Breaking Twitter is fun. It’s weird. It’s an art practice. It demonstrates how writing and design overlap.
Perhaps you’ve spent an afternoon scrolling through your Twitter feed and happened upon a Tweet that looks like this:
If you have, you didn’t happen upon a random glitch; you happened upon a carefully crafted act of composition. These tweets are produced with skill and precision, and they are meant to disrupt the flow and function of the feed. Tweets like this ask their reader to reflect on the form and method of our most common modes of Internet-based communication. So what’s going on here?
Can we call this language? How is code “glitched” to produce these weird messages? How do they reveal the limitations of the text box as they are visualized?
From an academic standpoint, these glitches invoke an interdisciplinary response. Glitches trick us when files change format (see Lori Emerson’s “Glitch” entry in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media).
Glitches remind us that translation is never perfect (see Matt Applegate’s “Glitched in Translation” and Amodern article, “Glîtchéd in †ranslation: Rèading †ext & Codè as a Plaÿ of $pacés“).
Glitches are art objects (see the host of articles and resources compiled by Phillip Sterns).
The process of making glitch art or producing glitch-writing might seem hard, but there are numerous tutorials one can turn to in order to create image-based glitch art and sound-based glitch art–everything from Data Moshing to Sonification. (Again, Phillip Sterns has compiled a great list of tutorials here: https://phillipstearns.wordpress.com/glitch-art-resources/.) Over the past five years, articles featuring Glitchr’s work in particular have appeared in Rhizome, Buzzfeed, and The Creator’s Project. However, this work recalls glitch-writing produced by a broader set of artists and writers like the art collective Jodi, Rosa Menkman, Jon Cates, and Jimpunk.
This post focuses solely on the production of text-based glitches, just like the tweets embedded above. A tutorial, critical analysis, and guide for critical reflection follow below. Whether you are interested in glitch-writing as an aesthetic practice or interested in teaching the practice to others, the tutorial, analysis, and guide will help you contextualize your work and situate it within the discourse that surrounds the practice.
There are several resources that you will need ready-to-hand before you start to break things. Here’s a list of the basics:
- Login or sign up for a Twitter account: http://twitter.com.
- Have access to a comprehensive Unicode chart: http://unicode-table.com/en/#control-character
- Have a word processor, Microsoft Word, open.
- Have your Unicode Hex Input activated on your computer.
- Directions for Mac Users:
- Tutorial: http://symbolcodes.tlt.psu.edu/keyboards/mackey.html
- Video Tutorial (2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZLq_QW4J28
- Directions for PC Users:
- Tutorial: http://www.fileformat.info/tip/microsoft/enter_unicode.htm
- Video Tutorial (2008): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHwfI6XPH18
Let’s get started!
First things first. I recommend that you write your glitch in a word processor like Microsoft Word. This will help you better craft your glitch. It helps for a few reasons. 1) Much of this form of glitch-writing relies on stackable marks–what we call diacritical marks. Diacritical marks are typically used as “accent marks” over vowels. They indicate an alternative form of enunciation to those typically found in the English language. (For an explanation of some of the most common diacritical marks employed in the English language with their Unicode encoding, see Pinyin.info.) Using Word, rather than Twitter’s text box, will help you better organize your glitch, allow you to save your writing at any point, and act as a playground for the writing process. Using Word used to have an even greater function. Prior to the June 21, 2016 9.0 Unicode update, it was possible to stack diacritical marks in Word and copy them to Twitter as a single character. Here is a screenshot of what this feature of the writing process looked like:
In the wake of the update, any interface you use to create stacked glitches will count each mark as a new character, limiting your glitch in the Twitter interface. 2) Twitter doesn’t recognize every Unicode encoding for every possible letter, number, and punctuation mark for every language. I’ve found that Microsoft Word can visualize more Unicode encodings than Twitter. This is important if you desire to break text boxes on other social media platforms. 3) Microsoft Word allows you to change the orientation and distance of your text, allowing for a more “sculptural” quality inherent to this type of writing.
Ok! Open a new Microsoft Word document and activate the Unicode Hex Input on your keyboard. Once you have the Unicode Hex Input activated, open your Unicode chart and scroll to the section labeled 0300, “Combining Diacritical Marks.” The 0300 – 0360 range of encodings gives you the largest set of stackable characters within the Unicode chart. Feel free to explore other language subsets and options, but be sure to remember that the characters that range from 0300 – 0360 allow you to stack. This feature is important for two reasons. 1) Stackable characters are necessary for exceeding the spatial limits of the text box (both vertically and horizontally). Where we typically think of the text box on a given interface to be a self-contained compositional environment, diacritical marks reveal this to be a farce. 2) Stackable characters allow you to move seamlessly between linguistic systems as you also combine them. Think about diacritical marks like digital-linguistic glue; they allow us to combine characters from a multiplicity of natural languages in order to communicate beyond their individual confines. These marks are what often give the practice of glitch-writing its sculptural quality.
