I don't see how I could study contemporary writing and ignore Twitter's importance.

Elena Machado Sáez

Professor Elena Machado Sáez, English, had no interest in social media until she wrote about Lin Manuel-Miranda, author of the musicals In the Heights and Hamilton, and realized how much text he was producing on Twitter. "I thought, he's producing more there than he has actually written as a playwright. What does that mean?"

Machado Sáez found that most of what has been published about Twitter is from a social science perspective, especially in regard to activism. The more she thought about the role Twitter has in contemporary society, the more she saw a role for analyzing the language used through the lens of literary studies.

When she learned that the Library of Congress stopped archiving tweets because of the sheer volume of data, Machado Sáez sought the help of staff at Bucknell's Digital Scholarship Center, who taught her how to collect tweets and their metadata. She's been analyzing data on Miranda and more than 40 other Latinx writers for a year, focusing on how the words they use illustrate their relationships with their audiences and with each other — much like earlier writers' correspondence does.

"Those are marginalia that people find useful for understanding the day-to-day lives of writers as well as their relationship to other writers, and the connection between their art and the world that they live in," she says. "That's something that we'll miss out on if this information is lost."

The words Miranda uses help her better understand how he builds relationships with his audience. What keeps arising in the data is the phrase "for you," an idea she says he uses in his musicals as well.

"While they don't work in exactly the same way, Miranda is very conscious of his audience and how he wants to include them," she says. "His musicals and his tweets are political projects, but it's not explicit. He's banking people's emotion, empathy and affiliation, and he's very selective about when he decides to spend that, like when raising funds for Hurricane Maria." This is very different from how the other Latinx writers she follows use Twitter as a platform for activism or to connect with each other.

Machado Sáez has created a large data repository, which she plans to share in a public forum so that other scholars can use it in the future. "Twitter is a form of genre writing that exists now but is time limited," she says. "I don't see how I could study contemporary writing and ignore its importance."

Posted September 2018