years that I’ve been working on my rewriting of Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.” When I first began, I was doing a Benjamin-like grabbing of long paragraphs—pages and pages of passages. Now, after five years on Twitter, I’m taking snippets, headlines, slogans, and almost never paragraphs. It’s had a tremendous impact on my writing in general.

SH: Is it because you actually enjoy reading more aphoristic-like things now, or because it feels more current?

KG: Short attention span is the new avant-garde. Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text. I find that a reason to celebrate. It’s something that has deep roots in modernism, stretching from the Futurists’ use of typography to Pound’s use of ideograms to concrete poetry. David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism.

SH: But that makes me think that some artists will soon start writing impossibly long and unfragmented things, because Twitter is a corporate place, and the slogan is a very corporate technique.

KG: Back in the 80s, artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer taught us that the corporate slogan was, by simply moving it from one context to another, ripe for détournement and could easily be used against itself. Twitter lends itself to this sort of misuse. But to answer your question about the return to longer forms, I wonder if Knausgaard would’ve written the same books today had been using Twitter. It wasn’t around when he was writing those books. Those books were written during the age of the blog, with its big verbiage. The landscape has completely changed today.

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What Would Twitter Do?

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Welcome to What Would Twitter Do? the ninth and three-quarter edition with Roxane Gay! Next week will be Week 10, the final interview. In this series, I talk to some of my favourite people on Twitter about their Twitter philosophies and practices. Roxane Gay, in addition to being a brilliant fiction writer, blogger and essayist (this season she published her collection Bad Feminist to huge acclaim), is a seasoned and constant Twitter user. It’s possible that it was her, more than anyone else I follow, who made me begin to wonder: What is Twitter? She used the medium in the way other people did—posting links, declaring things—but in another way, too: as a constant running monologue, a real stream of consciousness, a literary Modernist on Twitter. There isn’t a sense of hierarchy among her now 80,000+ tweets. It almost seems part of her living—in the way that you wouldn’t say this breath is particularly important, while those twenty other breaths I took are less important. One begets the next. She was also maybe the first “Twitter celebrity” to me, in that I knew her “Twitter work” before I had read any of her other writing. She seems to be one those people always in centre of the swirl of the debate—especially around feminist issues—while also managing to stand cooly outside it.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: I remember when I first started following you, I couldn’t believe how often you tweeted. It’s not like you’d save up and tweet special thoughts. It was more like a constant stream for your life.

ROXANE GAY: Living in a rural town really compelled me to start tweeting so much. Mostly, my Twitter usage is fueled by loneliness. I can go days without talking to another human being unless it’s my mother, especially when I’m not teaching or on break. 

SH: Many of your thoughts must now just appear as tweets. Is that so? Is there a portion of your brain that is always tuned to tweeting?

RG: Hmm. There’s certainly a portion of my brain that is always tuned to making wry observations about the world, but that portion of my brain was alive and well before Twitter. 

SH: Do you always tweet on your phone or from the website, too? 

RG: I tweet from my phone, the Twitter app on my computers, and once in a while, the website. 

SH: Do you care whether an individual tweet be “good,” or is more the overall approach that you think about?

RG: I don’t care. Twitter is my happy place. I am not there to overthink 140 characters. 

SH: What has tweeting done for you on a professional level? 

RG: Tweeting has definitely expanded the reach of my work.

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What Would Twitter Do?

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For the ninth-and-a-half entry to What Would Twitter Do? I interviewed my favourite corporate account: Melville House, which not only has a smart, fun and lively Twitter account, but is one of the most exciting and brilliant English-language publishers. My questions about their feed were answered by Alex Shephard, Melville House’s Director of Digital Marketing and founding editor of Full Stop (he is also a former bookseller for McNally Jackson and BookCourt) and Zeljka Marosevic, managing director of Melville House UK and one of The Bookseller’s 2014 Rising Stars

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: I love what Melville House publishes and how Melville House appears online. Was there even an in-house discussion of the tone Melville House would take in its tweets, or are you both just being you?

