In the fifth instalment of What Would Twitter Do? I speak to Tao Lin (@tao_lin) about how he uses Twitter and his Twitter philosophy. He is the author of several books, including (most recently) Taipei, as well as Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates and more. He writes fiction, poetry and essays, and draws pictures and runs the publishing house/website Muumuu House and the film company MDMAfilms. He is one of the most generous popularizers of other writers and artists among working authors today. I think he is also one of the first people I followed on Twitter.
With Tao Lin, the persona and the person seem to have no fault lines—whether in his poetry, in comments sections on articles about him, in emails or on Twitter, his tone is consistent, original, interesting, and always accompanied by his avatar, that Daiquiri Ice blue square. Some people have identified a numbness in his voice, but to me it is more like the radical acceptance of someone encountering the world without judgement or inclination. Some sample recent tweets: “Imagining oneself meditating as a method for meditating” and “Cleaning my floor w watermelon.”
I sent him the following questions by email. He answered within a few days.
– Sheila Heti
SHEILA HETI: How do you imagine people read twitter?
TAO LIN: On their phones I think mostly. I think I’ve read the most Twitter while laying in bed or on my back, or just laying in places, like in parks or in airports. Maybe not the most, but a lot. I’ve dropped my phone on my face many times. I think other people must too, but I rarely hear about this.
SH: When you imagine your tweets going into the reader’s head, do you think of them as isolated things, or do you visualize them in a stream with other tweets?
TL: I usually envision them as isolated things. I haven’t thought about this before I think. That’s interesting, because maybe I should be visualizing them in a stream with other people’s tweets, if I want to have an idea of what people are seeing actually. Maybe that’s too complicated though.
SH: Do you save tweets in a drafts folder, or just write them and tweet?
TL: I used to have a drafts folder, which was a Gmail email draft that I would just click on when I wanted to add something and save when I was done adding something, but at some point I cleared out my entire 100+ drafts of various things. Then I think my Twitter drafts moved to a Google Drive file for a while. I would put all my drafts of tweets there. How a draft of a tweet gets made is that I’m trying to type the tweet and I either give up, or don’t like what I’ve typed, but don’t dislike it enough to delete it, then I put it in the drafts area. I haven’t that done in maybe 2 years, though. At some point I started only mostly tweeting via iPhone, and Twitter on the phone has the “save draft” option. So at any moment I might have 5-30 drafts now. They’re usually just things I try to tweet then stop for some reason before tweeting. Also if I have low self-esteem and am feeling shy or afraid it can get “difficult” for me to tweet. At these times I’ll save the tweet regardless what it is.
SH: How often would you say you delete a tweet after you’ve tweeted it? Which are the ones you tend to delete?
TL: Maybe ~20% (I want to popularize “~”, it means approximately, seems useful) of the time. Maybe more in the past. Every time I read back through my tweets, I’ll delete some of them, sometimes almost impulsively, just not wanting to spread whatever meme the tweet I’ve tweeted represents, so that some other tweet or idea can dominate more, is maybe what I intuitively feel when I do that. I don’t have a consistent system for this yet, I don’t think I ever will and don’t want one at this point maybe.
SH: Does how many stars or retweets a tweet gets change the way you feel about it? If it gets very few, do you assume it was not a good tweet/does it embarrass you? Do you notice how retweeted or starred a certain tweet is?
TL: Yes. It all depends on my mindset at the time, but any one of these thoughts can and have occurred to me while looking at the number of stars or retweets: 1. people love this tweet, like I knew they probably would, why am I thinking about this 2. people love this tweet, interesting, hm, it does seem [some quality I didn’t notice before but now, selfconsciously, seem to notice after seeing that people love it] 3. people aren’t liking this tweet, what’s wrong with me, I need to delete it now 4. people don’t care about this tweet, their loss, I should stop tweeting, why am I thinking about this. (I feel encouraged to “ramble” by the way because I feel like Mira Gonzalez typed a lot in her interview with you in this series and I enjoyed reading the large paragraphs.) 5. people just don’t “understand” this tweet, like I knew they probably wouldn’t, but I see that [so-and-so] as well as [so-and-so] liked it like I knew they would, which makes sense, because if everyone liked this tweet, those two people who liked it wouldn’t be who they were, in a way, in that everyone would be the same, so it’s okay if only [low-seeming number] liked this tweet, it’s okay, I can stop thinking about this now 6. less people like this tweet than I thought they would, therefore I’m going to feel something about it, aren’t I, I’m going to feel negative about it aren’t I, stop thinking about this. I’ve had probably 10-20 more types of thoughts like these, a lot of the time I’m just observing the thought in my mind, it happens automatically.
