20 April 2009

Earlier today, I posted this to Twitter:

“How the sun storm might look in London” O RLY? #dailyfail

And I’ve just reread and realised that as little as two years ago I would have gone “what the fuck are you talking about?”. This is the sentiment I had hoped to capture had it been a blog post (as if I write such things these days) with the full power of the English language at my grasp:

I have just spotted this story about solar storms – the pic is captioned “How the sun storm might look in London” Really? I don’t think so. The Daily Mail’s shoddy graphics department lives on.

Within the Tweet I had managed to place a shortened and incomprehensible URL, a lolcattish meme and the practice of using hashtags (with added snark) – all it needed was an @ to another user and I would have captured pretty much all the aspects of Twitter’s lingua franca – a creole of sorts where words, phrases and URLs are compressed to fit the devilry of the 140 character form.

From a sociology of technology background, you could argue it either as ingenious user-driven innovation to work round arbitrary limits on space, or a case of technological determinism compelling how we communicate. But I’m not concerned about that. The bigger problem I’m grappling with is: Is this is a good or a bad thing?

5 Responses


Depends. It’s not a bad thing in that you and your fellow Twitterers share a common grammar and language which helps promote community and belonging.

It is a bad thing though in that it makes your post inpenetrable to a wider public, therefore limiting your ability to influence, which I would imagine was one (of several) of the functions of posting your Tweet.

A new interface, a new language, a different way to form thoughts and therefore have thoughts formed – this equals more diversity and possibly leading to new innovations. Weather that is good or bad is like saying is an emotion good or bad – they are amoral it is how you choose to react/use them that holds the good or bad and as with any new system things are likely to act in a chaotic/stoccastic way leading to behaviour we can not yet predict. (At least not fully)

It is also yet another system, more information needing to be processes/learned and therefore risks ostrasization of those who can not pick it up. Then the question becomes one of accessiblity and how far should we ‘dumb things down’. What I was thinking was of interest is that with the hash tags and the like it becomes easy to trace the path of memes to see how they evolve and their migration. From a sociology point of view I think that would be quiet an interesting project though it could turn into a nasty can of worms.

I think the brevity, the memeyness and the Twitter-specificty of the tweet are actually seperate issues. The O RLY and fail gags are memes that have become such common currency as to require little explanation; the hashtag and the shortened URL are Twitter phenomena that are well understood by that community. In both cases, the fact that you’re not writing for a general audience makes them perfectly acceptable – you’re writing for people who have chosen to follow you on Twitter, and so you can reasonably assume that they’re fairly familiar with the conventions and the idioms of that sphere (furthermore, they trust you well enough to be sure that the shortened URL doesn’t go somewhere goatsesque, and likely know your general opinion of the Mail.)

In terms of the brevity, you could easily express the same thought without the memes and Twitterishness in roughly the same number of characters. “Daily Mail: ‘How the sun storm might look in London‘. Um, really?” would convey the same thing in a form readily understandable by anybody with conversational English, regardless of how familiar they are with internet conventions.

You say that you could make “a case of technological determinism compelling how we communicate”. I would actually make that case: not only the shortened URL, but also the @reply convention, and the hashtag, come out of Twitter’s lack of metadata. (OK, so there is now an in_reply_to parameter, but you’re reliant on the client doing the right thing, and a year or two of inertia lead people to just using @name at the start of a post*.)

On the other hand, given the aforementioned failure of in_reply_to to work properly, I think I’ve given up hope that Twitter will fix any of it, by using rev-canonical, allowing HTML (they could for links- just strip the URL from SMSes, perhaps), or giving a better mechanism for common interests / groups. (Hell, has !group syntax too, just to confuse things.) People even use hashtags in private updates, despite the fact that the search engine won’t find them.

* I’m refusing, curmudgeonly, to call messages to Twitter “tweets” any more; “post” or “update” are perfectly fine words