home | Hum: A Twitter Story



My boss, Gabriela, told me that Twitter reaches all kinds of people — and not only people, she said.

She was balancing medications at the time, so I took her words with a grain of Paxil. Then I heard the same thing from a guy I didn’t like.

Matt and I started our Ph.D’s the same year. He went on to get tenure, so of course I hated him. But we kept meeting at conferences.

I was in the bar of the Marriott Courtyard St. Louis (“Neurolinguistics 2014: Hacking Diversity”) when I heard him talking about wasps.

I assumed he meant the ethnic group, but not at all. “It’s like how cell phones are killing off the bees,” he said. His hands were shaking.

Matt was talking to a woman we both knew. “There’s some kind of bleed,” he said. She seemed to be listening seriously.

“it’s not clear they understand,” Matt said, “but they respond. Their pheromone balance changes in response to tweets. There was a study.”

I had to intervene. “That’s nuts,” I said. “How could wasps know about Twitter?” “Amigo!” Matt said. “Long time.” “Hi,” said the woman.

Her name was Jessica. We’d dated, briefly, when she was a grad student. I was her research supervisor. It didn’t end well.

Matt said no one knew how the wasps could know. The authors of the study speculated that it had to do with the feelings tweets provoked.

“I think it’s a case of informational harmonic resonance,” Matt said. “The way that bridge was demolished by the wind.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Jessica did. “Tacoma Narrows,” she said. “I saw the film in science class.”

“The size of the tweet,” Matt said, “might activate something in the wasp brain. Like a hammer, striking the same spot over and over.”

“Impossible,” I said. “Electromagnetically, the Internet doesn’t represent tweets differently than anything else. It’s all packets.”

“I saw it happen,” Matt said. He told us he was tweeting at some Sapir-Whorf idiot when he heard a loud, strange hum coming from the window.

A nest of paper wasps was buzzing around angrily.

“And the crazy thing is,” he said, “as soon as I stopped tweeting, they went quiet.” His eyes, I saw, were red.

“So what,” I said. “Some wasps buzzed and then they didn’t. It’s not a controlled experiment.” “I did it again,” Matt said. “So did they.”

“Weird,” Jessica said. “It’s bullshit,” I said. “You really think it’s real?” Jessica said, “I reserve judgment,” and frowned.

I excused myself and went to my room.

But there *was* a study. Wasps in proximity to Twitter released attack pheromone, and no one knew why. O brave new world, I thought.

In the days that followed, I tried not to think about wasps. This turned out to be difficult. Their gray nests clung in corners everywhere.

Their narrow bodies darted through the air, viciously.

I was adjuncting at four colleges: one in Philly and three in South Jersey. It should have been easy to let things slip out of my mind,

but the wasps wouldn’t go, and neither would Jessica. I remembered our first date, at a roller rink. I thought it would be ironic.

In fact it was strangely revelatory. This is life, I thought: a lot of circling and stumbling, the semblance of grace, and behind it the hum

of wheels. It was the sound of entropy, I thought.

I said as much to Jessica and she shrugged. I guess she was reserving judgment.




A year after we met in St. Louis, Jessica published her famous paper, “Hello, Hivemind, Do You Read?” I read it on the train.

Wasps weren’t becoming like us, Jessica asserted. We were becoming like them. The wasps attacked because they mistook us for rivals.

The paper flew out of academia’s drab realm like a missile. Jessica was on the radio, she was on TV.

Meanwhile, I continued to shuttle between one decaying Northeastern city and another, teaching undergraduates who couldn’t have cared less

the wonders of Chomsky’s hypothesis, that universal grammar is encoded in our brains, and in a better world we would speak with everyone,

with everything. My students just wanted to pass. So I passed them. That was my function, I decided. I stopped giving tests.

For a while, no one noticed. Then I was fired from three of my four jobs. I held on to the Camden post only because my boss, Gabriela,

grew up on a commune in Humboldt County, and I reminded her of her father, an incorrigible hippie who had long ago succumbed to emphysema.

I didn’t miss all the commuting, but I couldn’t pay my rent. I got a job at a video store — one of the last in the United States, probably.

Nearly all the videos were in Spanish or Vietnamese. I got the sense that they were remakes of US shows that had been popular in the 90s.

Vampires were unmasked. Families stayed together. Clouds raced across the moon. I wanted to go back in time, to undo everything.

That was when I began my experiment.

I drove around with my laptop, tweeting “Merry Christmas” over and over with one hand, to see what would happen.

For a while, it seemed like an utterly futile project, even more than anything I’d done before, which is saying a lot. Then a surge of wasps

stung some t’ai-chi practitioners in Ulysses Wiggins Park. No one was badly hurt, but the event rattled the people who saw it.

The wasps looked like they knew what they were doing, people said. I was parked nearby, and I have to agree. They did look like that.

Days later, wasps attacked a pizza restaurant. “What have they got against pizza, I want to know,” the owner asked, rubbing his welted arms.

The Morgan Village Academy closed the following week. Wasp infestation.

By then I was tweeting random strings, because I had figured out that understanding was irrelevant. The fact of the message was enough.

The message said: Attack.

Strangely, I attracted a lot of followers.

Some of them had gibberish usernames, like @ewc9824qfnvrum2rjCW93nfqu. I wondered if they were bots, or possibly insects.

Jessica messaged me: “I know what you’re doing, you jerk.”

I messaged her back: “2h8fcmrvm4 5uvmok wvc38 8vnv2 v8c v8 v4 uccf2d ec. And by the way, Merry Christmas.”

I never heard from her again.

I thought my life would change more than it has. I still work at the video store. I apply for teaching jobs, in vain.

Surely tweeting gibberish at insects has not helped in that regard.

Sometimes when I go into a Hardee’s or a Popeye’s, I wonder what the person behind the register would do if he or she knew who I am,

and what I am capable of. I say nothing, of course, but I think the cashiers can see that I am extraordinary. They give me extra sauce

and forget to charge me for my soft drinks. That’s it, so far. That, and the increasing agitation of the wasps themselves.

They buzz when they hear my car going past. When I fire up my laptop, they swarm. Great days, I think, are coming.

I don’t know what will happen, exactly. Will there be war between the wasps and us? Or will we all join in some tremendous hum?

Attack, the message says. Attack whom?

I don’t know, and really, I don’t care. All I care about is winning.

© 2016 Paul Poissel


  • Hum was tweeted from the @picadorprof account on December 20 and 21, 2016.