Instapoetry & Twiction: social media, short form migrant writing & collection practices
Have you heard of Instapoetry? In recent years, a new literary phenomenon has emerged – writing via social media. The poetry shared on Instagram has helped boost poetry sales significantly. Rupi Kaur’s book of collected instapoems, Milk and Honey (2014), remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 77 weeks, was translated into more than 25 languages and has sold upwards of 2.5 million copies worldwide. Kaur, hailed as the “Queen of ‘Instapoets’” by Rolling Stone Magazine, is a Punjabi-Sikh who moved to Canada at age 4, and started her career writing short texts on Tumblr and Instagram in 2013.
After years of submitting her poems and receiving rejections, Kaur considered self-publishing. As her number of Instagram followers grew – she now has over 2.9 million – she was picked up by an American publisher (Andrews McMeel Publishing). Her style is distinctive: most of her texts are accompanied by a simple illustration, and she writes exclusively in lowercase in a nod to Gurmukhi script (one of the scriptures used by Punjabi Sikhs) and her cultural heritage.
Kaur is both the highest-selling and most controversial of Instapoets, but she is by no means one of a kind. Other influential instapoets include:
- Lang Leav
- Tyler Knott Gregson
- Warsan Shire In 2014, Shire was named the first ever Young Poet Laureate of London, and her poetry has appeared in Beyonce’s latest album, Lemonade.
- Nikita Gill
- Nayirrah Waheed
- Yrsa Daley-Ward
- Key Ballah
What I find striking in this list is that among these successful instapoets, the majority are, if not women, then openly feminist, and come from ethnic minorities or immigrant backgrounds. Regardless of the literary quality of these texts, what this suggests is that these authors, who may struggle to find mainstream publishers for their work, are finding a creative outlet and an audience using social media.
Supportive communities develop on online international platforms, where people of minorities can share their everyday experiences of gender and racial discrimination with each other, but also talk about universally relatable human experiences. For most of these writers, Instagram is a stepping stone into the publishing industry, but even once their texts are published in book form, they continue sharing new texts and interacting with their readers. Their Instagram pages thus form a kind of a digital anthology.
One of the purposes of my placement is to make sure the North American collections are keeping up to date with migrant writing and collecting important material. Instapoetry and other online writing challenge our practices, as the Library cannot acquire and collect a website in the same way as it can a book.
The British Library hosts the UK Web Archive, however it is strictly confined to UK-based or relevant websites (either hosted on a uk domain or authored by UK residents) which it can collect through non-print legal deposit. Social media are more complicated to archive – for example Facebook is based in the US and blocks attempts to 'harvest' content. The UK web archive can pull information from web pages that don’t have a UK based domain if, and only if, there is a clear link with the UK. And even then permission is needed from the creators of the content and copyrights need to be cleared.
The main problem with this situation is that the online space does not function like the print publishing world. Social media destabilise the clear-cut national boundaries that dictate our web archiving collection practices (as underwritten in UK law). These are just some of the challenges that currently prevent the Library from collecting online literary phenomenons like instapoetry by non-British writers, and that significantly affects our holdings.
The impact of social media on literature has been huge. The micro-poems, haikus and short texts shared and read on Instagram, and the flash fiction shared on Twitter within the 140-character limit (a genre sometimes called “twiction”), reflect the importance of technology in our everyday lives. The shortness of these forms means that they are very suitable for reading during a quick break on a mobile phone screen. Arguably, this makes poetry more mainstream and less elitist – it is more accessible as it is easier to read: it is shorter, uses simple words and is sometimes accompanied by visuals. But also, when shared on social media, it has the potential to reach a wider socio-economic audience than the poetry-buying public. Instapoetry readers are able to interact directly with the writer and with each other, in a more democratic process. It is no wonder then that a renewed popular interest for poetry has risen out of such social media writing.
The rawness of Instapoetry – some Instapoets claim they only post unedited texts – says something about our fascination with the instantaneous in a time when we are constantly connected with events taking place all over the world. Publishing on Twitter especially can be likened to speaking out: once something has been said, it is already gone and replaced by more recent tweets. Of course, you can scroll down these platforms and maybe you will eventually find what you are looking for. But the book form undeniably has a sense of long-term duration and inalterability to it.
In fact, much of the conversation/hype around Twiction and Instapoetry took place between 2013 and 2015, and many tweets and Instagram posts have probably been deleted since. Unfortunately, thus far, we hold no records of this in the UK web archive, and there are no entries for “instapoetry” and “twiction”, however you may be able to find and even nominate accounts of authors for inclusion. The American internet archive (known as the Wayback Machine https://archive.org/web/) has a very limited number of entries for these terms, however you can find captures of social media accounts using this.
As a result, the BL collections are also missing the Twitter fictional initiatives taken by acclaimed Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole between 2011 and 2014.
In January 2014, he orchestrated a short story entitled “Hafiz” about a man who has a heart attack in a big city (you can read the whole story here). Cole texted other Twitter users 36 ready-made sentences to tweet, which he then retweeted in the right narrative order.
Earlier, he had already experimented on the same platform with his “Small Fates” project in which he imitated crime reports found in Nigerian newspapers, giving them an ironic twist. One goes “Ude, of Ikata, recently lost his wife. Tired of arguing with her, he used a machete”. Cole’s twitter page has been inactive since 2014, and shows nothing predating June 14th, 2014 (yes, I scrolled down to see how far I could go). This points to the ephemerality of such literary movements and how quickly they spring up and disappear. How then can our collections keep up if they are not equipped to collect these moments?
The fact that Teju Cole was already a well-recognized and published writer when he conducted these literary experiments shows that for many authors, social media is an interesting alternative to print. Rather than choosing social media only for its marketing value or its artistic value (as the space constraints encourage a different kind of creativity), for these authors part of the attraction is political. The online space is more flexible and democratic than the publishing industry. As minority writers, moving outside of mainstream distribution channels and privileging social media is potentially more radical and powerful than seeking publication.
This, however, also makes it harder for libraries to keep a record. Some writers such as the ones I have mentioned have received their fair share of attention in the media, so although web archives encounter practical challenges to collecting these primary resources, they are certainly picking up on secondary material discussing it. In this sense it is worth reflecting on strategies to ensure the Library’s web-archiving collecting practices remain diverse in form and content, and don't involuntarily under-represent a crucial literary moment to future generations. One such tool is user input: the UK web archive allows users and authors to nominate sites to be added to its collections. It is a simple process, and can make a vital difference to ensuring these forms of writing aren't lost to future generations.
- Laura Gallon
UK Web Archive: https://beta.webarchive.org.uk
The Wayback Machine (the Internet Archive): https://archive.org/web/
Leetaru, Kalev. “Why Are Libraries Failing At Web Archiving And Are We Losing Our Digital History?”. Forbes, 27/05/2017.
Qureshi, Huma. « How do I love thee? Let me Instagram it.” The Guardian, 23/11/2015.
Roberts, Soraya. “No Filter.” The Baffler, 24/01/2018.
Walker, Rob. “The young ‘Instapoet’ Rupi Kaur: from social media star to bestselling writer.” The Guardian, 28/05/2017.
Zakaria, Rafia. “Warsan Shire: the Somali-British poet quoted by Beyoncé in Lemonade.” The Guardian, 27/04/2016.
Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.