Tween Hobo is out there riding the rails, but she was born and raised on Twitter.
This pint-sized vagabond was created on Twitter by playwright and The Newsroom staff writer Alena Smith in late 2011. Tween Hobo is like your typical twelve year old, except she’s skipping out on Social Studies to hop from train to train with her BFFLs Stumptown Jim and Tin Cap Earl. She loves Justin Bieber and bedazzling her bindle and Twilight and moonshine and glitter. She is not to be confused with other railroad lovin’ youngins, the Boxcar Children. She says things like “Nobody ever had too many coonskin caps” and “This world ain’t nothin’ but bums, thieves, and frenemies.”
In a very in-character move, Tween Hobo is embarking on her next adventure: she’s jumping out from the internet and into a new book, Tween Hobo: Off The Rails. I talked to Smith about bringing this forever young vagrant into a novel and why people who don’t use Twitter are always hating on Twitter. (Spoiler alert: it’s because people are the worst.)
Was Tween Hobo your first foray into Twitter, or had you already been active on the site?This is kind of how I got involved with Twitter. I joined Twitter and, very shortly after that, I just kind of noticed that there were a lot of joke accounts and I wanted to start one. I had this blog with my friend Emma Rathbone, a novelist, where we just wrote funny things to entertain each other, and I’d written something about a tween hobo. I looked at that blog for ideas about fake twitter accounts, and I thought Tween Hobo would be a good one. And then I did a Google image search for “tween hobo” and found the picture which goes to the account. I later ended up getting the rights to it, and it was an Oklahoma City woman’s photo of her daughter in a Halloween costume. The picture was definitely crucial to the success of the account. I did it completely as a joke, and I had no idea how it was going to take off at all.
How long did it take you to find Tween Hobo’s voice? In the beginning, Tween Hobo was really more or less like a straight-up mash-up. It was just like, every tweet would combine one sort of hobo thing and one tween thing. I think the first ever tweet was like, “sure as my bowl of mulligan stew I’ll meet those Jonas brothers one fine day.” And over time, the voice got more and more complicated in ways that are sort of hard to explain, but I guess are mostly motivated by my own obsessions and my own musings and ramblings about culture. And it was really surprising to me how much fell under Tween Hobo’s purview. There was so much that it was possible for her to comment on without breaking character. So it would be everything from Twilight movies to economic stories, or the Oscars, or the Super Bowl, which are events that people tend to gather around Twitter and participate in. I found it strangely easy to be speaking in that voice.
So is she a modern tween, or is she a tween living in this yesteryear? When does she live? Where does she pull her references from?That’s a great question. I think that she is a modern tween who is obsessed with times gone by, and for her, that would include Jack Kerouac times and it would also include the ’90s, which is when I was a tween. Which also, that word “tween” didn’t even exist in the ’90s. Tween Hobo has these friends that she hangs out with that she calls the old hobos and they’re all in their late twenties and early thirties, and they’ll tell her about things like Nirvana and she gets really interested and looks it up on YouTube, but it might as well be the Beatles. She’s very curious about everything that’s sort of pre-internet.
Does Tween Hobo like being called a “tween”? Do real tweens? It seems to me like one of those words people only use in mockery or judgment, like “hipster” or “millennial.” But I’m not a tween so I don’t want to project.I think there’s definitely something derogatory about the word “tween,” like “millennial” and “hipster,” like you said. It’s a patronizing word. It’s a marketing contrivance. I don’t know if [real tweens] would identify as tweens or not. But I think there was this faux-empowerment to the word when they were invented, like, they’re not kids, they’re tweens. Tween Hobo is perpetually 12. In the book she goes from being 11 to being 12. So she’s not yet a teen.
Talk me through the process of turning Tween Hobo from a Twitter feed into a book. Because oftentimes these internet hits work online because of the format, and when you remove them from the format, they don’t really translate. Were you concerned about that?It was very clear to me, when I sold the book, because the publishers made it clear, that it was not going to just be a compilation of the tweets. They weren’t just going to publish a collection of old material… So I guess part of what made me feel confident that I could do that was my illustrator, Kate Harmer, who is absolutely brilliant and without her contributions, I don’t think the book would be successful. So I knew there had to be a visual element, and I further complicated that with the Instagrams, and dividing the book up into a million sections. For such a sort of seemingly scatterbrained structure, it was very challenging to put it together. It wasn’t like a normal book that you could hit a button and it would all fill in whatever. It was very meticulously designed and thought out.
