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Why Shakespeare and Melville are so good at Twitter

The surprising relevance — and accidental wisdom — of literary bots

By Margaret Eby

When musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim died unexpectedly over Thanksgiving weekend last year, the outpouring of grief was immense. Shows running on Broadway that weekend dimmed their lights. Actors and musicians, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Josh Groban, gathered in Times Square to sing “Sunday” from Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George. Online, fans posted their favorite Sondheim lyrics and waxed nostalgic about encounters with his work. And one prominent tribute came from an unlikely author, one who never lived to see Sondheim’s musicals: Herman Melville.

Shortly after the news of Sondheim’s passing broke, the Twitter account @MobyDickatsea, which tweets passages from the seminal 1851 novel, tweeted Melville’s line: “Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all!” to its 94,000 followers. It was retweeted widely, with one user quote-tweeting the line and adding “RIP Sondheim.”

In 2022, Twitter’s primary reputation is as a platform that fuels celebrity feuds, tangled logical arguments, nasty bouts of harassment and bullying, and terrible opinions. But amidst the endless doomscroll, you’ll notice more charming content: accounts dedicated to tweeting snippets of beloved literary texts, poetry, song lyrics, and lines from movies and TV shows — often in response to the news of the day. One bot tweets out the entirety of the Frog and Toad. children’s books. Another tweets lyrics from cult-favorite indie band The Mountain Goats, and one that posts random lines from Moby-Dick. Bots — as well as accounts run by users who hand-curate known texts — have become a part of the way that Twitter works, a natural part of the ever-evolving conversational ecosphere of the platform.

When a major news story hits, you’re likely to see someone quote-tweeting about it with a line from the Anne Carson bot, or commenting on it with a retweet from the Rilo Kiley bot.

Now, when a major news story hits, you’re likely to see someone quote-tweeting about it with a line from the Anne Carson bot, or obliquely commenting on it with a retweet from the Rilo Kiley bot. They’re part of the way we talk to and about each other on the internet, and they also seem like a remnant from a different, not-so-far-away time when social media platforms were full of possibility instead of dread.

On Twitter, literature is fragmented into bite-size shards, but it serves the same function that it has for centuries: capturing human emotions and expressions in all their complexity. When you’re staring down a crisis unprecedented in your lifetime, there’s something comforting in situating it among the long timeline of world crises, as expressed in Shakespeare, Melville, or song lyrics.

The gift of literary bots is that they sprinkle some of that past perspective into the seemingly endless chyrons of news, reminding us that language is always evolving to capture what’s happening in the world — and what’s happening in the world is often something that’s been endured before.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that in these tumultuous, pandemic-riddled times, people reach into literature to understand current events. More than anything, literary bots are useful for capturing a kind of atmosphere, or as the current buzzword insists, a vibe. When omicron’s exponential spread took over headlines in the weeks before Christmas, among the charts of rising case numbers and hand-wringing over masks and tests, what struck me on my timeline was a retweet of the Anne Carson bot: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

“I personally love it,” says Jason Diamond, a writer and co-founder of the literary site Vol. 1 Brooklyn. “Especially when something like the Moby-Dick account sums up some stupid thing a person in the news or politician did that day. Seeing Melville’s ‘take,’ even though it could be him describing some part of the sperm whale’s anatomy, but it somehow describes the present day, is refreshing.

To Diamond, the juxtaposition of a work of literature that has lasted for decades or centuries against the medium of Twitter — which moves so quickly that even hours-old tweets can feel irrelevant — helps anchor him among the internet’s never-ending waves of information. “Twitter is such a weird way to express just about anything,” he says, “and things fly by so fast that it all seems pointless sometimes. I think a quote helps it feel a little more real.”

Diamond also thinks that literary bots can help introduce readers to classic fiction they might otherwise overlook. “Moby-Dick might be a little difficult for some people to grasp, because it’s so long and weird and considered this untouchable piece of American literature that we’re usually forced to read when we’re younger, so people might have trepidation when it comes to approaching it now,” he says. Having it tweeted to you — in reaction to recent news — brings fresh context to an old work.