ALEX SHEPHARD: Zeljka and I write most of the feed now; Dennis Johnson, Melville House’s publisher, also chimes in, as do some others. Melville House is a pretty collaborative place. Zeljka and I started a day apart last March. She started a day before me, something I’ll never forgive her for. Before that the Twitter feed was mostly Dustin Kurtz, who recently left the company to be a dad. I don’t remember ever really having a discussion about tone—when I started it felt a little like getting the keys to your parents’ car when you’re sixteen—but for me, the voice comes from two places. One is our blog, MobyLives, which was started by our publisher, Dennis Johnson, in 1998 (it predates the publishing house by a few years). That blog, which I currently edit, covers the publishing industry from inside in a way that’s insightful, humorous, and occasionally indignant—we stand up for what we believe in, but we try to do it in a way that’s fun and self-aware. The other is Dustin, who really helped build the account into what it is before Zeljka and I made it much better last spring. (Just kidding, Dustin! I love you.) Zeljka and I bring different things to the table, but we have similar senses of humor—we’re sarcastic and wry and like doing silly stunts. And what you see from the account is similar to what you see on the blog—I’m representing the company, but I’m also representing myself. Mostly I’m just trying to make people laugh. And buy our books, so I can keep goofing off on Twitter. 

ZELIKA MARSEVIK: I remember an early email exchange when I started at Melville House which went something like,”easy on the exclamation marks, keep it interesting… you know the drill.” So it was more implicit than an actual conversation but there was immediately a sense of trust, which I think was really important. It’s a corporate account but I felt like I was being encouraged to be myself on it. We publish Bartleby the Scrivener, so that’s always given me an indication of tone and character when tweeting as Melville House. What I like is that we never really discuss our tweets but I know Alex (and Dennis, and other members of staff) will look at our feed when they wake up. So a lot of the time I’m just trying to make them laugh.

SH: Do you ever censor yourself on account of running a corporate account?

ZM: We pick our fights, and I don’t think we’re ever mean or spiteful. Sometimes I pause before I send out a tweet full of expletives and then think “what the hell” because I can’t resist the retweets.

AS: We definitely have the sweariest account in publishing, which I love, even if I get the (very) occasional note asking why we use so many “f-bombs.” I feel like if you don’t like saying “fuck,” you probably won’t like our books anyway. As for censoring in other areas, for the most part the same rules apply online as they do anywhere else: have a perspective, but don’t be petty and don’t be personal (unless you’re talking about, say, Jeff Bezos eating a cockroach). We take on controversial subjects—we’re one of the few publishing houses that openly talks about Amazon, for instance—and we do that with a sense of urgency, but also with a sense of humor. I try to have a sense of what’s at stake before I start making dumb jokes. Mostly, I try to make myself the butt of the joke whenever possible, probably because I’m a masochist.

SH: How do you balance promoting Melville House books and tweeting other sorts of things? Do you worry about the balance?

AS: Now that I think about it, a lot of what we do is promotional in one way or another—-most of what we tweet about is either stuff we’ve written on the blog or stuff we’ve published. But it doesn’t really ever feel that way. I care about what we publish and I want other people to care about it too. I worry about finding the right angle or the right joke sometimes but I don’t really worry about balance.

SH: How come your feed isn’t ever annoying? Is your heart in the right place? What is the right place for the heart of a publishing or business feed to be?

AS: One of things I like the best about Melville House’s twitter feed, as opposed to other “brands” or whatever, is that you always have the sense that there’s a real, live human being on the other end. Zeljka and I (and Dustin, too, while he was here) all take on a certain Melville House-y voice, but when I scroll through our feed I always know exactly who wrote what (not like I’m keeping score, or anything). We’re never shill and, while we’re sometimes caustic, we’re never cynical. Our heart is with the books and with the business of making books and I hope that always comes across. Whether that’s the right place or not is anyone’s guess, but it sure feels like the right place. I’d definitely like to sell a lot of books and make so much money that I’m tweeting from a solid gold computer or something, but that’s not the most important thing by a long shot—if it were, I probably wouldn’t work in publishing. I work for Melville House for the same reason I used to work in bookstores and the same reason I started a site about literature with a group of friends: I care very deeply about literature and want to be a part of its future. Thankfully, it’s also easy to not be cynical about marketing books here, because the books are just really, really good.

