We’re Gonna Build a Fourth Wall, and Make the Brechtians Pay for It


By now, you undoubtedly know what happened when Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Friday night. And the brouhaha that unfolded from there, particularly on Twitter.

Tweets came and went throughout the weekend. But, if you're keeping score at home, none outfunnied this tweet from Jeremy Noel-Tod. We're suckers around here for Brechtian humor.

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Three University Projects Use Twitter to Understand Happiness, Hate and Other Emotions in America

It turns out that the fleeting pronouncements we post on Twitter are catnip for academics and others eager to find the elusive pulse of American society. Since Twitter launched in 2006, researchers have been hard at work figuring out how to turn those 140-character musings into tea leaves with something meaningful to say about us all.

Here come three new projects that claim to provide a window into the American soul through Twitter. Whether they succeed or not, well, that’s still unclear. (And, by the way, you can start following Open Culture on Twitter here.)

Most feverishly excited about its work are the team behind the Global Twitter Heartbeat, which so far focuses mostly on the United States. With the help of a huge SGI processor to process a live feed of public social media data, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has made a heat map to show how people react (through Twitter) to big events.

They looked at two things: Hurricane Sandy (top) and the 2012 Presidential Election (above). Using Twitter’s “garden hose feed”—a random sampling of 10 percent of the roughly 500 million tweets sent every day—researchers color-coded tweets red for negative tone and blue for positive and showed the shifting concentrations of Twitter activity across the country. It looks like a map of a talking weather system as occasional dialogue boxes open up to show representative tweets. Researcher Kalev Leetaru argues that tracking Twitter activity gives us the potential to track the heartbeat of society.


Two other projects look in an on-going way at tweet “tone,” or the negativity/positivity of messages. One spin on this research is the Geographic Hate Map (sample map above), a project by Dr. Monica Stephens of Humboldt State University in Northern California. To begin their work, Stephens and her team accessed a massive database of geographically tagged tweets sent between June, 2012  and April, 2013.

They used only tweets that contained any of ten “hate words." They read each tweet to be sure the words were used in a negative way and built a map based on where the tweets came from. Then they aggregated to the county level and normalized for the amount of twitter traffic in that area so that densely populated areas don’t look more racist or homophobic by default.

Then there’s the glass half full. The Hedonometer measures happiness, or lack thereof, as expressed by tweets, calculating averages based on what the researchers call "word shifts" (watch an explanation above). This research project, put together by the University of Vermont Complex Systems Center, uses the same garden hose feed as the Global Twitter Heartbeat. This project searches for frequently used words to measure how good a day Twitter users are having. Since 2008 the Hedonometer has kept track of how often words like “happy,” “yes,” and “love” pop up in tweets, as opposed to “hate,” “no,” and “unhappy.” The saddest day on Hedonometer record so far is April 15, 2013, the day bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line. Christmas Day tends to rank as the happiest day of the year.

To be sure, any tool that uses tweets for data is measuring a very young and specific subgroup of people. Tweets are not a reliable measure of anything, really, but maybe with some tweaking, these research models will come up with something interesting.

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Kate Rix writes about education and digital media. Follow daily ups and downs on Twitter @mskaterix.

Steven Soderbergh Writes Twitter Novella After His Retirement From Filmmaking

How does one read Twitter literature? Your thoughts are as good as mine. I suppose I’ll have to learn or end up in the ash heap of old-timey turners of pages. Because Twit Lit is upon us, manifested by Jennifer Egan and now, under the twitter handle “Bitchuation,” by mercurial filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Having announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2011, Soderbergh made another announcement at the San Francisco Film Festival on the State of Cinema (video above, transcript here). The following day, Soderbergh’s Twitter novella Glue began with the laconic April 28 tweet “I will now attempt to tweet a novella called GLUE.”


Some unique features of Twit Lit: Soderbergh can twitpic an establishing shot—which he does, of Amsterdam—along with pics of other locations (or just vaguely suggestive images). The individual tweets often read like Horse ebooks absurdities. He’s up to Chapter Fourteen now. The later tweets replicate screenplay dialogue, with copious insertions of BEAT to signify dramatic pauses. Taken together, I suppose there’s coherence, though as I admitted above, I have not mastered the ability to pull tweets together into longer text in my mind, Twitter being where I go when my attention span is spent.

I leave it to savvier, more patient readers to judge the success of Soderbergh’s attempt. It may suffice to say that his pessimism about the state of film does not apply to Twitter Lit. Or maybe he’s just passing time before he makes movies again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness 

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-Winner, Tweets New Story with The New Yorker

In March, Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad) paid a visit to Google and was asked to sum up her year since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She said: "I am still not used to the idea that I won it. Maybe I will finally really grab hold of that idea when someone else wins it. I will say 'No, I want it!'" Little did she know that just a few weeks later the Pulitzer Prize judges would decline to name a successor, leaving her in mental limbo for yet another year. She seems to be handling it pretty well -- well enough to publish a new short story on The New Yorker's Fiction twitter stream. Yes, you read that right, its Twitter stream.

Starting last night, The New Yorker began tweeting her new story, “Black Box," and the story will continue to unfold over nine more nightly installments. It's a gimmick, you're thinking, right? Well, for Egan, it's not. She explains on The New Yorker web site:

I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. The story was originally nearly twice its present length; it took me a year, on and off, to control and calibrate the material into what is now “Black Box.”

If you're a Twitter user, you can catch the live stream between 8 and 9 P.M. EDT. (And you can also follow our lively Twitter stream here.) If micro-serialized fiction isn't your thing, then you can always follow the story on The New Yorker's "Page Turner" blog.

Alain de Botton Tweets Short Course in Political Philosophy

Alain de Botton has mastered the art of popularizing great philosophy. His books, lectures, televised programs and the London-based School of Life – they all help de Botton get great ideas "out there." And now he turns to Twitter. On Friday, @AlaindeBotton tweeted a short course in political philosophy in seven parts. The course, with each lesson presented in 140 characters or less, begins like this:

1: Plato: We should be ruled not by leaders chosen by a majority, but by those who are most intelligent.

2. St Augustine: We should not try to build paradise on earth. Aim for tolerable government, true government only possible in the next life.

3. Machiavelli: Politician must choose between serving the interests of country and the interests of Christian morality. Can’t have both.

You can finish the course here, and start following us on Twitter here, where we post a steady flow of cultural goodies throughout the day. If you like Open Culture, you will love our Twitter stream (and our Facebook page)...

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Writing the U.S. Constitution (in Tweets)

223 years ago today, the Constitutional Convention started meeting secretly in Philadelphia. Several months later, the meetings ended with the signing of the US Constitution. Starting today, the National Constitution Center will use Twitter to reenact the events of the Convention. You can follow @SecretDelegate, a mysterious insider, who will show you what happened inside the private proceedings. The “Twitter Convention” will conclude on September 17, when the Constitution was signed, and only then will the true identity of @SecretDelegate be revealed. You can be among the first to follow these tweets.

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