In this course, we will explore new forms of fiction emerging within social media. The novel has always been the dominant form of storytelling. But the advent of social media technology is creating opportunities for new ways of translating life into fiction. Our goal in this course is to take these new kinds of fiction seriously and study their aesthetic forms and ideological concerns. We will look at a rich body of texts that includes Twitter Fiction, Steve Roggenbuck’s Youtube mash-ups, Tumblr fandoms, and Facebook memoirs. In addition to watching episodes of South Park and The Simpsons, we will study novels—like Dave Egger’s The Circle and Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet—that portray life on social media.
This is an undergraduate literature course that explores fiction in social media. The course begins with the assumption that the advent of social media technology is changing conventional notions of what constitutes life while creating opportunities for new ways of translating life into fiction. Thus, the objective is to analyze and codify the formal and aesthetic attributes of narratives being organically generated on social media sites.
The challenge of teaching a course on social media literature is the absence of a canon. When you teach a British poetry survey course, for example, you have the benefit of working within an established canon. Canons are helpful in the way that they setup the formal, theoretical, historical, and ideological stakes for a genre. Granted the teacher can decide to go with or against the grain of the canon’s key assumptions. But the framework that a canon brings into a course can be generative.
With social media, it’s a build-your-own-canon sort of things. There are certain texts like Jennifer Egan’s Black Box and Teju Cole’s “Hafiz” that are well on their way to attaining the status of canonical texts, but the field is still very expansive and unstable. Each social media platform has it own technological constraints that produces a unique environment for storytelling. Besides, as new platforms are established, new opportunities for formal experimentation are created.
Teaching this course has allowed me to assemble a set of texts, questions, and problematic around social media as a context for literary study. My approach is to begin the course with a definition of social media. What is it? What is social about “social media?” To do this, I use texts like Paul Valery’s “The Conquest of Ubiquity,” Benjamin’s “Work of Art,” Mcluhan’s “Medium is the Message, etc.” to situate social media within a long history of media technology. In the second part the course, we do a close study of the mechanics of Facebook and Twitter to figure out their characteristic design features and constraints. Figuring out how these sites work gives us the terms and concepts we need to talk intelligently about what writers are doing when they adapt these platforms for fiction. We are able to ask questions like: on what modes of subjectivity is social media built? What does it mean to talk about “character” in the impersonal world of social media where identity takes the form of “handles” and “profiles?” How does the fragmentary, non-linear mode of the social media feed define narrative composition? What part do emojis play in assembling a fictional world? What compositional rules govern the realistic portrayal life in social media?
Literary analysis is centered on a small but teachable body of texts that includes everything from Namwali Serpell’s “Book of Faces” and Robin Sloan’s “Julie Rubicon” to Jennifer Egan’s Black Box and Aziah King’s Zola. To set the formal characteristics of these social-media generated fiction in sharper relief, I have the class spend the last few weeks of the semester reading two novels about social media: Dave Egger’s The Circle and Jarett Kobek’s, I Hate the Internet.
At the end of the semester, students are expected to be able to critically analyze social media technology and culture, survey the wide variety of fiction being generated within social media, identify the formal and aesthetic innovation that social media brings to storytelling, write critically about literature in social media, and enrich their knowledge of 21st century fiction.