Prompt Twitter: The best of school slam books, the old Internet, and note-writing in ancient Kyoto

By Nisha Susan

In the last few months, have you felt a jolly participative wave taking over Twitter? No, I don’t mean the elections and all the associated screaming, tearing of hair and wearing of sackcloth and ashes. I don’t even mean the brilliant memes like the ‘hurt me’ sex meme from late last year (though I admit that piqued my interest). That one needed some cleverness and some work.

And I don’t mean the strictly non-clever ones like the ‘I say Uttarakhand. They hear floods’ one making the rounds this week.

Or even the repurposed sentence structure memes such as “some of you have never and it shows” meme or the “I don’t know who needs to hear this but” tweets.

I meant the solicitation of personal anecdotes to well-framed questions aka Prompt Twitter. I don’t know about you but I love it. And gauging by the sheer numbers lots of other people do. Sometimes I love it for its gossipy quality and its view into the lives of relative strangers in the way the old Internet gave you — like confessional posts on Livejournal.

Prompt Twitter’s not quite wonderfully weird and unvarnished as the old Internet but it’s not quite as art-directed as most of the new internet. I am amazed at how many salt-of-the-earth types on Twitter unselfconsciously revealed themselves to be the grand and great-grand children of the Nehruvian elite when last week’s popular prompt asked this.

I had a flashback to my youth and some Marxist study group gent telling me not to confuse the base with the superstructure. Talk about ‘hurt me’.

Any old question doesn’t qualify to get people hot and excited to answer. I have tried and am totally a failure. Some folks on Twitter are masters at the prompt tweet no one can resist. Last week, American writer Nicole Cliffe who has a well-deserved 136,000 followers asked: If you know anyone who suffered a sex injury during consensual sexual activity and had to go to the hospital, tell me right now. If it's you you can say so or just be like "my friend Mandy..." Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of anecdotes surfaced, best summarised by one tweet that asked, “How are humans still a thing?! I mean I am loving these stories...but, how have we survived as a species?”

Yesterday this prompt tweet appeared in all its perfection: name a time you proved someone wrong who doubted you. Be as petty as you like.

So many of the revenge stories among the 2,000 responses are genuinely so petty and so delicious that if Alexander Dumas was here to see it he would say "Count of Monte Who!" and decide to write a collection of interconnected short stories about rage and revenge in high school instead. We are all so angry still about that thing someone said to us when were 14.

These past few months Prompt Twitter has made an otherwise often-depressing website an enjoyable place in a way that it has never been enjoyable for me. But I never really thought too much about it. Then this week I saw someone on Twitter ask about sudden trends in school that got so popular that they were banned. Among many other things someone answered: slam books. And with that I came full circle. Of course this is like the early days of slam books. When first a slam book entered your classroom it’s so much fun and you spent so much time answering the questions. After a while though the sight of a slambook was enough to make us all duck and run (or say f**k and run, depending on whether or not you had cable TV). I thought slam books are totally last millennium but apparently not. A 2016 report in The Hindu quotes a young Ms B Subhiksha, 12th grader, on the subject of her recent slam book jadedness: “The questions in the slam books became boring and repetitive and so writing in a friend’s diary became more fun and totally different”.

Prompt Twitter also reminds me of ancient Kyoto. Why so pretentious, you may ask. But really, from all reports the Heian nobility spent 400 years in intrigue and boredom. And essential to both emotional states was a certain kind of highly stylised note-passing. In what is now Kyoto, note writing was an important social skill and so was the quality of one’s handwriting. This is a culture that reportedly ritualised even sneaking into your lover’s house at night, and everyone wrote poems as part of daily life. For purposes of romance, governance or gossip — just in some prescribed meter. It may well have been in 140 characters for all I know. As one expert notes, ‘everyone was a lover, everyone a poet, musician, calligrapher’. He stops short of saying everyone had a Soundcloud account.

The actual literary giants in this blast from the 1 percent past were all women. And this is how one of these giants, Murasaki Shikibu, author of the 11th century classic The Tale of Genji (considered the world’s first novel) handles a booty call. Hearing a knock late at night and suspecting it’s someone she is not into, Murasaki ignores the knocks. In the morning she receives a note saying —

How sad for him who stands the whole night long

Knocking on your cedar door

Tap-tap-tap like the cry of the kuina bird.

Murasaki follows the note-writing convention of the period, which is of using the image presented in the verse, and replied to the unwanted booty caller:

Sadder for her who had answered the kuina's tap,

For it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door.

Wonder if that bird was small and blue.

The Ladies Finger is India’s leading online feminist magazine

Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 16:56:34 IST