Tweeting as @themanwhofell Greg Stekelman writes tight, purgatorial prose. His stamp-sized literary productions, rich and often dazzlingly oblique, work through an English surreal sensibility, mixing a kebab-sodden Pooterishness with a B.S. Johnson-like love of experimentalism. Stekelman relentlessly mines the plain conversational weirdness of Twitter, just as we increasingly begin to think of the medium as a transparent part of our every day lives. He turns the place into a stilted mirror: continually reminding everyone how odd we look there, writing something brilliant in sad lipstick, colouring-in the foxing with luminous grey.
As an author and performer, with a deft control of the narrative rhythms of the media, Stekelman nails himself in to a near-dystopian sci-fi of the mundane. His beautifully and continually-drawn character is trapped somewhere between Office Space and a moment in a Arthur C. Clarke novel so downbeat that the author left it out in favour of a laser-battle. There are no laser-battles in @themanwhofell; though there may be the occasional dishevelled MP fiddling with a broken laser pointer. Instead, there is an incendiary array of bathetic illustrations and short stories, spoof articles and absurd surveys worked-up to weird the slew of satellite social media sites that attach themselves to Twitter.
In this, very pleasing, way he is the antithesis of the cherubic horn-rimmed crowd who sing the revolutionary praises of social media. Deliberately blind as a tech-seer Stekelman actually goes about using the future in which we’ve arrived as an artist. Filling those freemium spaces with meaning, he treads an oblique line of commentary on the mechanisms and relations in play. While others might crow their satire, Stekelman is more likely to be drawing a picture of a crow tethered to Ed Miliband’s leg, to insert into the Twitter retweet loop with baffling and bathetic consequences. If Twitter is the most hyperreal of super-pubs, brimming with bores and wannabe satirists, Stekelman is in the garden looking in, blowing smoke rings of meta-satire.
Stekelman’s world is uniquely crafted. Always humorous, often debilitatingly mordant. Like Beckett in bullet-points he probes existential anguish amongst the buses and sandwiches. In this world masculinity is a frustrated husk, professional success is a mirage, and bizarre encounters with celebrities are interspersed with sitting alone in a room.
Mr Stekelman, are you in a room?
I am in a room.
As a writer (illustrator and designer) by trade you are, on Twitter, doing brilliant work in a largely uncommodifiable format. If this was a pact with the real-time devil - what was in it for you?
Ego, mostly. I don’t know. It’s something to cling to, isn’t it? It’s made me well-known in certain circles and has opened a few doors for me. It’s helped me kill a lot of days.
Your recent April Fools spoof news story was probably accessed hundreds of thousands of times, often without credit. A similar thing happened with your photoshop of Ian McKellen. What’s it like when something you ostensibly author becomes a meme?
It’s ok. I mean, in both cases I could have added a watermark that made it clear it was my work, but then it wouldn’t have looked authentic. If you make something that is authentic enough that it fools people then you can’t really complain when people don’t realise you made it.
With a lot of stuff on the Internet, particularly memes, once they have captured people’s imagination you can’t really control it anymore. It takes on a life of its own. It’s in the hands of a load of 14-year-old boys in Texas or Tokyo and they couldn’t give a fuck who originally made it.
I do know someone who writes very funny short stories and makes sure his name is on them, but people just copy and paste the stories onto messageboards and claim them as their own, which would drive me crazy.
While many tweeters look to drop one-liners and observations, you put this character, a version of yourself, at the centre. What is your relationship to @themanwhofell?
It’s a love/hate relationship, permeated by long periods of indifference. The character evolved naturally – it’s a version of me crudely edited for online consumption but over the years it’s become something of a prison because there are lots of things I’d like to say but I feel uncomfortable doing so because it doesn’t feel like it’s in character. Also, the character has become somewhat joyless and one-dimensional: either maudlin and miserable or hysterical and sarcastic. It feels weird because it’s me, but it’s me funnelled through a medium that reduces me to a caricature. But in a sense, I suppose that’s why so many people are on Twitter: to reduce themselves.
Could you view it as a lifetime’s durational performance from the top deck of a non-specific London bus?