Maris Kreizman, host of the books podcast The Maris Review, agrees. “The hope is that if the bot is interesting enough, it pulls people into the source material,” Kreizman says. “Bots are a good reminder that nothing is ever new, just recycled. If ever you think a topic du jour is singular, just apply a quote from a bot to it and just see how literature spans lifetimes.”

Kreizman, who ran a Tumblr called Slaughterhouse 90210 that mashed up literary quotes with screengrabs of movies and TV shows, finds that certain texts work better than others for this effect. Short story writer Lorrie Moore, for example, translates nicely onto Twitter. So does poetry. “Lines from poetry tend to make for the best bots. Maybe it’s because poetry is such a visual form,” Kreizman says.

In some instances, the Twitter context can even upend how we view the original. Case in point: Shakespeare, an inescapable presence both online and off. At least a dozen bots are dedicated to Shakespeare — perhaps the ur-example of literature generally forced upon students. But tweeting out Shakespeare is actually engaging in a longstanding academic argument, says Daniel Swift, a professor of English at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University in London. “There is an ancient critical debate over whether we should see Shakespeare as playwright or poet,” he says. That is: whether we should read The Bard’s plays or see them on stage.

“The bot, by stripping the lines of their dramatic context, is in effect turning the plays into poems,” Swift continues. “It’s not quite true that they lose all dramatic qualities, as the tweets often include exchanges between characters. But they are much closer to something enigmatic and beautiful, with the qualities of a poem instead of a sustained dramatic narrative.”

If Twitter gets people into Shakespeare — poetry or play — Swift is for it. “The more the merrier,” he says. “It has to be good for everyone if people are engaging with Shakespeare, in whatever form they are doing so.”

But Marissa Nicosia, an associate professor of Renaissance English at Penn State Abington, cautions against limiting our engagement with these texts to what they mean to our present reality. If you only experience the ghost of Shakespeare when he’s commenting on the latest political kerfuffle or celebrity gossip item, she thinks you’re missing a lot.

“In my work, we talk a lot about the tyranny of the relevant,” she says. “The past was radically different and gives us possibilities for the future. It’s not like, ‘Oh wow, Shakespeare was forward-thinking.’ He was thinking in his own time; some of those ideas might resonate as well. We don’t always [have to] make him our contemporary for him to be interesting.”   

Nicosia prefers to see Shakespeare bots and literary bots as participating in a larger digital drama. “I’m interested in the Twitter bot not making it relevant, but making it an ongoing performance,” she says. If someone is always tweeting out Shakespeare plays, that means, technically, we are in the audience of a live show. “Are we currently in the middle of a production of Julius Caesar whether we know it or not?”

It’s a fun thought. In fact, some of the earliest Twitter bots were predicated on that idea: the platform as the setting for an ongoing, performative work. That’s what poet and computer programmer Allison Parrish homed in on in 2007 when she started @everyword, a bot that tweeted every word in the English language in alphabetical order. The critique of Twitter back then, in its infancy, was, “it’s meaningless, it’s trivial,” Parrish says. “The idea behind @everyword was trying to prove that true or false.”

At the time, Parrish, who is now an arts professor at New York University, was trying to find a way to publish her own computer-generated text works. Twitter proved the perfect medium. “Computer-generated text tends not to be super-compelling when you’re just reading it on its own,” Parrish explains. But on Twitter, “you don’t have to fashion a single monolithic work that keeps the reader’s attention for a long period of time,” she says.

Soon enough, Twitter users became invested in the @everyword journey, and the account quickly gained a huge, devoted readership.  When it tweeted its final word, in 2014, it had amassed a community of more than 100,000 followers, and had been featured in The Atlantic, Gawker, and The Paris Review.

Since @everyword’s heyday, Twitter has become a much different — and often worse — place. But it remains a laboratory for language, a constantly moving internet vernacular all by itself. At their best, literary bots make that vernacular richer and more nuanced. With all their simultaneous, asynchronous performances, they remind us that Twitter can be a black-box theater, a library, a conversation, or all three at once — that is, a place where language is always evolving to meet, or at least comment on, the moment.

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Margaret Eby is a writer who grew up in Alabama and now lives in Brooklyn. She’s written for The New York Review of BooksFood & Wine, and Rolling Stone.


Illustration by Franziska Barcyzk 


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