Shelly Runyon on twit wit and chick lit

Susan Orlean, Twitter, and the new-media pecking order

susanorlean BTW, my animal sitter at home reports that Laura has become a total raging maniac rooster madman, complete with rooster rage. Oy. – November 11, 2009

In a grassy upstate-New York yard fit for farming, Susan Orlean gives a camera crew for The New Yorker a tour of her utility shed. Half of the shed is occupied by seven chickens. Outside the shed is a fenced-in area, resembling a petting zoo. Chickens zoom past the cameras as Orlean squats down just inside the yard. Three birds rush over to snack on the tomato half in their dutiful owner’s hands.

Orlean points to a black-feathered bird with white specks and a scarlet crest. “This chicken was a sweet little chicken,” she says. “The guy I bought her from had named her Laura, after the character in The Glass Menagerie, and she’s turned out to be a rooster. A big shock to everybody.”

Almost every day, Orlean writes one-liners just like that about her chickens on Twitter. It started with her just tweeting her life, discussing her family and career. Then something clicked. Her fans fixated on the birds. They followed her chicken tweets, re-tweeted them to friends, and tweeted her back. It became a chicken-tweet movement, inquiries about chickens flying fast at Orlean. All the while her following proliferated, growing to six thousand by last June:

susanorlean Do I get a toaster or something when I hit 6000 followers? – June 19, 2009

susanorlean Whoa! Send toaster immediately! –June 21, 2009

Eight thousand in July:

susanorlean Hey, thank you all for pushing me into the toaster-and-a-blender category (8000 followers—but I know you just love me for my chickens). – July 10, 2009

And double that today (and growing).

With all of this notice, the natural next step for a staff writer at The New Yorker was to pitch a piece to her editor.

susanorlean Got a thumbs-up on my chicken story, so I’ll let you all know when it’s running. My editor’s comment? “Buk buk”. – September 8, 2009

On September 28, 2009, The New Yorker published the anticipated Orlean chicken tale, “The It Bird: The return of the back-yard chicken.” The story chronicles her impulse to purchase egg-laying hens and her discovery that she is a part of growing trend. The article is characteristically provocative, a survey on the suburban life of the egg-laying fowl intermixed with the dry wit of Orlean’s Twitter feed.

“Chickens seem to be the perfect convergence of the economic, environmental, gastronomic, and emotional matters of the moment,” Orlean writes. “I do detect a little overripening on the edges—I’ve noticed some late-stage phenomena such as chicken diapers, for people who want their chickens as house pets.”

Orlean argues that chickens will endure, and have endured, through all manner of fads, whether as farm animals, pets, as food producers in hard times, or as designer-bred show-chickens. Today, they are poster chicks for the organic and local-food movements. But it is Orlean’s sentiments as a pet-chicken owner that brought thousands to her feed. These readers engage with Orlean in a way impossible even five years ago. Orlean involves them in her creative process through tweets, which in turn motivates her audience to read her print stories.

The effect of the pre-publication Tweets is impossible to quantify, but there is a sixth-sense among those involved that the build up to the story increased popularity for “The It Bird.”  Jamie Leifer, a public relations representative for The New Yorker, explained that metrics on print stories aren’t tracked, but the Orlean video was the most streamed video the week “The It Bird” ran and number three the following week.

“I had an enormous reaction to this piece,” Orlean explained over email in January 2010, adding that she did six radio and two television interviews after the story went to print. “It was clearly talked about, passed around, noticed, commented upon, and I have no doubt that talking about it in advance on Twitter primed the pump. That may not be hard evidence but it’s certainly real in terms of the sensation of a writer experiencing an audience.”

Consider “The It Bird” as a case study in contemporary media, an example of literary and social media fostering a new engagement with narrative. Carefully cultivating her audience, Orlean pushes them to appreciate her prose. Her openness, her chickens, and her enigmatic twit-wit keeps Orlean’s feed at the top of her reader’s pecking order.

susanorlean One benefit of writing a story about chickens: Every time you write the word “chicken,” it’s amusing.  – August 17, 2009

—Shelly Runyon



{Shelly Runyon lives and writes in Boston Massachusetts. She is currently enrolled as a MLA Journalism degree candidate at Harvard University Extension School.}



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6 Responses to Shelly Runyon on twit wit and chick lit

  1. Jason Whitmen January 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

    I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Me January 8, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

  3. Constance Hale January 11, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Dear Me,

    (Connie writes at the risk of seeming hopelessly narcissistic.)

    Do you ask about this Web site, or the Twitter-print tango? In my mind, Twitter is clearly a boon to journalists and all those who are interested in information by people curated by others they trust. Emphasis on “curated.” I hope to be watching and commenting on those writers who can turn the 140 characters into great reads….

    And, next time can you use your real name? In any salon of value we’d get to know each other, no?

  4. WP Themes February 1, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    Genial brief and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you seeking your information.

  5. Constance Hale March 17, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    If you want to continue to watch Susan Orlean as she moves among Twitter, a blog, magazines, and books, check out her New Yorker Blog, “Free Range,” which just launched:


  1. Susan Orlean, Twitter, and the new-media pecking order « Shelly Runyon - March 24, 2011

    […] Originally published on SIN and SYNTAX on January 7, 2010 […]

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