by Shanna Gilkeson
Commander T’Pol is missing. A survey mission to a Class M planet rich in minerals possibly related to Romulan cloaking technology has gone horribly wrong. Sensor readings are disrupted. When the crew finally locates T’Pol, she’s out of her mind, shooting at everyone—and that phaser isn’t set for stun. To make matters worse, the Romulans are probably lurking out there, waiting to make their move.
Captain Archer must rescue T’Pol, discover the key to the Romulan cloaking device, and get out undetected. And he can only do it 140 characters at a time.
Fortunately, the crew also has a dozen or more Enterprise fans chiming in at any given time, cheering them on and offering commentary. And the crew responds with thanks, sheepish grins, and knowing winks.
This is Twitterfic.
What Is Twitterfic?
The short version: Role players act out stories in real-time on Twitter, interacting with fans while improvising their dialogue.
Part role playing, part fan fiction, Twitterfic can be kind of a tough concept to wrap your head around until you’ve seen it in action. In one way, it’s much like the role playing games, in that participants take on a character (or several), interact with each other, and make choices. However, the players don’t treat it like a game but rather a performance. Some role play groups are all improvisation, while others are very organized. In Twitterfic, the stories are planned in advance in terms of the plot itself, and there is no winner when the story is over. Twitterfics also have a definite beginning, middle, and end.
However, to call the stories fan fiction isn’t completely accurate, either. While the plot points in Twitterfics are agreed upon by the role players in the beginning, dialogue and action are improvised once the story starts. Also, it’s a collaborative effort by a troupe of players, and not the work of a single author. Stories occur during scheduled times, and flow almost like a radio drama, but in text.
In short, participants are part actor and part author. Though Twitterfic is not a game, the conventional description for what they do is “role play,” with players referring to themselves as “RPers.”
Here’s the kicker: they have the added challenge of telling the story 140 characters at a time—the size limit of a tweet on Twitter. And the characters talk their audience during their appearances.
The Enterprise Players
There are many other RP groups on Twitter, but the Enterprise troupe is unique in that they portray canon characters in planned, structured stories. Many RP groups feature one or the other, but not both. The Enterprise group included original characters at its inception, however they feel that restructuring to have fewer players and focusing on canon characters allows them to tell stories more like those of the TV series that inspired them. An original character is only added to the stories on an as-needed basis, and the role is taken on by an established member of the group.
The Enterprise RP characters began interacting on Twitter in November 2008. The main NX-01 cast was set by February 2009. “Our planned stories really began in May 2009,” says EntAllat, leader of the group. “That’s when we really gelled… It was (mostly) improv before that.” The group began with as many as twelve players, but that number eventually reduced to the current four, all of whom have been members from the beginning. Players have chosen to keep their real identities secret—some for professional reasons, others to perpetuate a sense of mystery.
Enterprise Twitterfics come in two flavors: RU for “Real/Regular Universe,” and MU for “Mirror Universe.” The players portray their same characters in each Universe. Occasionally, there are crossover stories.
What’s Cool About It
While the Enterprise players are in it for the fun, their professional approach leads to clever storytelling. Tales are interesting, and the players strive to make sure their characters behave and speak like their counterparts on the show. “We tried to keep the Enterprise group as familiar as possible to people who might stumble across it,” says EntAllat. The stories are linear and follow canon established on Enterprise, so aside from some promotions and a few other small things that show the passage of time, the characters are the same way viewers left them when the series ended. The players’ preparation makes for an enjoyable experience for themselves as well as their readers.
In addition to the planned stories, which usually take about three afternoons to tell, the characters make other unplanned, unstructured appearances in followers’ Twitter feeds. T’Pol might make a log entry, or Phlox may share his thoughts about his research. Other times, these tweets offer supplemental information about a story that’s in progress or about to begin. Also, two or more characters can appear together, and readers will witness anything from Archer and Travis in a pickup game of basketball, to one character playing a practical joke on another. (Names withheld to protect the guilty.)
During these improvised appearances, RPers will often interact with Twitter users who follow them. All this is done while the players remain in character—followers address them as though they’re really speaking to Trip or Hoshi or whomever. Encounters can range from one-on-one small talk to group conversations between several audience members and players at a time. In fact, the Enterprise RPers have a particularly devoted group of followers they’ve affectionately dubbed the “Peanut Gallery.” Peanut Gallery members are often almost as invested in the stories as the RPers themselves, and they consider the title an honor. Character interactions with the audience have sometimes led to impromptu gatherings, as well as planned virtual parties (think Halloween or New Year’s Eve), complete with virtual DJ.
The RPer/Follower Relationship
These interactions between followers and players create a sense of intimacy for the audience. As Twitterfic follower tultema says, “I love the way they ‘check in’ a lot of the time just so we know they’re okay. There’s a real level of humanity to them…” Fellow fan greeneyedtengu adds, “It’s great suspension of disbelief when they remember you. I mean, we all know there are players there, but when the character interacts with you in situations that aren’t ‘canon’? Epic.”
The intimacy of interaction can even lead the characters to become participants in the audience members’ real lives. For example, Peanut Gallery members redheadphotog and greeneyedtengu fondly recall the night MU Tucker and MU Reed “crashed” redheadphotog’s bachelorette party. Partiers were tweeting live from the celebration, and the Mirror Universe characters were following along and tweeting back. The interaction erupted into a game of “Never Have I Ever,” played over computer and smartphone keypads. Of MU Tucker, redheadphotog says, “He played really late with us. And I think he really got drunk because his typing got worse as the night went on. It was hilarious.” Whether the RPers were actually drinking or are simply good actors will remain a mystery. What greeneyedtengu remembers about that night is, “…secrets and little bits of back story—insights into character—coming out creatively in an improv game.”
What kind of TV episode or novel can do that?
What’s Going On Now
After a brief hiatus, the Enterprise Twitterfic players have returned on August 1 with a short pre-story, which led into their current RU main story, “Missing.” Following that will be about a week of ad-libbed encounters with the audience, and character appearances that will bridge this story to others. Then, a Mirror Universe Story called “The Xyrillians” is scheduled for August 17-19.
Also, there are plans to transform the Twitterfic adventures into short stories, which will be archived on the internet. Trek.fm will keep you posted with developments on this project.
How You Can Get Involved
If you’re completely new to Twitter or the concept of using it for the purposes of role playing, Enterprise Twitterfic Basics will help prepare you for what to expect. Included are items ranging from back story to tips for choosing a Twitter client to help you follow the stories. The group has also provided a crew manifest for adding characters individually to your account, or a single Twitter list you can subscribe to in order to catch the action. There is also a manifest for the Mirror Universe crew. It is suggested that you follow all the characters in order to receive complete stories.
Beyond that, it’s as simple as reading your feed, and chatting with your favorite characters if you’re so inclined.
While many unconventional uses for social media have surfaced in recent years, Twitterfic is certainly one of the most innovative. Thank Surak for that Trekkie ingenuity.