Willy Shakes (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE) by Joshua Strebel

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"Willy Shakes" by Joshua Strebel
“Willy Shakes” by Joshua Strebel

William Shakespeare returns to Twitter!

This bot (previously reviewed in I ♥ E-Poetry) takes a simple concept and executes it flawlessly: it tweets a line from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (freely available in Project Gutenberg) every 10 minutes and will do so until it reaches the end in about 2 years. “Willy Shakes” has now begun the third round of tweeting, having recently completed Round 2 on December 24, 2013 (see embedded tweets below) and taking a brief hiatus.

The way Strebel concludes this two-year cycle raises issues of broadcasting, performance, and identity worth exploring. We could see the bot simply as a program (every pun intended) that transmits Shakespeare’s work on a frequency that those interested can tune into (and out of) by following the @IAM_Shakespeare Twitter account. This creates a linear stream of text that focuses on the present moment in the social network, despite one’s ability to scroll down to access previous tweets. Part of the charm of reading lines of Shakespeare in Twitter is that they happen while you’re reading other things and are radically recontextualized. A line may unknowingly speak to a personal situation, trending topic, or simply the tweets around it in a way that allows you to appreciate it in a different way from reading it in a poem or play. See the example below:

willy shakes context
Screen capture from my Twitter feed on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm.

This completely accidental juxtaposition was accessible only to those persons who follow @furtherfield and @IAM_SHAKESPEARE (and nothing else that might have tweeted between them) and was paying attention when it happened. And its humor can only be appreciated by those who know a thing or two about “the iron lady” and is open to making the connection between the two. Language is a reactive substance: it has a way of binding with other words in its proximity it to produce new compounds in the reader’s mind. And this bot’s mission to tweet a single line every 10 minutes creates plenty of space for these lines to become the spice and salt that season a Twitter stream.

Of course, language also reacts with its medium. These lines from Shakespeare are more than just a scheduled performance in social media: they become computational objects the moment they are tweeted. Each tweet has a unique identity within the network, time stamped and shareable via retweet, quote, or link. It can be stored in readers’ profiles through favorites or bookmarks, and it can even be compiled using the Twitter API. WordPress automatically embeds tweets within a blog posting by simply providing the link, and that tweet carries within it information on how often it has been retweeted and favorited. One can even follow the link into Twitter and see the replies which may have entire comment threads. In other words, each line has become a Web widget and shareable through computational spaces beyond the spreadability of language itself.

Shakespeare’s poetry has become e-poetry.

And with all the possibilities this new ontology offers Shakespeare, it is not without its problems. A few weeks ago, I wanted to teach the Willy Shakes edition of Hamlet, but I had no way of searching for it or finding it in Twitter. It is theoretically possible to scroll back all the way from the present to the beginning of Hamlet, but it would be very impractical, since one would have to scroll down for hours, maybe days to do so. One could create a program to search and download complete lists of tweets using the Twitter API, but the limits placed upon the API would prevent you from going very deep into their archive. There are paid services that could deliver a thorough listing of all the tweets, but would it be worth paying for classroom use? Perhaps for research use… the trick is to persuade the funding agency.

Perhaps Joshua Strebel would be willing to download and share (or even publish!) the archive, currently containing 226,000 tweets (and counting… which includes the first and second Twitter “runs”). What a rich data source that would be! Imagine studying the reception of the individual tweets, creating visualizations of the most interacted with (normalizing for time of day and number of followers, if possible). What kinds of responses do Shakespeare’s lines elicit and from what audiences? And with archived links to the original tweets, these lines would become available beyond the small window of opportunity after they are tweeted. What could we learn from producing a clear reading compilation of these tweeted lines that allow readers to share them further?

We could ask many timely and fascinating questions of such a corpus of born-again digital literature.