On February 13, just after midnight, the Daily Kerouac Twitter account tweeted, “As I’m writing this, the radio says there’s a foot of snow falling on Long Island.” A Twitter user named Susan replied, “Turn off the radio, go outside and listen to the snow.” As I read the exchange, I happened to be less than a mile from Kerouac’s home in Northport, New York, where, on February 13, it was not snowing. The conversation seemed suspended somewhere between now and the early 1960s, when Kerouac first wrote the lines in a letter to Allen Ginsberg. I couldn’t help but picture some version of Kerouac sitting at his typewriter receiving Susan’s reply on an iPhone. It was a bizarre sensation.
Daily Kerouac is one of several literary tribute Twitter accounts devoted to tweeting quotes from authors. Sometimes these quotes are consecutive sentences from longer works, other times they’re non-sequitur snippets chopped off midsentence. Shakespeare has at least three tribute accounts, the largest of which, @Wwm_Shakespeare, boasts 158,000 followers. The most popular Oscar Wilde account has upward of 160,000 followers while Sylvia Plath has nearly 200,000 and @_harukimurakami clocks in at 235,000. I have a personal fondness for the Frank O’Hara account. There’s a Virginia Woolf bot that tweets quotes in Korean and a Lovecraft bot that tweets in French. And there are mash-up accounts like @WhitmanFML, which uses an algorithm to combine Whitman quotes with random tweets hashtagged #FML (short for f*ck my life), resulting in tweets such as, “When the psalm sings instead of the singer but i only have the ugly pieces left of the bread #fml.” Some of these accounts are run by living people who carefully select quotes that rhyme with the outside world, and some are run by bots programmed to spit out quotes using elegant Python code.
“Form equals function,” as writing professors love to say, and quotes on Twitter function differently than those presented in their intended context. They’re recontextualized on every follower’s unique timeline, bookended by anything from Trump-adjacent catastrophes to celebrity gossip to the everyday minutiae of the people you actually know. In this way, the Twitter timeline is an equalizer.
“Whether you’re following fifty people or a hundred people or even thousands, they all [take up] the same amount of space,” Mark Sample, an associate professor of digital studies at Davidson College who has created a handful of literary Twitter bots, including the aforementioned @WhitmanFML, told me. “So seeing a tweet from Jack Kerouac or Herman Melville makes them feel like they’re personalities as much as anyone else on Twitter.”
As a result of this sense of familiarity and accessibility, users are likely to interact with these long dead literary greats. “I’ve seen people do that with Herman Melville,” Sample tells me. “Obviously [they ask] rhetorical questions; I don’t think they expect an answer, but there’s also something about Twitter itself that makes it easy to do that. It’s easy to reply, it’s low stakes.”
Let’s assume everyone’s in on the joke, and users who reply to Herman Melville do not expect a response. Then why ask? Sample explains that he has a friend who often interacts with his bot, Save the Humanities. “She told me one time, ‘I know it’s never going to answer, but I just get a kick out of replying to it anyway.’ It prompts her to have a thought, and so she dashes it off on Twitter and puts it out there.”
These quotes “allow the follower to take what they want or need from it regardless of what Kerouac intended,” Micha Ward, the moderator of Daily Kerouac, told me. “And for me personally, sometimes the quotes reflect how I feel on any given day.”
“It’s kind of a big Rorschach test. People want to connect what they see to what’s happening in their world,” the @Wwm_Shakespeare moderator told me over the phone. “I’ve seen people interact with what I’m putting out there, and they make it relevant to what’s happening to them.” In essence, people treat these tweets like literary horoscopes.
“I also get a lot of requests for homework help and I don’t really respond to those,” the Shakespeare moderator said. “And I’ve had more than one person sort of disclose infidelity, which is interesting.”
Once a man requested @Wwm_Shakespeare tweet a quote to celebrate the impending birth of his son, so the moderator spent about an hour searching for the right words. He sent it out, got a thank you, and that was that. But later, the man reached out to let the Shakespeare moderator know he’d had the tweet made into a plaque for his office. He sent a picture of his newborn. “That was one of my favorite interactions I’ve had,” the moderator told me. “I was able to be a force for good in somebody’s life.”
In my conversations with the Kerouac and Shakespeare moderators, similarities emerged—both were men who worked at large, global companies, neither had a personal account, and both used their tribute accounts to comment on the world. (After our conversation, I got a shout-out on the Shakespeare account). Daily Kerouac recently celebrated its eight-year anniversary, while @Wwm_Shakespeare has been around for nearly a decade. For a while, the Shakespeare moderator assumed he would pass the baton to a particularly engaged follower, but hasn’t felt the urge to. “It’s still fun,” he explained. Sample, Ward, and the Shakespeare moderator each agreed that they felt more of a responsibility to their followers than the authors; they skipped over lines with content that would be deemed offensive by today’s standards.
The Shakespeare moderator describes his tribute account as “a play in miniature.” He uses Shakespeare’s words to comment on the world and listens as his hundreds of thousands of followers engage.
It’s one thing to carefully pick and choose lines from Shakespeare to form a new dialogue, but entrusting a writer’s trademark style to a computer algorithm raises interesting ethical questions. @LovecraftMix, created by Dot Porter, uses a Markovian text generator to identify commonly linked words in Lovecraft’s work and tweet out entirely new (mostly nonsensical) sentences following the same patterns. In the not-too-distant future, what’s to stop an even more sophisticated bot from hijacking a dead writer’s voice and generating new books? The Shelley project at MIT, a “deep-learning powered AI who was raised reading eerie stories,” is already writing her own tales. It’s said that writers live on through their work, but if there is too much of them in their words, then we might learn to clone them ad infinitum.
While I couldn’t ask the deceased authors how they felt about their tribute accounts, I could ask the poet Richard Siken, whose work is disseminated through the Richard Siken bot.
“I don’t know what it is. I didn’t do it,” he told me over the phone. It seemed I had informed him of the bot’s existence. He suspected that the account was created by a fan of either the BBC show Sherlock or the CW show Supernatural; both fandoms embraced his poetry as the basis for memes and fanfiction. While we were speaking, the Siken twitter account tweeted, “This is philosophy. These are suppositions. If one has no apples, one has zero apples,” a line from Siken’s poem “Still Life with Skulls and Bacon.”
“That seems to be a really sensible quote; it got the sentiment,” Siken said. “There’s a thought that leads to it and a thought that leads away from it.” He told me that blurriness between here and there and now and then was nothing new to him. He’d been engaging with poetry in similar ways long before the dawn of Twitter. In “For Grace, After a Party” Frank O’Hara wrote, “Put out your hand, / isn’t there / an ashtray, suddenly, there?” Twenty years ago, when Siken was invited to a party in O’Hara’s honor, he brought along a small ashtray as a joke (O’Hara died fifty-two years ago).
“I imagine if I saw the Frank O’Hara bot tweeting,” Siken told me, “I might respond joyfully, I have an ashtray for you! Twenty years ago, I was responding to that line in the same way.”
“It’s not the poem, it’s just a thing,” Siken said. “It’s like when you see the detail of a painting or a tapestry—you hope that the detail is something interesting, like a unicorn hoof or the face of a peasant, but if it’s just the corner of a hat, then there’s nothing to see. So as long as the detail is framed well, I think that’s an honor. I think that’s celebration.”
Kate Dwyer is a writer and editor based in New York.