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Bloomsday on Twitter
A performance of Wandering Rocks on Twitter, and a commentary on both. Created with Ian McCarthy.
June 16, 2007

I do not like Twitter, the micro-blogging service that allows users to send short (SMS-sized) text-based updates that are displayed publicly and shared with friends social-network style.

For me, Twitter represents the worst trends in the new internet culture. It purports to allow people to "communicate" in new ways, a promise that mostly creates new obligation and infatuation to stay "up to date" and "connected." In the world of Twitter, you (and me, and everyone) pay constant, tiny homage to a new gimmickry.

This is a gimmickry that doesn't even rise to the level of the gadget, with its industrialist promise of technological progress. It is a kind of softer soft-pornography determined to make identity-assertion the new masturbation. Russel Davies' Twitter parody Dawdlr comments on this trend, asking users to send updates via postcard.

In the world of Web 2.0, a public sheds the chains of a tightly-controled mass media market in which individuals are converted into the "consumers" needed to purchase mass produced goods and services. In its stead, that public gets a loosly-controlled micro media market, in which individuals are converted into the "users" needed to create databases for sale to Google or Yahoo! or News Corp for $35 a head. But now the market outsources manufacture to those very "users." The workers may have had nothing to lose but their chains, but the users are lining up to link their own together. It's the new fashion; chains are the new black.

Invective like this may amuse, but it doesn't necessarily change opinion or create discussion. My friend and sometimes-collaborator Ian McCarthy and I had been talking in San Francisco recently, looking for an intervention that would both comment on Twitter as a social force and also attempt to use the service in a culturally interesting way. What if the focus on socialization and identity is actually the least interesting way to use Twitter?

So, here's what we came up with.

Today, like every June 16, is Bloomsday, a holiday that celebrates James Joyce and his novel Ulysses, which takes place on this date in 1904. Ulysses already offers a parallel commentary; Joyce conceived of the book's principal character, Leopold Bloom, as an everyman counterpoint to Odysseus, whose adventure Bloom's parallels. Each of the book's 18 chapters take place in roughly an hour's time.

The 10th of these, Wandering Rocks, follows 19 Dubliners walking through the city, doing their daily business, some intersecting with others. It's a famous and often-studied section of the book, one that also speaks to an experience of urban modernity that has become second-nature to us now.

Enthusiasts often retrace the characters' steps on Bloomsday, and innumerable animated maps and the like have been created by fans and scholars. The latter technique still doesn't really represent the interleaved simultaneity of Wandering Rocks, the complexity yet ordinariness of space and interaction that Joyce's writing accomplishes. And the former technique turns the ordinariness of the episode into a kind of theme park, missing the importance of the Wandering Rocks as a vignette of the scenario that grounds the rest of the novel (I've written about this theme more in relation to videogames in a chapter of my book Unit Operations).

We took Wandering Rocks and adapted it into a large series of 140-character or less utterances in the first person. We organized and timed these and built a database for them. We registered key characters in the novel as users on Twitter. For example:

STEPHENDEDALUS: I see Dilly's high shoulders and shabby dress, shut the book quick, don't let see

Then we wrote some software to automate the performance of Wandering Rocks on Twitter, so basically we just turn it on and it runs. The result, we hope, will offer both an interesting and unique perspective on the novel and on Twitter. I'll let our critics be the judge of that.

Bloomsday tradition normally demands that festivities take place on Dublin time, which is unfortunately 6 hours ahead of the US East Coast. Wandering Rocks starts at 2:55pm, which is barely the crack of dawn (especially on a Saturday) out on the West Coast. So we decided to synchronize our performance to EDT. If you wish, you can watch the public stream on Twitter starting at 2:55pm EDT. You can also watch the individual characters, or even add them as "friends" to get the updates.

Update: the performance is now completed; while there were a few hiccups that made a very small minority of the characters unable to participate, the vast majority worked as planned, and you can now click through to read their contributions. I'll put together some documentation of the live version to share soon.