Once you have decided which characters/linguistic systems you’d like to play with, type a character’s Unicode encoding in Microsoft Word. For Macs, you can do this by holding down the option key while typing the encoding. For PCs, hold down the Alt key, press the + key, then type the Unicode encoding.
After a few cycles, things will get weird. When you start adding letters and diacritical marks to your Word document, the diacritical marks stack toward the viewer, rather than vertically or horizontally. It will look jumbled, but don’t worry, you’re breaking things the right way. Your glitch should look something like this:
While it is difficult to detect now, many of these marks and characters will reorient themselves within the text boxes of each social media platform you might place it in. Here is an example of what this glitch looks like on Twitter:
This is what the same glitch looks like on Facebook:
Here it is on Fold:
This is what it looks like if I copy and paste it directly into my current text box:
This is what is looks like when I write it:
Remember, different digital platforms will visualize your glitch differently. Not all digital platforms recognize the same Unicode sets, nor do they situate text in the same way. (If you have ever sent an emoji from your iPhone to a friend’s Android and had it change in the process, you know what I’m talking about.)
At this point, you’ve been supplied with the basics. Be as creative with the process as you like. You will inevitably fail, but that’s kind of the point.
In a comment on his writing practice, Don DeLillo writes, “This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences.” Glitch-writing is all about odd correspondences. It, beyond DeLillo’s commentary, prioritizes the sculptural quality typed words embody on their interface. What can be made of writing that is meant to break the digital environments in which it is housed? How does glitch-writing forward an argument?
From an historical standpoint, glitch-writing perhaps best mirrors poetic expression that originated in analog contexts, two in particular: concrete poetry and asemic writing. Concrete poetry refers to poetic expression that conveys its meaning through graphic design (graphic in the diagrammatic sense), often by creating shapes and patterns with words. Here are two examples:
The first is by George Herbert, titled “Easter Wings.” It was first published in 1663; now it lives in the public domain.
The second is by Benjamín Moreno, titled Concretoons, archived by the Electronic Literature Organization and protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License:
Herbert’s poem is printed sideways. Its shape is meant to resemble angels’ wings, visually enforcing the final lines of the poem. Moreno’s poem reimagines Jorge Luis Borges’s poem “Laberinto borginano” in the style of a PacMan maze. As the ELO notes, Moreno’s aesthetic allows “readers to re-build or erase individual words or whole poems, as well as navigate through them in an exploratory way. Through the different game dynamics, Moreno explores the poetic expressiveness of the video game to convey meaning beyond the words.” With both poems, visual structure and literary meaning are inseparable. In fact, the typographical effect of arranging text into angel’s wings or a PacMan maze is perhaps more important than what the text communicates on its own. The interactive component that Moreno adds reinforces the inseparability of the image/text formation.
Asemic writing, by comparison, refers to writing without “specific semantic content.” Asemic writing is often meant to inspire the reader to attribute meaning to it. It can take on various shapes and modes of organization, but its shape does not correspond to written expression in a functional language, natural or digital. Indeed, design and writing are more intimately linked through the asemic gesture. As Michael Jacobson argues, asemic writing “uses the constraints of writerly gestures and the full developments of abstract art to divulge its main purpose: total freedom beyond literary expression.” Here is an example by Mirtha Dermisache, titled Illiazd, protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License:
On its face, Dermisache’s piece appears to be a set of incoherent scribbles. Perhaps its zigzags and oblique lines express the author’s frustration with writing. Perhaps it is a visual metaphor, marking a series of schisms with writing as it occurs in a natural language. Paired with its title, Dermisache’s piece is revealed to be a tribute to the avant-garde typographer and designer Ilia Zdanevich. (I have also reproduced some of these vertical squiggles in my glitch above). On the one hand, Dermisache’s piece does not resemble any particular piece of Zdanevich’s work archived by MoMA. Linguistically, it perhaps better matches punctuation marks in Sinhalese and Sanskrit (see below). On the other, asemic writing is not meant to convey meaning as a natural language or a digital language would. Asemic writing signifies freedom from constraint, linguistic and literary, prior to any other meaning it might hold.
