Twitter, Epigrams, and Alexander Pope

One of the most interesting aspects of the advent of social networking is the "transcription" of our social lives into text. More than ever, our digitized world as reflected in social networking puts a high premium on being able to use written language concisely. Twitter even has an automatic message that pops up if a user goes over its 140 character schema, "You'll have to be cleverer!" It seems that cleverness has become a prerequisite to interact in the modern, digital world.

While Twitter as a digital forum for natural language interaction is undoubtedly a tech innovation, the subsequent text-transcription of our social lives actually can tend toward some fairly old literary concepts. In particular, some of the literary elements hard-wired into the Tweet resemble a poetic form hailing from ancient Greece, the epigram. If technological advancement can be expressed linearly, and aesthetic styles cyclically, then it is inevitable that within a given culture the ever-turning cycles of literary style and the upward-tilted line graphs of tech innovation would intersect, which they seem to have done here.

Consider this tweet, by comedian Rob Delaney (@robdelaney), one of the funniest people on Twitter: "Got a pretty bad burn on my arm. I was putting a pie in the oven & my dad came up behind me & put a cigarette out on my arm."

Now here's an epigram by Alexander Pope, entitled "Epigram Engraved Upon the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness," "I am his Highness' dog at Kew / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?"

Both pieces are funny, and both use different kinds of comedy. Delaney makes use of a kind of modern, taboo-inflected anti-comedy. The comedic reversal of his Tweet is based on our assumption that the "burn" he describes at the beginning of the Tweet has something to do with the pie that appears directly after it. That the burn came from a different source, as well as the fact that this source is not the kind of thing one should joke about, is where the funny happens. Pope's epigram also has several layers to it. First of all, the idea that the message is from the dog is slightly humorous. Then, the real comedic reversal is based in the suggestion that whoever is reading the dog collar is also a "dog" in relation to the real dog's royal master. Content-wise these two are very different, yet formally they are similar. They both require the use of only a short statement as a set-up, then another short statement to offer a reversal. While short forms have probably always been ideal for jokes, the Tweet and the epigram are an extreme case of this marriage of form and content.

Of course, the "first language" of Twitter, being computer code, does not really have a style—at least not a literary style. And in many ways, the textual transcription of social interaction as represented on Twitter takes after its style-less, code-based language. One of the big jokes about Twitter is that 90% of Tweets are about food, and one does notice a tendency toward this kind of relaying of information about what Twitterers are doing (or eating) at a given moment. Twitter, thus, seems in many ways tied to non-natural language, code-based tech-transcriptions, like the telegram, the primary use of which was not to socialize but to deliver messages. Then again, the other general tendency of the average Twitterer, being to make jokes and witty observations, seems more reflective of the natural language tech innovation that is unique to modern social networking.

Unlike older "transcribing" tech media, Twitter offers the possibility to merge the pragmatic characteristics of "language as code" and the stylistic elements of natural language. As natural language "rides on the back," so to speak, of computer code, so does a history of cyclical literary styles embedded within that natural language, of which short, witty forms, like epigrams, are a part.

Very funny Twitterers seem to Tweet in the spirit of the greatest practitioners of the epigrammatic form, like Alexander Pope. In his explanation for his own use of the heroic couplet form in writing his "Essay on Man," we can see a like division of language into two main characteristics, pragmatic and stylistic.

I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but is true, I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions depends on their conciseness.

Hopefully someday a masterpiece like "Essay on Man" can be written on Twitter, though the reverse chronological order of Tweets as they read in a given feed might complicate things. A philosophical work like Pope's would require continuous sequence of the Tweets as they are read down the page or screen. But a poem might work, composed so as to be read out of sequence, where the individual parts contribute to the whole, whatever order they're read in. Or maybe a Twitter novel could be written with links at the end of each Tweet, where readers could choose what happens next in the story, linking to different Twitter accounts, which all have different perspectives. What is certain is that while the formal strictures of social networking impose limitations on their texts, they also offer many possibilities for creativity.

In further comparing Twitter and epigrams, one should discern the difference between two competing ideas of Twitter, and of technology in general. It can be hard not to think of Twitter as more "technological" than epigrams. They are a newer form, written on a machine, and so it might be easy to think of them in the context of "things happening faster."