Yes. But it’s draining because it takes over my life. Nearly everything I do is filtered onto Twitter and it doesn’t leave much left for me. I love it, because it means that lots of the time when I should be engaging with life and dealing with the good and bad things in my life, instead I can turn it into words and put it on Twitter, so I am always one step removed from the harsh glare. It’s like using a pin camera to look at the sun. Twitter didn’t always feel like a performance, but I suppose after a while roles harden around you.
I don’t really like buses and hate being seen as an authority on them. I only ever use about 4 different bus routes. Any man who reaches his late 30s and still regularly uses buses cannot view himself as a success.
In some lights @themanwhofell is the worst possible user of Twitter. He revels in the mundane, he eschews dialogue, he tweets celebrities about inane surveys – as your audience grows do you find more people missing the satire?
I’m not sure satire is the right word because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be satirising. The problem with satirising things is that it only really works if you feel you could do a better job than the people you are satirising. And so it’s fun to be arch and condescending with some TV chef, but I suspect that they are better at life than I am, so I’m not sure who has the last laugh.
Perhaps in the early days of Twitter I saw it as the cool crowd who “get it” poking fun at random celebrities making tits of themselves but these days the random celebrities have a million followers and are know exactly what they want out of Twitter, which leaves me looking like a bit of a dick.
In terms of the mundane - there’s lots of people on Twitter revelling in the mundane. I think the Internet has freed people from having to write/comment on important things. You don’t need a publisher or backer – you just need a blog or a Twitter account, which means that a lot of people suddenly realise they can talk about what they had for breakfast or bus routes or stationery.
Is it more annoying when people mistake your voice for a “real” one, or when they try and replicate it?
Obviously, it’s annoying when I tweet something ironically or do something vaguely satirical and people miss it, but I remind myself that I’m often tweeting from a dimly-lit bedroom, with a Twitter feed full of people being very arch and dry, whereas someone else might be reading my tweet in a bright, happy house full of children and laughter, and might read it differently. Once something is retweeted, it’s totally removed from its original context and takes on a new life.
I see occasional Twitter accounts that are influenced by my writing, but not very many. I view it as flattery until they get better at it than I am, at which point I secretly curse them.
Twitter has a sense of intimacy about it, and your audience will always presume to know you. Does that cause any difficulty?
Sometimes people overstep the mark or presume to know more about my personal life than they should, but in general I’m very lucky. I’ve had occasional run-ins with people who are on the stalker/obsessive spectrum but not many. In theory I love having lots of followers, but in recent months I’ve started thinking that having 24,000 people, most of whom are strangers, forming an opinion of me based on my tweets isn’t such a great thing. It makes me feel a bit ill.
Unlike someone like Grace Dent who keeps their distance, you perform the pathologies of Twitter with an alarming truth: sometimes it’s hard to know whether to be worried about you.
I try not to put too much of myself on Twitter. I’ve always tried to put my inner life on Twitter, rather than my personal life. I do keep large chunks of my personal life to myself and my family/friends. There do have to be boundaries. I see a lot of people tweeting stuff that could get them arrested/evicted/dumped and shake my head in astonishment.
I used to tweet more about my mental state but I’m more wary of doing it these days. Also, my mental state is quite boring, because I never really change. I repeat the same pathologies over and over again, and it’s interesting to write about that once, but tweeting about the same issues over and over again is boring for me, let alone anyone reading it.
The problem for me is that my Twitter feed was successful because I gave a lot to it, but it also cost me a great deal. And I started to feel a bit like Jordan or Kerry Katona, divulging more and more detail in order to get people’s attention. But unlike Jordan or Kerry Katona I’m not even getting paid by a magazine to do it. Here’s an odd comparison: the Robbie Williams video for Rock DJ, in which he’s dancing sexily and stripping but the girls ignore him until he pulls off all his flesh and they get to see some blood. It’s a good metaphor for Twitter, in that the more ignored you are, the deeper to dig to try to win back people’s attention. You see it every day on certain accounts – a kind of emotional prostitution. I try very hard to avoid that. Not always successfully.
Many people use Twitter as a sort of public SMS, filling their timeline’s with scores of anodyne @’s, and yet, certainly in your earlier days, you seemed to insist on standards of authorship.