What, then, do glitches do, especially when considered as an extension of this poetic lineage? I have traced the glitch’s relation to concrete poetry and asemic writing via typewriter art and ASCII art elsewhere, focusing on the technological and aesthetic bases of glitch-writing. The import and function of glitch-writing is inseparable from these features of its production. However, the political and rhetorical dimensions of its production and use are equally as forceful when these poetic practices are forefronted.
Consider Glitchr’s April 2014 tweet, which I will title “error”:
More concrete poetry than asemic writing, Glitchr’s “error” makes use of the 0360 Unicode set to construct a visual/linguistic pyramid that announces what it also produces: an error in the feed. Playing off of a HTTP 404 Not Found Error, Glitchr visualizes the order of the interface and its text space differently, rather than rendering the entire page “not found.” Glitchr’s “error” pyramid breaks loose of the textbox, alerting the viewer to an alteration in the code that renders text legible on Twitter, but also forming an arrow, pointing to the errors that occur after it.
Rhetorically speaking, Glitchr’s “error” is satirical in its interaction with other text and media on his feed. It reveals the limits of the text box by breaking them without destroying the entire interface. When read as a form of concrete poetry, Glitchr’s “error” creates a cascading image via text, reinforcing the stackability of diacritical marks while simultaneously gesturing toward the glitches that follow. It says, “look up,” “look what I can reveal about this platform,” “look at how I can communicate differently.”
On a political register, Glitchr’s work operates in much the same way that Hito Steyerl describes contemporary conditions of “post-representation.” Consider her explanation of how camera phones form images based on pictures already stored in one’s phone.
As the lenses [of your smart phone] are tiny and basically crap, about half of the data captured by the sensor are noise. The trick is to create the algorithm to clean the picture from the noise, or rather to define the picture from within noise. But how does the camera know this? Very simple. It scans all other pictures stored on the phone or on your social media networks and sifts through your contacts. It looks through the pictures you already made, or those that are networked to you and tries to match faces and shapes. In short: it creates the picture based on earlier pictures, on your/its memory. It does not only know what you saw but also what you might like to see based on your previous choices. In other words, it speculates on your preferences and offers an interpretation of data based on affinities to other data.
The social media feed is a correlate to the camera phone’s function described here. Twitter makes suggestions to you based on your preferences algorithmically; it inserts them into your feed based on past interactions on the site, i.e., affinities to other data, i.e., stuff you like. Further, the feed’s vertical construction and character eliminate “noise” two ways. Content that is not interacted with is pushed into oblivion, and the content one produces must cohere with the platforms’ constraints (140 character limit, alignment, color, etc.). These features form the basis of Twitter’s usability. Twitter just isn’t Twitter without them.
Glitchr’s tweets break the tacit “user agreement” enforced by Twitter’s interface. He inserts “noise” into each tweet via his Unicode switch, which then converts Twitter’s suggestion algorithm into an exploit. Any affinity glitch-writing might have with other iterations produced on the platform will transform one’s feed into something wholly unintended by the Twitter corporation.
Similar examples exist on an asemic register. For example, exq=.s.te =n.c&de/s’ glitch-writing on Twitter is quite similar to an example of asemic writing provided by the Calligraphy Writing website (see below).
To be sure, the glitch-writing that exq=.s.te =n.c&de/s executes on Twitter is interesting for many of the same reasons as Glitchr’s. However, comparing glitch-writing to asemic writing reveals a monumental difference between the two practices. If asemic writing signifies freedom from literary and linguistic constraint on the page, glitch-writing signifies freedom from literary and linguistic constraint at the level of code. With all practices of glitch-writing, Unicode numbers that make language communicable as intended are replaced by Unicode numbers that alter the meaning of language, interface, and aesthetics.
In his article, “Critical Code Studies,” Mark Marino theorizes critical code studies (CCS) on a similar register to the function and effect of glitch-writing’s asemic gesture. Marino is concerned with the functionality and efficiency of code, an aesthetic problem on his view, but he is also concerned with how code manifests as an aesthetic object. Marino cites Rita Raley on this point, arguing that code’s aestheticization need not result in an executable process, especially as it brings what’s hiding in the background of our favorite websites, apps, digital lit, and so on, to the foreground. The question of what computer code is when it doesn’t produce an executable command, is therefore a linguistic problem as much as an aesthetic one. If code is not necessarily an operable set of symbols and characters, what is its status as a language?