And yet Twitter doesn't actually facilitate the composition of Tweets, only the publishing of them. While Tweets may be presented to the world with a great level of speed, a human being still has to think of what to say, and the cleverness of the individual writer, rather than the technology he or she is using, determines the speed at which Tweets are actually composed. Yelling an epigram out an open window would perform the same function as Twitter, on a smaller scale. The loudness of Twitter's "yell" and the size of its "window" are much bigger, but again these are all matters of presentation, and not of the text itself. Right away, the comparison between a Tweet and an epigram reveals itself to be about the text, not what happens directly before or after the text is created; differences or similarities between the two should not be judged based on surrounding circumstances.

Given the fact that Twitter is a digital medium, while epigrams are not necessarily, there also would seem to be a difference in the level of involvement of the writer in the composition of each respective text. With the composition of a Tweet, as with that of an epigram, the writer is essentially entering into a kind of contract where he or she agrees to impose formal limitations, having significant aesthetic and didactic implications. And the difference in the writer's agency would seem to start around the time these limitations come to bear upon the text.

To illustrate the difference of authorial agency, it may be helpful to imagine a narrative about how an epigram and a Tweet are created, respectively. With epigrams, we would probably imagine a writer deciding to enforce the epigrammatic form upon his or her ideas before sitting down to actually write the epigram. The epigrammatist would want to bring about a certain effect, and resigns upon the epigrammatic method as the best, then proceeds on to applying that method into his or her creative process.

But do we imagine a Twitter user going through the same process? No, we imagine the Twitter-user signing up for Twitter not to impose any effect on his or her ideas but for "social" reasons. Thus we imagine the shortened form coming to the Twitterer second-hand. In other words, we imagine that the writer of the epigram has reasons that have to do with the form of the epigram itself, while the Twitter user has reasons having little to do with Twitter's shortened form. The form of a Tweet was resolved upon by someone else than the author.

Operating on the basis of these imagined narratives, the epigram would seem to give the writer much more agency. The self-imposed epigram is a self-imposed, formal discipline, while the form of the Tweet, as imposed from the outside, is more of a task-master, one which yells "Sorry, you'll need to be cleverer!" when the writer strays from the form.

Except there are a lot of questions that come along with these imagined narratives. When does composition occur? Isn't the writing of the Tweet or the epigram itself the composition, not the author's "intention" or the respective willfulness of the decision to impose formal limitations? And anyway, who cares if limitations of form are imposed from the outside, so long as they are imposed? Since the epigrammist didn't originate the epigram form, doesn't he have the same level of agency as the Twitterer?

These are all valid questions, but an even more important one concerns the idea of the epigram form being less "social" than Twitter. Really, the epigram form is extremely "social," in that it is taken on because of having read other epigrams, by writers one presumably admires. The contract one enters in writing an epigram is one within a society of other epigrammists, like Pope, who himself entered into this contract having read Greek epigrammists before him. And even the first person to ever write one probably had an inspiration from the beauty of short interjectory speech; the epigram wasn't created in a vacuum.

The point is that all language, whether written by Pope hundreds of years ago, or a Twitterer just a few minutes ago, is a community, being influenced by and influencing others within that community. The society of the epigrammist is not always as direct as Twitter, but it is certainly not as solitary an exercise as one would think right away. Not to mention the fact that, while many Twitter users join the site for social reasons, it is very possible that many do so for reasons closely associated to the formal strictures themselves. Thus, while one may imagine that Twitterers wanted the interaction and not the means of interacting, or that epigramists wanted the form and had no interest in interacting with their fellow epigrammists, neither image really holds water.

Questions of interactivity naturally follow those of authorial agency. The immediacy of Twitter's interactivity has to do with the fact that it has a reply button built in to the Tweet form itself. The Twitterer writes a Tweet, and anyone can push "reply" and send a response to the original—anyone not "blocked," that is. And yet, many writers have written their works in response to each other. In fact, Voltaire wrote Candide in response to Pope's "Essay On Man," hitting the "reply" button, as it were. And of course, in a sense, all language "replies" to the language that has come before them.

The real difference between Twitter "replies" and the interactivity that occurs between epigrammists involves the author's human response to the authorial agency of either. Authorial agency may have presented false images when thinking about how a writer interacts with the world, but in terms of his or her interaction with peers, and the social respect shown between peers, these images become much truer.