SH: What other tasks do you have at Melville House besides tweeting? Do other people tweet, too?

ZM: If I’m tweeting from 10am - 3pm London time and Alex takes over at 10am New York time, we cover around 11 hours a day which is a pretty good show. Alex usually waits until my shift is over to insult England, and I only see those tweets when I’m going to bed at night. My other tasks are the running of the London office but I would say I take Twitter just as seriously as everything else. It’s one of the first ways that people meet us.

AS: I get in at 10 and tweet more or less continuously until I leave around 6. I also run point on most of our digital endeavors: I edit MobyLives, run direct sales, manage partnerships with other digital companies, update our website, and fix bugs when they come up. I’m basically in front of the computer all day anyway, so Twitter is always only a click away. 

SH: Are there any other publishing house feeds you like? What do you think of publishing house feeds in general?

ZM: Other publishing houses provide me with rules for what not to do on twitter: no references to drinking tea, eating cake or photos of employee’s pets drinking tea, eating cake or “reading”. At Christmas, no trees assembled out of books. I try to avoid making publishing look like a twee pursuit. I think bookshops are currently doing a better job than publishers, perhaps because they don’t have to be as partisan: they can talk about books without being afraid of upsetting an author or agent and they’re public about their hatred of Amazon, which most publishers don’t dare to be. @LRBbookshop has character and the booksellers do a good job of promoting books they like in a way that feels genuine, @Foyles is fun and @WstonesOxfordSt has a very funny feed, which proves that you can have a sense of humour and a personality even if you’re the country’s chain bookshop.

AS: I could not second Zeljka’s “I try to avoid making publishing look like a twee pursuit” more heartily. I think a lot of publishing Twitter is bland and (understandably) self-protective; sometimes I think identity creation and maintenance—-the sense of “being a book person”—-comes before the books themselves, which isn’t something I’m particularly interested in. That said, there are publishers I like a lot. @HarperPerennial is great, and similar to us in a lot of ways. Our overlords at @Randomhouse have an excellent sense of humor and are always game. @GroveAtlantic is funny and clever. I like @graywolfpress a lot. I’m sure I’m leaving tons out, though (unsurprisingly) I have the most affection for other independent presses. Also, everyone should follow every independent bookstore for the good of mankind.

SH: Do you feel like your twitter presence creates a lot of good will towards MH? Do you have any evidence that it sells books? Does that matter?

ZM: A lot of people know us because of our twitter presence; in fact when I was working in another British publishing house it is how I discovered the company. Once I saw how Melville House was tweeting I couldn’t believe how honest, personable and scathing they were, and had trouble knowing which tweets to retweet/favourite: I wanted to retweet them all. A lot of people tell us how much they like our twitter feed; I was in a flea market carrying our tote bag and an old lady stopped me to say “I love your Twitter feed! That Dustin is a funny guy.” From my experience, it definitely makes people aware of us and our books, authors and events. When that all comes together, and maybe that’s over a period of time, that sells books.

AS: For the most part, if someone I’m talking to has heard of Melville House, the first thing they mention is the Twitter feed. As for selling books—well, it definitely sells some, though it’s not like every time I tweet about how Lars Iyer is a genius someone immediately buys his first three books from us. But I would bet that it has a pretty strong effect on sales in general. We’re basically handselling books and, from my experience in bookstores, that’s the second best thing there is. (The first best is stickers. People fucking love stickers.) I’m torn on the “Does it matter?” question. I suppose if it didn’t matter, we’d stop doing it—there’s always too much to do in publishing and at some point cost-benefit equations come into play. I’ve tried to do analytic/market research before and it’s always been a goddamn disaster. So maybe our Twitter is just its own reward.

SH: What advice would you have for other businesses, or authors, or publishing houses?

ZM: One of the big ways that we’re different to other houses is that our Co-Publishers, Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, understand social media and use Twitter themselves; at other places social media is consigned to the young people who “get” technology and management don’t chose to engage with it. This means that, more often than not, social media is done by someone junior who gets trapped in a paradoxical situation where they are (understandably) afraid to say anything that will get them into trouble, even though no one in management even looks at the account. I think this is why so many publisher accounts are so dull, which is a shame because I’m certain they have lively, interesting people behind them.