Marino’s focus on what Nick Montfort calls “obfuscated code” and what Michael Mateas calls “weird languages” is perhaps the most pertinent analog for understanding glitch-writing’s asemic gesture here. For Montfort, obfuscated code is often dense and indecipherable. It, in Mateas’ words, “exploits the syntactic and semantic play of a language to create code that, often humorously, comments on the constructs provided by a specific language.” Weird languages are those in which “programmers explore and exploit the play that is possible in programming language design.” They, too, often comment on the features of existing coding languages. The allure of these practices for both theorists is primarily characterized by their ability to “double code,” or their ability to execute valid programs in two or more coding languages. Obfuscated code and weird languages blend coding languages as a means of making syntactic and semantic commentary about code in code. They also demonstrate the variability of code, its inherent multi-linguality, and in some cases, weird languages and obfuscated code further programming language design.
At the backend, Unicode does not comment on the grammar or syntax of coding languages themselves, it is the numeric value that stands between coding languages and natural languages. It is the operator and proof that coding languages are multi-lingual. On the frontend, Unicode is used primarily for text processing, but it can also be used to inform a given website’s features and layout. When we consider glitch-writing like Glitchr’s and exq=.s.te =n.c&de/s’, we see that what Unicode executes via various coding languages is a variation on “code switching,” with and beyond what one would see in the interplay of natural languages. Glitch-writing is then certainly an extension of the interests and attributes of concrete poetry and asemic writing, but its execution is much different. To further explore these concerns, see what David (Jhave) Johnston offers as a framework for conceptualizing writing in digital environments as a mode of assimilation, but also where Rosa Menkman argues that glitch art is formative of a new visual-linguistic language system.
I’ve included two of my own examples here to conclude. The first recalls pages 54-57 of Marshall McLuhan’s text, The Medium is the Massage. On these pages, McLuhan prints his text backward and upside down in order to compel the reader to rotate the book and hold it up to a reflective screen. I utilized characters from the “phonetic extensions” Unicode set, 1D00 -1D50, in order to create this effect for social media. In order to read this tweet as Twitter would intend, the reader would have to flip her screen 180°. This would also invert the flow of her Twitter feed, pushing content up rather than down, momentarily prioritizing “old” content rather than “new.”
My second example demonstrates variability in Unicode rendering within the Twitter feed itself. When initially published to Twitter, the diacritical marks I’ve applied to each letter are both flat and abbreviated. When clicked, the diacritical marks expand, many of which extend well beyond the text box.
I chose to glitch the word “immemorial” for two reasons. The first speaks to glitch-writing’s rhetorical force, or how this mode of composition presents an argument. The second is a visual-linguistic gesture toward concrete poetry and asemic writing. I stacked letters via their diacritical function in order to simply show how text can stretch beyond the text box, reaching into the future and past of my Twitter feed. Glitch-writing is “immemorial” in the trace of its text appearing where it should not. At the same time, glitch-writing recalls writing practices that precede it–it brings its forbears into the present (concrete poetry and asemic writing) as it also extends their gestures into new milieus.
Regardless of one’s approach, glitch-writing both complicates and clarifies the connection between writing and design. Albeit in a limited way, glitch-writing allows us to redefine the function of the text box and redesign the flow and function of the spaces in which we place our glitches. When we break Twitter, we design it differently; we make the platform communicate something other than what it was intended to communicate. The platform’s entire environment is altered by what we type. Glitch-writing doesn’t simply motivate questions concerning how text and image relate, it requires us to reflect on the function of our most dominant regimes of visualization.
Critical Making/Critical Reflection:
Although this tutorial might be your stepping stone to glitch composition and artistry, it is also a tool for critical reflection. I would suggest that we follow a “critical making” process like that outlined by Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema in their coauthored essay “FLWR PWR: Tending the Walled Garden” in order to conceptualize the act of glitch-writing with its rhetorical and political functions. This process is comprised of three steps: 1) literature review, 2) collaboration on the production of a prototype, and 3) reflection. This tutorial provides a robust literature review and example of analysis, but now it’s time to glitch-write. I’ve included some helpful suggestions below to get you started.
- While I’ve listed a number of academic and journalistic texts above, let’s look at a recent interview with Jimpunk in order to reflect on the linguistic implications of text-based glitch art. When asked questions about why Jimpunk makes text-based glitch art, the artist/writer responds in glitches, rather than in a natural language. The artist writes out responses that play with shape, line, and color, but also responses that combine multiple languages into a single communicative product. What languages does Jimpunk use? Can you decipher what the artist communicates with each response?