For instance, imagine Alexander Pope published "Essay On Man," and then a reader wrote a letter to him telling him how much he liked the book. Now this would not be a "reply" in the same way, as if the reader had decided to write another book in epigrammatic form in response to Pope, in his honor. The letter correspondence between the reader and Pope references the original text, but it is not a formal extension of that text, really. It is a new work. Another epigram in "reply" to Pope's original text would be something more than a "reply" sent in a letter form. It would be both a formal answer, and an answer that includes that original form's creative process, part of which involved arriving at choosing said form. To reply in an epigram shows a certain level of respect and admiration. A letter is an apt medium to invoke this respect, but not so much as the kind as "replying" formally with another epigram. We see a discrepancy of form and content, where both the letter and epigrammatic "reply" show respect, but one does so while "reply"-ing both to the author and to the author's form.

But this discrepancy does not happen with Tweets, or the discrepancy manifests in a different way, because the Tweet form is enforced by someone other than the author him- or herself. On Twitter, a "reply" to an original Tweet is always, formally speaking, an organic extension of the original text, however irrelevant, however poor the quality, whatever the level of respect. Because, as we had determined above, the form is enforced by something outside the writer, any reply becomes formally relevant, if not relevant content-wise to the original Tweet. Even "trolls" or "spammers" are, within the formal strictures designed by Twitter, exercising the medium, however bad or stupid the content of their ideas might be.

And this is a real difference. Even more interestingly, it has something to do with the false differences already described. Considered alone, the differences of authorial agency between Twitter and epigrams are not very great. Same, with differences of interactivity. However, when the authorial agency of interaction between epigrammists and Twitterers are considered together, the differences cohere into something relevant.

As epigrams and Tweets interact with the world, and as they each relate within the compositional process of their writers, they are remarkably similar. The difference doesn't really show, until the "users" of each form start to talk to each other in their own language. This is the case, because social interaction between authors is a much more human exercise than sending words out into "the world," as it were. Interaction as between a writer and the world is much more abstract than between a writer and individual people within that world, it seems.


  1. As with Pope’s day, there are very few Pope’s compared to the general population. I would think that anyone who could master epigrammatic wit in 140 character chunks might be drowned out in the general cacophony that is the Twitterverse.

  2. Yes, if by “cleverer” they mean, “cut out a few more letters; the three people who care will probably be able to figure it out lol lol”

  3. That’s an awfully flattering portrait of the man, who by all reports was an ugly troll-like figure. Which isn’t to say he isn’t a genius; he is, and IMO one of greater stature than Swift, Johnson, or other contemporaries.

    1. “Well, my cousin, Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough’s butler’s dogsbody, says that all portraits look the same nowadays, since they’re painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.”

  4. I question your assertion that computer code “has no literary style”.  It does, believe me; it’s just (somewhat) harder to find.

    1. It’s not something to be questioned — it’s merely wrong. Code has style, and the aesthetics of programs have been a major topic for the past sixty years amongst those involved with the subject.

      The characterization of code as undirected and without focus… perhaps it’s true of the Twitter code, which is notoriously flaky (and somewhat less notoriously written in Ruby, which those of us who are more accustomed to C or Forth deride as thoughtless and unnecessary abuse of cycles). But, it is by no means characteristic of good code.

  5. Here goes that pope epigram: I am his @ highness #dog at Kew pray tell @ivonapoyntz whose dog are you via @ pope

  6. tl:dr – how can a piece celebrating brevity and wit be so long and difficult to read? also, no offense to rob delaney but if the writer thinks he’s one of the funniest people on twitter, he needs to follow some new people (@GrahamGoring is a particular proponent of this specific format of humour and actually does it well)

  7. A lesson from design that I temporarily forgot after hanging out with computer people: every part of the form is part of the content.

    And, yes, form dictates content in more ways than that.

    Also, every part of the cultural context is part of the communication act, with most of the same feedbacks.

  8. Dang, I thought I was going to see lots of good examples here in the comments of the soul of wit (i.e., brevity).

    “It seems that cleverness has become a prerequisite to interact in the modern, digital world.”

    So very true of BoingBoing, at least.

  9. twitter certainly keeps you from becoming Polonoius…

    “My liege, and madam, to expostulate
    What majesty should be, what duty is,
    What day is day, night night, and time is time,
    Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief. Your noble son is mad…”
    – Hamlet a2:s2

    “The old chatterbox”
    – Freud on Polonious

    which one fits into Twitter?

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