SH: Who do you enjoy reading on twitter? Please name some names. You don’t have to name names if you don’t feel like it.
TL: In the interview you did with Mira Gonzalez, she only listed 9 recommendations. The instant I read this question I felt a kind of dread, on some level. I knew I would need to decide how to answer it, and that I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew this on some level. Later I was thinking about it and I thought that I would just list every person that I follow. In an email I told Mira my solution for this and she said something like that she regretted only listing 9 because, she said, some people had actually seemed offended. So I don’t want to make the same mistake she did. Here’s a list of everyone I follow, in the order I followed them (you’re listed last because you deleted your account and started another account and I hadn’t followed you back yet). To avoid offending anyone, I’m going to stop typing more sentences in this question now.
TL: I feel like apologizing for this answer also. I know I could’ve just said “everyone I follow” but this seems more fun. I’ll keep the rest of my answers short. Just thought “that’ll be a goal I can focus on” encouragingly to myself.
SH: Your tweets all seem to come from a consistent universe. To what degree is this universe a persona or a fictional Tao Lin, if such a question can even be answered.
TL: To me, at this point, I think I’ve found that I don’t want to think about whether anything is fictional, nonfictional, a persona, not a persona, authentic, not authentic, true, not true. I’m trying not to think about these things.
SH: In your twenty years of tweeting, can you name some of the phases you have gone through? Your tweets seem to change gradually over time. Recently I have noticed a lot more watermelons and emojis.
TL: I have two phases actually. There was the phase when I used lowercase letters, then at some point, around I think August 2013, I started using uppercase to begin each tweet. I can’t really justify this move. At this point I’m just used to it. For some time it was because I was tweeting on my phone more, and I have my phone set to “autocapitalize” so when I was tweeting I would backspace and make it lowercase, to keep things consistent. Then I stopped that. I’ve felt despair over decisions like this, like semi-regularly. I’m kind of uncertainly trying not to care about consistency anymore, at this point.
SH: Titles of books that you’ll never write make up a portion of your tweets. Is this a way of not having to write those books, but still get the satisfaction out of imagining them?
TL: I don’t think I get satisfaction out of that aspect of it. I probably just think it’s a funny thing to tweet. I think there’s the aspect of it also that you can tweet anything in its form. Probably a lot of times I’ve wanted to tweet something and then just automatically tried it in the “book title” form. If I wanted to tweet “I’m going to the store” (bad example, it’s the first thing I thought of) but didn’t want to tweet that, I might try “Novel titled "I’m Going to the Store.”
SH: Did you take to this form immediately or did it take some testing out?
TL: I feel like I barely remember starting it, or having many thoughts about it in the beginning. I started in 2009, I think, and have the same account, but I don’t remember thinking about it that much. It seems interesting.
SH: Do you think Twitter will be around for a long time?
TL: The feeling is yes, but I think this feeling is probably wrong, because look at everything else that was around 15 years ago, then like 5 years ago, and 2 years ago. It depends on how long. It just occurred to me that I can “get out of this answer” (which I’m starting to be incoherent in, and don’t know what I’m saying) by referencing that I had said I was going to keep the rest of these answers short.
SH: Do you ever want to quit it?
TL: I have, at times. Now I don’t want to I think. But just now, this moment.
SH: If there is anything else you’d like to say, please do so.
TL: Thank you for interviewing me.