- When we write, it often seems like we write in isolation. However, digital composition is often collaborative, especially as we combine multiple forms of media into a single piece. The authors of Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects, call this multimodal composition. All texts are multimodal, but digital composition allows us to dialogue with readers and other authors. How is glitch-writing collaborative? How does it dialogue with those who have developed and furthered the practice? Do you use other author’s glitches to help you write yours?
- Reflecting on the effects and possibilities of glitch-writing is perhaps the most complex task associated with the practice. Glitch-writing can attune writers and readers alike to interface history and design, critical code studies, and earlier practices like ASCII art and art-typing. If we reflect on glitch-writing as an act of composition, we are presented with a series of difficult questions, some of which are already listed above: Can we call glitch-writing language? How is code being “glitched” to produce these weird messages? How does glitch-writing reveal the limitations of the text box? What does it mean for writing and composition when we combine multiple natural languages with multiple digital languages?
Let’s go break things!
“Announcing The Unicode Standard®, Version 9.0.” Unicode. 21 June, 2016. http://blog.unicode.org/2016/06/announcing-unicode-standard-version-90.html
Applegate, Matt. “Glitched in Translation.” Precarious Aesthetics 2015 Conference Proceedings (2015): n. pag. Berkeley Center for New Media. Http://bcnm.berkeley.edu/. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
—. “GLî†CHÉD IN †RAN$LA†ION: Rèading †ex† and Codè as a Plaÿ of $pacés.” Amodern. Ed. Nick Thurston. http://amodern.net/article/glitched-in-translation/
Arola, Kristin L., Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball. Writer/designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.
Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal. 24:4 (2002): http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/casconetext.html
DeLillo, Don. “Don DeLillo, The Art of Fiction No. 135.” Interviewed by Adam Begley. The Paris Review. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1887/the-art-of-fiction-no-135-don-delillo
Douglas, Louis. “The Diacritics of Glitchr.” Rhizome. Rhizome.org, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Electronic Literature Directory. “Individual Work: Concretoons.” http://directory.eliterature.org/individual-work/4615
“Il’ia Zdanevich.” Moma.org. http://www.moma.org/artists/12660
“Introduction to Asemic Writing.” Calligraphy Writing. 21 Dec. 2013. http://www.calligraphywriting.org/introduction-to-asemic-writing/
Jacobson, Michael. “On Asemic Writing.” Asymptote. http://www.asymptotejournal.com/visual/michael-jacobson-on-asemic-writing/
Jimpunk, and Electronic Objects Inc. “Jimpunk – Artist Interview Series.”Electric Objects. https://www.electricobjects.com/, 2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Johnson, Chris A. “Chris.com – ASCII ART.” Chris.com – ASCII ART. Http://chris.com, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
Johnston, David (Jhave). “The Assimilation of Text by Image | Electronic Book Review.” Electronic Book Review, 7 Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2016. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/assimilation
“Letters with Diacritical Marks, Grouped Alphabetically.” Diacritics. Http://pinyin.info/, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
Marino, Mark C. “Critical Code Studies.” Electronic Book Review, 4 Dec. 2006. Web Oct. 2016. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology
Raley, Rita. “Code.surface || Code.depth.” www.dichtung-digital.org/2006/1-Raley.htm
Menkman, Rosa. “|| | Bitsbits Bits____________________ ///////////////ЯOSΛ MEИKMΛN~~~@~~~DIRDIRDIR A:??blogspot?____________________________________| ||.” || | Bitsbits Bits____________________ ///////////////ЯOSΛ MEИKMΛN~~~@~~~DIRDIRDIR A:??blogspot?____________________________________| ||. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
Ratto, Matt, and Stephen Hockema. “FLWR PWR: Tending the Walled Garden.” FLWR PWR – Tending the Walled Garden (n.d.): n. pag. Critical Making. Http://criticalmaking.com. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Sayej, Nadja. “Glitchr Is The Most Interesting Artist-Hacker On Facebook | The Creators Project.” The Creators Project. Http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Smith, Patrick. “18 Tweets That Prove @Glitchr_ Is The Weirdest Thing On Twitter.” BuzzFeed. Http://Buzzfeed.com, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Sterns, Phillip. “Glitch Art Resources.” Phillip Sterns. Https://phillipstearns.wordpress.com/, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Steyerl, Hito. “Politics of Post-Representation.” With Marvin Jordan. DisMagazine http://dismagazine.com/disillusioned-2/62143/hito-steyerl-politics-of-post-representation/
“Unicode® Character Table.” Unicode® Character Table. Http://unicode-table.com, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.