Ex-Ivy League professor is a Twitter star

Former Ivy League professor of German Eric Jarosinski, 43, seemed an unlikely Twitter phenomenon. When he wasn't teaching his students in the United States about 20th-century writers and philosophers, he was trying to write a book on transparency as
Former Ivy League professor of German Eric Jarosinski, 43, seemed an unlikely Twitter phenomenon. When he wasn't teaching his students in the United States about 20th-century writers and philosophers, he was trying to write a book on transparency as a political metaphor in post-Berlin Wall Germany. -- PHOTO: AFP

 BERLIN (AFP) - Former Ivy League professor Eric Jarosinski, 43, seemed an unlikely Twitter phenomenon. When he wasn't teaching his students in the United States about 20th-century writers and philosophers, he was trying to write a book on transparency as a political metaphor in post-Berlin Wall Germany.

He readily admits he was averse to the Internet - it meant having to deal with an avalanche of work emails and he was "never the type" to sit at home reading blogs, he said.

Then two-and-a-half years ago a friend introduced him to Twitter whose point, he said, he didn't understand at first. But through following several comedians and writers, he came to see the potential of the microblogging site.

It sparked what he calls his "little experiment", probing life's complexities in his Twitter feed @NeinQuarterly in a style that is ironic, melancholic, funny or intriguing in up to 140 characters.

"Youth. Wasted on the wrong demographic," reads one. "A gentle reminder that today was just a symptom. We're the problem," reads another.

Written in German and/or English from his smartphone, Jarosinski has struck a chord among users of a form of social media often derided for being over-indulgent in tracking the minutiae of everyday life.

His Twitter feed, which he dubs "A Compendium of Utopian Negation", has more than 90,000 followers in an estimated 100 countries and a weekly column in the prestigious German Die Zeit newspaper.

Much of the effect comes from his avatar - a formidable cartoon image of German philosopher and social critic Theodor W. Adorno wearing a monocle with a stern "Nein" (No) written below his face.

"What I'm interested in is taking the authority that's there in that face, in the words and undercutting it at the same time, but trying to undercut it in a kind of playful and thought-provoking way," Jarosinski told AFP.

"That's always the challenge, that these short things have to do all of that at once. But that's also what I love about it," he said in an interview on the sidelines of this month's Frankfurt Book Fair, where he was promoting a planned book.

Open, witty and with a wide ready smile, he calls what he does "writing jokes" whose form and delivery have evolved over time and are inspired by the aphorisms of writer Karl Kraus, an early 20th-century Austrian writer and satirist, and others.

Often his pithy philosophical musings play on language, mixing German and English, with puns, inversion, negation or contradiction, and tend to be pegged to current events or daily life.

Jarosinski, who comes from Wisconsin and lives in New York, said he is not seeking to popularise the thinkers and works that have long fascinated him. "What I'm trying to do is simply say, that to honour the spirit of this work also means to be critical of this work and that you can play with this stuff," he said. "That it doesn't have to be fetishised."

He's a critical reviewer of his own tweets and typically later deletes about a third but enjoys the instant reaction they can prompt, likening it to "a comedian who tries new material".

"Sometimes someone comes back with a better punchline... that's thrilling," he said.

In July, he left the University of Pennsylvania where he was assistant professor of German, and is now working on a new book "Nein. A Manifesto", due to be published in various countries from 2015.

After his previous leap from scholarly writing to Twitter, his switch back to print will feature four-liners whose style emanates from the "spirit" of his tweets but is not a "book of tweets", he said.