BUCKMULLIGAN
STEPHENDEDALUS
LEOPOLDBLOOM
BLOOMSCAT
BLAZESBOYLAN
JOHNCONMEESJ
ONELEGGEDSAILOR
WIFEOFSHEEHYMP
BRUNNYLYNAM
DENISJMAGINNI
MRSMGUINNESS
BLONDEINTHRNTNS
HELYS
MISSDUNNE
TOMROCHFORD
SATCHELLEDBOYZ
NOSEYFLYNN
MCOY
LENEHAN
JJOMOLLOY
UNLABORINGMEN
CORNYKELLEHER
CONSTABLE57C
THESHOPMAN
EARLOFDUDLEY
OLDWOMANONTRAM
PATRICKDIGNAM
ALMIDANO
THELACQUEY
DILLYDEDALUS
SIMONDEDALUS
HAINESINDUBLIN
JOHNPARNELL
ELIJAHISCOMING
KATEYDEDALUS
BOODYDEDALUS
MAGGYDEDALUS
MISTERKERNAN
NEDLAMBERT
CLERGYMANJACK
FRBOBCOWLEY
DENISBREEN
BENDOLLARD
CASHELFARRELL
BLINDSTRIPLING
DUDLEYWHITE
RICHIEGOULDING
THEPODDLERIVER
2SANDEDWOMEN
THEPOLICEMAN
MARTNCUNNINGHAM
JOHNWNOLAN
HORNBLOWER
MANINMACINTOSH

Late last night, partly to test and partly to put a stake in the ground, we did perform the first ten minutes of the novel properly synchronized to Dublin time.

Happy Bloomsday!

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Comments (5)
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One of the things I like about Twitter is that it encourages this sort of play; something about the empty text box plus the ability to make fictional users has encouraged other experiments exactly like this, notably "Twitter of the Shrew" and the Twitter reenactment of "War of the Worlds." You can't use Facebook itself to generate the clever "Austenbook," for instance, which helps us see that our socializing might not be so very different from that of Austen's characters.

At the same time, I think most of these real-time Twitter dramatizations, including this one, have failed to educate or entertain. The best creative use of Twitter, I think, has been the creation and long-term maintenance of a character who joins her/his/its voice to those of the all-too-real people in the twitstream. There's @common_squirrel and @nathistorywhale, there's @darthvader and @don_draper, there's @fakerahmemanuel, there's @oscarwilde and @larochefoucauld. In other words, I think the best cultural experiments on Twitter have been those that make heavy use of exactly the "identity-assertion" that you decry.

Writing a script to update Twitter with dialogue from *Ulysses* doesn't say anything interesting about either *Ulysses* or Twitter. It's just literary spam.

Amanda: One of the things Twittering Rocks does is to depict more explicitly the connections between the characters and objects we chose to feature. This is a central aspect of the book and this chapter in particular, so as an adaptation of sorts, we believe it certainly does say something interesting about Ulysses. I've made this case already in the text above, as well as the case for how I think the project sheds a new light on Twitter by intermixing usual fare with these century-old characters. I do think the hiding of the public stream (which used to be on the homepage) has dampened this to some extent.

As for long-term literary uses of Twitter, it's certainly a viable and interesting option, and one that appears to be more to your taste. That's fine, although many of the examples you link to fail to move me. Do you really think @don_draper succeeds in extending the unique and expertly depicted character from the show?

Ian Bogost on June 16, 2009 7:34 PM

Actually you picked the one fictional character I named above that I don't follow! So quite likely @don_draper adds nothing to that character. And I do like the screenshot above, with Joyce's prose intertwingled in the regular stream; that definitely seems to me to say something about Twitter, which is that the 140-character limit is no limit at all to interesting prose. It could, of course, be interpreted as "most people are boring tweeters who aren't writing Joycean prose," but, you know, glass half-empty, glass half-full.

As for the connections between characters and objects becoming clearer, I don't see it. I'm sure you learned a lot about those connections in constructing the program, but in order to see them via Twitter one would have to follow all the accounts above and also be present and watching during the real-time dramatization. How many people followed *all* or even most of the characters? A dozen? Twenty? Fifty? And those connections are unreconstructable afterward, unlike the admittedly ham-handed voice of "@don_draper."

Okay, "ham-handed voice" is a mixed metaphor, but its rather Joycean, and so appropriate for this Bloomsday. :)

Hallo, mein Name ist Fabian Bornscheuer.
Ich bin 18 Jahre alt und komme aus der Umgebung Frankfurt/Main.
Eigentlich wollte ich nur mal fragen ob ihr gute Schwulenpuffs in meiner Umgebung kennt und was ihr für Erfahrungen mit denen gemacht habt. Wäre schön wenn ihr eure Meinungen posten könnt.

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