I wanted it to be art. I wanted to be mysterious and aloof. It didn’t last. It’s social media. If you don’t reply and interact you’re missing out and you look rude. I’m still essentially a narcissist but I like to give the impression that I’m socially functioning.
You would also rail against hashtags. Has your stance softened at all?
No. You have to maintain some standards.
You’ve moved away from live-tweeting television, why is that?
I still do it. It just depends what’s on TV. I never set out to live tweet things, but sometimes certain series (Masterchef/Xfactor) catch my eye. I enjoy it – I am a frustrated performer and it’s the nearest I will ever get to actually performing, in that it’s live and I am totally absorbed in it when I’m doing it, and you get the sense of participating and creating something, even if it’s just a series of shit jokes about a TV show.
But it’s a big commitment. Live tweeting The X Factor on a Saturday and Sunday night did ruin my social life.
A lot of craft and technique goes into writing and editing Tweets - you give off every impression that you would’ve made a fine playwright. You’ve written candidly before on your blog of the effect that has on your longer-form writing, is this anywhere near being resolved?
Not really. I’m not sure I would have made a fine playwright although I’ll certainly accept the compliment. I think I was made for short pieces of prose. I’ve got a good brain for coming up with ideas and sharp one-liners but I struggle with plot and character. And most plays do need some plot and character - so most of my longer fiction normally deals with the notion of life lacking plot and character. Which is good for a short while but I wouldn’t want to make a career out of it.
Twitter is great in that it gives me a ready-made audience. It’s bad because it means I always go for the short-term hit of approval instead of squirreling myself away for a year and writing something of substance. I imagine Shakespeare didn’t stop writing every ten minutes to try out a pithy one-liner about some new kind of hay. I’m trying to wean myself off Twitter by writing very slightly longer bits of prose on Facebook, but the writing feels slightly stilted. There’s an invisible Twitter box over everything I write.
Does it make any sense to discuss Twitter in the way we just have?
Yes and no. A lot of what I’ve written is fairly pretentious, given that we’re talking about a social media site that is often full of Justin Bieber fans declaring war on Selina Gomez. But it’s worth discussing because social media has crept up on us without us realising and is suddenly a huge part of our lives. I keep assuming it will all go away, but it doesn’t.
Is Twitter all about context?
A lot of it is about context. Particularly since so much of it is about reacting to live events, whether it be something happening in our own lives or some event in the news. 95% of what goes onto Twitter loses its impact very quickly because it was tied so specifically to a particular event. Sometimes someone writes something on Twitter that is absolutely brilliant and lives on its own, with no need for any context. But people have been coming up with brilliant one-liners for millennia. From Cogito Ergo Sum to I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.
In a larger sense, I think a lot of misunderstandings/legal issues come about because of the nature of Twitter. Twitter allows you to write as much as you want over thousands of tweets. It allows you to build a complex, multi-layered persona that your followers will understand. But at the same time, Twitter allows other users to pull a single tweet from your timeline and retweet it into a new context. And in that new context it has a totally different meaning. All the signs that indicate whether the tweet is serious or satirical, sincere or a spoof’; all of that is lost. Every tweet has to live on its own.
Most of the time people read something that outrages them and aren’t really looking for a context that explains it – they just want to round up a lynchmob and ruin someone.
Please describe the room you’re in.
It’s a small room. Not tiny. It has a double bed in the centre, which makes it feel smaller because it dominates the room. There’s an IKEA bedside table and a couple of bookcases from Homebase. Lots of books. A wardrobe full of clothes with a load of junk on top. A small table with my PC on it. A chair that I bought for £12 from a local furniture shop. An IKEA laundry basket that is always overflowing. A filing cabinet. There are three paintings on the wall. Two by my dad, and one by Slinkachu, who did a print of me overhearing stuff on the tube many years ago.
I moved into the room two years ago when I split up with my then girlfriend. I intended it to be a stop-gap measure for six months but I’m still here. Left to my own devices I never move. It’s not in my nature.
What is your favourite tube line?
I grew up on the Piccadilly line but these days I prefer the Victoria line for getting into town quickly. A train every 2 minutes. Lovely. Although at rush hour it is hellish.