AS: To piggyback off of this a bit, I think that a lot of businesses see Twitter as another marketing box to check. For a lot of places, that’s probably fine. If you’re a monolith, you don’t really need a voice, and it’s possible that the risks outweigh the reward—you’ll read stories on Gawker about major corporations fucking up on Twitter, but you don’t see many about how hilarious Proctor & Gamble is. But for smaller places—especially places involved in the production of art—I think it’s really important to not just have a voice, but to actually interact with people. People are better than brands. And anyway, no one really cares about what you’re broadcasting—have a conversation.

SH: Do you have an imaginary person that you’re being when you’re tweeting?

ZM: On my own account, I am quite careful about what I tweet and how often, but it is freeing to tweet from the Melville House account because very few people know its me behind it. I don’t have a gender, age or nationality, which means I can play around with character.

AS: I imagine that I am a bald, 50-year-old man who lives in Seattle and is worth roughly $30 billion. Or, if there are enough candles and chalk in the office, I summon the actual spirit of Herman Melville and let him tweet through me. 

Week 1: Kimmy Walters

Week 2: Kate Zambreno

Week 3: Teju Cole

Week 4: Mira Gonzales

Week 5: Tao Lin

Week 6: Christian Lorentzen

Week 7: Patricia Lockwood

Week 8: Crylenol/Sadvil

Week 9: Various

Week 9 3/4: Roxane Gay

Week 10: Kenneth Goldsmith

What Would Twitter Do?

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For the second-last week of What Would Twitter Do? I have compiled some quotes about Twitter from some great contemporary folks and some great folks who were once contemporary but now are dead. I hope you enjoy this selection.

- Sheila Heti

"I pretty much throw everything up on Twitter that makes me giggle and I don’t think I can use in my stand up. It actual helps clear the way to focus on some richer ideas that can be turned into stand up. Getting those silly non-sequiturs out of the way helps get the brain rolling. The fact that you have to convey an elaborate idea in 140 characters helps you become a better joke writer as well, learning the economy of words, brevity and all that. The tweets I like to read are usually silly or fun. I don’t go to Twitter to learn someone’s opinion on South Sudan.” —Chris Locke (@chrislockefun)

"It is probably the consequence of the modern world, which is based on motion." —Marcel Duchamp 

"I think the best Tweeters do one thing. They have one concept they are exploring, one idea, one question, one statistic, one turn… You can anticipate the content. Some tweeters go so far into their interests that it’s always fresh. In other words, consistency is sexy, predictability isn’t." —Lemondhound/Sina Queyras (@lemonhound)

"The worst is when the energy of Twitter, succinct 140-character expressions, is exploited for narrative story-telling spanning multiple tweets. The best Twitter works like good eavesdropping, when you walk by a conversation and hear just a sentence that you’ll continue to think about until you get where you’re going." —Spencer Madsen (@spencermadsen)

"Point to something interesting, but away from where everyone else is looking." —Christian Bok (@christianbok)

"The social and the ego are the two idols." —Simone Weil

"Twitter is all part of the pressure on writers now to be ‘visible’ which I absolutely detest. I hate being photographed, and it annoys me that websites always want a picture of me with everything I write, but I particularly dislike the feeling that if I’m not on Twitter, people won’t share my work or read it, so it’s fear of missing out that keeps me on there. Obviously, this ties in with the financial collapse of the media industry. It’s all a fucking mess, basically, and terrible for the kind of introverted personality that is often attracted to write." Juliet Jacques (@julietjacques)

"What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same thing as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liza Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it." —Andy Warhol 

Week 1: Kimmy Walters

Week 2: Kate Zambreno

Week 3: Teju Cole

Week 4: Mira Gonzales

Week 5: Tao Lin

Week 6: Christian Lorentzen

Week 7: Patricia Lockwood

Week 8: Crylenol / Sadvil

Week 9: Various

Week 9 1/2: Melville House

Week 9 3/4: Roxane Gay

Week 10: Kenneth Goldsmith