Over the weekend, an incredible thread appeared on Twitter, with over 200 individual entries. I’ve pasted the starting point below:
Translation of the Manuel thread for friends who can't speak Spanish. 👻— Chuppi Chups❄ (@suppuuri) August 25, 2017
I’d love to see a literary sort pull this apart and hit it from all the critical angles, there’s so much going on that resonates with literature courses. We’ve got a story told in first person in the present tense so it drags you along into the moment. But it’s also wrapped in a translation framing device - whether by design or not - in which there’s a Heart of Darkness vibe of “let me translate this story for you that I’ve heard somewhere else”. And of course there’s the story itself, which calls back both on the Conrad-esque “I travelled to a foreign land and found darkness and horror” and a more Lovecraftian tale of doppelgängers and getting lost in the seams between worlds despite being in the most mundane of settings.
It’s one of the best horror stories I’ve read in some time, and it seemed to hit a vein online, getting retweeted thousands of times. But amongst those retweets was the sentiment that is ubiquitous whenever something clever and new and interesting strikes: this would make a great movie. It’s inevitable, right? Movies are the big leagues of any artistic endeavor. No matter how great a novel you write, or comic book you sketch, or podcast you ramble, there is the eventual question of whether it will be made into a movie. That’s the artistic jackpot, the proof that you’ve made good art is that someone else will cut it up and stitch it onto a Hollywood canvas. It doesn’t go the other way. Great films aren’t dogged by the question “yeah, but are they going to make a novelization?!?”
I daydream sometimes about a world in which reading is so valued that great writers are contracted to write novelizations of the best movies and television. Think of the greatest writers of our age setting about to translate film into enduring novels. Imagine the brilliance of a good novelization of The Matrix, or Office Space, or Fight Club. But I digress.
See, this Twitter horror story is the perfect example of that old idea of how the medium is the message, that the way that content is conveyed is important in and of itself. And in fact, the characteristics of that medium shape and mold society in more profound - if more subtle - ways than the content itself. The way in which we communicate affects what we communicate. The stories we tell are not only shaped by the medium we use to convey them, but the available media we have places hard limits on the stories we can tell. In its most extreme interpretation, it’s a sort of Sapir-Worf hypothesis applied to media instead of language: the stories we cannot tell through the media we have, are stories that cannot exist for our culture. That’s humbling and a little terrifying. As mass society turns from one medium to another, we lose the capacity for the stories limited to that previous media even as we gain the ability to tell new sorts of stories.
Epic poems meant to be memorized are distinct from the possibilities of the novel afforded by cheap printing, which are distinct from radio dramas, which are distinct from television shows, which are distinct from tweet chains told in the first person complete with video and audio. Twitter, for all the shit it’s given for destroying attention spans and eviscerating our thoughts down into bullet points of 140 characters or fewer, is a medium distinct from others. And different mediums give different opportunities for telling stories.
The medium being the message was devised back in the sixties, by a fellow named Marshall McLuhan, who also predicted the Internet in broad strokes. Oh, he didn’t predict it in technical terms, nothing about fiberoptics or the like. But he captured the notion of what the web would be in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. He figured out that the coming revolution of electronic communication meant all information was instantly available. And without being either dystopian or utopian about it, he predicted that it would transform our culture into something more tribal, our arts into something reminiscent of oral cultures of millennia ago.
We know that the Internet is profoundly changing things: for the first time, media is truly multi-directional. Anyone with an Internet connection can conceivably speak to an audience of six billion. Speaking is no longer limited to the powerful with their arcane machinery of printing presses and transmitter towers. The consequences for our stories, we don’t really yet understand, though someone will write the equivalent of a thesis about it a thousand years from now off the shoulder of Orion.
Every previous form of mass art has been unidirectional. The author writes, we read. The singer sings, we listen. The director films, we watch. But in social media, the medium has changed the rules of the game, resetting it through high technology to something very old. It has given us our voices back and destroyed the line between creator and consumer, such that art is participatory because the medium itself allows no other way of engaging with it.
With social media, as with stories passed down by word of mouth, time is destroyed, flattened into an eternal present. As the singer spins her tale on the savanna, the listeners can interrupt, can ask what is meant, what is being referenced. And the singer dances down each rabbit hole just like we can interrogate any story with a dozen Google searches or subtweets. That’s a consequence of the medium itself. We’ve invented unimaginable technologies such that a global village sits around an infinite campfire, a billion voices part of every story.
What does that mean for the stories that we can tell? Only time will tell, but this particular story provides a hint that McLuhan himself speculated upon: “terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.”
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.