”I am”. Collaborative storytelling in the shape of a Twitter poem

Curator's Note

The construction of Swedish poet Pär Thörn’s anaphoric Twitter poem "I am" is very simple: It gathers all tweets starting with "I am" and in real time displays ten of them at the time, with the tweets moving downwards every third second, a new one introduced at the top while the oldest one disappears at the bottom. It was created in collaboration between Thörn and a number of Interaction Design students at Malmö University in 2011, and has been running consistently on the Internet since then. As an emergent collaborative storytelling performance, the poem collects a number of disparate statements, statements from people who do not know each other, and creates a setting within which these statements perform beyond themselves. But what do they do? Do they give voice to an obsessively narcissistic age? Or do they express our increasingly desperate efforts to communicate, starting with what we know best – ourselves? The answer is not obvious – not the least due to the flow character of the poem. What I see glancing at the poem while writing this piece is not what you see when reading it. You get other statements, other voices. And you draw your conclusions. It would be possible to view the poem as a simple representation of what is happening “out there”. But one should not under estimate the role played by poet Pär Thörn and his collaborators in creating the setting for this experience. The very concentrated structure with only ten lines visible at the time, and the rather understated graphic design of the page, are important in this context. And so is the pace. The number of tweets sent each second has increased dramatically since 2011, but the strict form of "I am" keeps that intensification at bay. No matter the number of tweets being tweeted, "I am" methodically marches on at the same pace, one new tweet at the time, every third second. It would be difficult to deal with more.


In many ways this project makes me think of PostSecret (http://www.postsecretcommunity.com/) or Whisper (http://whisper.sh/), but without the layer of "authorial" curation or even contributor intention. Therefore, I am curious as to your thoughts regarding unintended collaboration, particularly of the Twitter users who probably don't know their tweets are being incorporated into this art project. Not as an ethical issue, because Twitter is a public personal broadcast system and therefore "fair game" creatively, but in regards to the conceptualization of collaborative art, authorship, and story.

The major difference between “I am” and “PostSecret” and “Whisper” is of course the fact that the contributors to “I am” are contributors without having requested being so. And as you write, they are probably not even aware of having taken part. What I find interesting is not so much the question of the intentionality of the people involved as what the poem manages to do. Having discussed the poem in classroom settings with students, what I have found is that it ignites ideas and thoughts about our contemporary situation. It does so partly due to its specific form – its anaphoric style, its design and layout, its neverendingness, etc. But also due, of course, to its multitude of voices. Looking at the poem while writing this, “I am the cutest“ moves downwards, followed by ”I am actually losing the will to live”. Taken one by one, such statements can be regarded as funny or moving or sad. Taken together they become more than that. I see the Twitter writers as co-authors. Including their thoughts in the poem is, as you write, not an ethical issue, but I think it is important to note that these are tweets. The writers have made the decision to share their thoughts with others in the public realm. Their thoughts are recontextualized but they are already out there. It gives the statement another bearing, and it makes it easier seeing the writers as co-authors. Seeing them as collaborators in a strict sense may be pushing what collaboration “is”. But that is the kind of discussion the poem “I am” opens for.

From your reply here, I can't help but think that the collaboration is less between the various Twitter users, but between the computational system and the reader. That is to say, that the collaboration is between the algorithm that pulls and displays the tweets with no bias of a human "sensibility" (anything that fits the parameters is included, regardless of the specifics of the content) and the reader who then creates connections and meaning between these "lines" where there was originally none. Do you think this would work as well if the pieces wasn't as ephemeral?

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