Finding Literary Community by Making Bad Jokes on Twitter
As part of our Social Media Week series, Kristen Arnett writes about her journey on Twitter, the Hell App, and how she uses the platform to connect with other writers and try out bits.
Though I’ve been lucky enough now to publish a few books, I still use Twitter as a space for humor and camaraderie. It feels comfortable, like pulling on a ratty old bathrobe and drinking beers on the couch, chatting with friends. Whenever I make my very stupid jokes online, I am essentially trying out a bit. It’s the same with writing on the page, I think, because I’m working to find the exact right way to ask a question. How many ways can I tell a certain kind of joke—for instance,whatisandwhat isn’t aravioli—and still find some measure of satisfaction from the telling? How many different directions can I take that joke before my brain decides that it’s enough, that we’ve wrung every last drop of pleasure from it? I’m engaging with others when I’m posting those terrible gags, with other writers as well as my readers, and it’s fun to see what manages to fly and what ultimately tanks. And isn’t that the same kind of thing that happens when we’re floundering around in our respective Word documents? We’re scrawling everything out, desperate to see what sticks. We want to know what’s going to remain with us after we’ve exhausted all other possible options. Social media can give us that, albeit occasionally. We are writing to be heard. We are writing toward our audience, whoever that might be. Those people can quite often be found on Twitter.
The platform can be enraging, but it’s also a space that allows me to understand that I am not alone when it comes to my anxieties and vulnerabilities and frustrations. As artists online, we can vent all of those fears and hopes to each other, oftentimes simultaneously. There is always going to be at least one person out there who also gets the joke and wants to laugh along with you.
I want to make the internet a place of joy for myself and for others. Lately I’ve found myself only going onto Twitter if it’s because I have something uplifting to share or something profoundly stupid, which, if I’m being honest, mostly feels like the same kind of content. We are looking for escape in these online spaces, escape from our work and sometimes escape from our own traitorous brains. We are looking to connect, sure, but sometimes we are looking to just throw something out into the universe to see if it will toss anything back. And sometimes social media gives us that, but it’s also capable of taking it away again. With more followers comes more opportunities for connection, but it can also become its own echo chamber. It’s a struggle to be heard over all that racket.
Twitter is not a perfect tool by any means. It’s a platform meant for something, but I’m not sure exactly what. And buddy, I am fine with not knowing. There are times when I look at how people are increasingly directing their voices past each other, missing the ear and heart entirely, and I wonder if it’s still possible to utilize it for our shared satisfaction. The best that I’ve been able to come up with is that it might be a homing device, an app that allows like to finally find like. What we do after we find each other and like those series of tweets is something else entirely.
I feel lucky that I have been able to gather a community around me from such a strange and wild space, one that magnetizes just as much as it repels. There are people in my life, writers and friends who I consider family, and Twitter gave them to me, allowed me the opportunity to gather them close. I am grateful for that.
I don’t know what Twitter will look like even five years from now. It’s possible that we’ll have moved our way on to an entirely different platform altogether. Maybe you’ll find me in that new place sometime, making jokes in a different space, but I’ll still be searching for the same kind of connection. Making my dumb jokes. Just trying to see what ultimately sticks.
Kristen Arnett is the author of With Teeth: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2021) and the NYT bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction. She is a queer fiction and essay writer and she lives in Florida.