And the next sort of leap that I made was to think about it in terms of a diary, and the diary format made sense on both levels. First of all, it’s the tweeniest of forms, and it also has been a classic form of literature of the road. I read On the Road, I read a bunch of hobo literature, but certainly the most helpful and influential was The Road by Jack London… His book is told in past tense, so it’s more of a memoir looking back at his experiences. On the Road, too, is a memoir. So that was one of the more challenging things: the idea of someone going on the road and keeping a diary makes sense and is instinctive, but these books are told in the past tense and someone is looking back. But because Tween Hobo was originally on twitter, and she has to be experiencing herself in the present as it happens because otherwise she wouldn’t be a tween anymore. So that became one of the biggest sort of writing challenges of the book: how to keep the action moving forward while keeping it totally present tense, in a way. The most perspective she could ever be retelling one of her adventures from was that night, or the next day. So it wasn’t as if “now that I’ve had all this traveling, I’m going to sit back and cross my legs and tell you what happened to me.” It was like a tween girl carrying her notebook on the road. So, difficult! But I at the end of the day, I love books, and I particularly love children’s books, and that was a huge inspiration for writing this and part of why I thought that I could do it: I could do it because I wanted to do it.
A lot of the classic road narratives, including the two you just mentioned, are male-centric. It always seems to be boys and men who go on these adventures. What made you decide to have Tween Hobo be a girl? Was it just a default setting, because you’re female, or was it a conscious decision to make her different from the guys who usually tell these stories?I never for one second thought of Tween Hobo being a boy. I don’t even know if they call boys tweens… A lot of people have said [that] it’s kind of crazy, because it’s so dangerous for her to be out on the road. It’s really a little scary to think about this girl being out there by herself, surrounded by men, but she never seems scared. Tween Hobo never seems scared. And I never thought about that, at least not consciously. But hearing people talk about it, it’s become one of my favorite things about Tween Hobo. That’s sort of what makes her a hero: she’s not scared. She’s a real little trailblazer. Except the whole thing is like, don’t try this at home because it’s not actually safe. But if she can evoke a world where a girl could do that and be safe, there’s a powerful message in that, even if it’s just saying, well, why isn’t that our world?
What are the guidelines of Tween Hobo’s day-to-day life? How much is hobo stuff, and how much is typical tween things like school dances and homework?She never has to go to school. She never does homework. She lives on the rails. And her day-to-day life is, we only find out about it when she happens to come into a WiFi zone or wherever she can tweet. The Twitter character never had a backstory or a goal, or any plot. Twitter was utterly plot-free. And so one of the things I had to do for the book was come up with all of that, and part of what made me able to do that, for a while I had been talking with B.J. Novak, who I’d met on Twitter, about developing Tween Hobo for television, and we went through a process for six months. We were fleshing out a grounded, emotional backstory for this character that would service a television show. The TV show hasn’t happened but I ended up selling the book, and I was able to go back to what we had done, which was really helpful. Because that really wasn’t my instinct on Twitter; it was just a joke, it was just a “let’s play with words, let’s play with Twitter,” and do strange little kind of performance art, I suppose, using this new medium of Twitter. But it wasn’t about telling a story about a girl; it was about commenting on the action of the scene. So now that Tween Hobo is in a book, she really has a bigger life. The book has an arc, and she has a heart, and she has something she wants, and those kinds of classic storytelling elements.
When did you realize that Tween Hobo had the potential to be more than just a Twitter feed, that there could be a real story to her?I suppose the moment when B.J. reached out to me, at which point the Twitter account had only existed for a month… And six months after that, a poetry professor at Harvard wrote about Tween Hobo in The Believer, and said that it was the first successful literary use of Twitter. That was the best compliment I could have possibly gotten. I think there have always been people appreciating Tween Hobo on different levels. There’s certainly a way in which it’s a piece of cheap junk food. But there’s also a way in which it’s a serious literary experiment, and it’s very meaningful to me when people can feel moved by that. (editor’s note: in that same Believer story, the writer, Stephen Burt, also says Tween Hobo “passes what we might call (after G.E. Lessing) the Laocoön test: it could only be a Twitter feed, not a book, not a video, not a stage show.” Wonder if he’s changed his mind since then.)
Can you talk a little more about your early embrace of Twitter as a place where interesting, creative writing could take place? There’s definitely a mindset among a certain literary crowd that Twitter is worthless, a timesuck, where our attention spans go to die, etc. I wrote this piece, “Literary Parkour,” for Grantland [about this]… I have certainly found that among people who do not participate in Twitter, that there tends to be a dismissive attitude towards it. And I believe that that is because there is a misunderstanding of what Twitter is for. I think that people always say the thing that, “I don’t want to read the thing that people had for breakfast.” But no one ever tweets what they had for breakfast because no one would follow them. There’s an element of meritocracy that is not there to Facebook. I found that Facebook was the place where you suffocated and drowned in what people ate for breakfast, and sonogram photos and self-promotion to boot. I actually quit Facebook when Tween Hobo took off… it was a kind of aesthetic revolt against Facebook.
Sure, Twitter can be used for self-promotion. But Twitter can be used for breaking news, and Twitter can be used for pretty cutting-edge cultural dialogue, and discourse, and I think that with Tween Hobo, what I had gotten interested in and been part of is that Twitter can be a space for public art… No one is getting paid for their tweets — at least, I wasn’t. So it’s like, for anyone who’s been following Tween Hobo for three years, we’ve been having a creative experience together that’s not about status, and it’s not about money. It’s really free speech, you know? It still boggles my mind that you can go on Twitter and write anything you want… You can listen to everyone. You can see so much. You can get such an incredible take on the way that people are thinking and feeling and communicating with each other, and I think a lot of it is really positive. I think that Twitter has been a very fertile creative space.
So it’s funny, the dismissiveness, I think it has a little bit to do with the word “Twitter.” It sounds silly… Like all social media, it has a bent toward self-promotion. I believe you can be subversive on Twitter in a way that’s difficult to do on Facebook. And social media, increasingly, is just where we live. And you can turn your nose up at it all you want but I’m more interested in people who are asking the question of, “if this is going to be where we live, what’s it going to be like?”
Who else is using Twitter in a creative way that you love or admire?So I loved Real Carrot Facts. And similar to Real Carrot Facts is Coffee Dad; those are similar experiments. In a super abstract realm, there’s people who use twitter as glitch art. So they’re putting out keyboard strokes and dashes and slashes that make visual aberrations in your Twitter feed. I really enjoy that. I love when Twitter is used for quoting classic authors, like all the Emily Dickinson feeds. Or the philosophy mashups, like Kim Kierkegaardashian. It’s sort of the ultimate Dada space… There’s the example of Patricia Lockwood who has used Twitter to really challenge the literary establishment, and I’m very fascinated by her as a person and a Twitter presence and a poet, and how all of those things overlap.
What do you think is the next frontier, after Twitter? What’s next for creativity on the internet?I am very interested in the internet itself as an art form. But one of the things that’s unique and strange about the internet as a form is that it can imitate all other forms: we have books and movies and TV and art on the internet. But when you’re watching Orange is the New Black, you’re not actually watching TV. You’re watching something on the internet that’s imitating something we call television. So I think more and more, there’s going to be artists making art for the internet, rather than just trying to adapt the internet to these old purposes. And I’m very eager to see where that goes over the next decade.
Tweens are the group to be asking this question, because they are the people who have never lived without the internet. On the one hand, they’re not clutching their pearls the way we all are, but on the other hand, they might have better instincts than we have, in the end, about what it means to spend your life online. Maybe there’s more alteregos and hiding and playing with identity because we just have a human need to be able to shed identities as we age. It is really cruel to force someone to have the same identity for their whole life. And that’s what happens when you have one Facebook profile from birth to death. I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go down; I think Facebook will not be the relevant social hub for our children’s lives.
Is there anything about Tween Hobo’s evolution that’s surprising to you?I think Tween Hobo is cooler than me. So that’s surprising! She’s always had a lot more followers than me. And only the fact that she’s been so unguarded and yet people have continued to like her.