Anything you quote from Twitter is always out of context

Brian Kelly posted Twitter Can Pimp Up Your Stuff - But Should It? a while ago. This post has caused me to think about courtesy and good practice. The aspect I want to talk about is Brian’s reporting of a conversation which took place on Twitter. I’m writing this to make a general point, not as a personal criticism of Brian who has well-established credentials as an experimenter with these technologies and who I know, from talking to him directly, is interested in these issues.

The point is this: I tend to think that the quoting of Twitter exchanges in blog posts is something to be done sparingly, if at all, and has all kinds of potential for misunderstanding. I think there is some evidence of this occurring in Brian’s post.

Twitter has a very basic model for threaded discussions and this is not honoured by many clients (many users I follow clearly use more than one client, as do I). Importantly, as a user, you do not necessarily know who else is involved in the exchange - other users may be responding to remarks made by still more users about whom you are unaware.

When a Twitter dialogue is presented out of the context of Twitter, this is potentially misleading. The conversation which the person posting the dialogue reports is not the same as the dialogue whcih each individual contributer has participated in. And, importantly, they may be responding to a point which has been made but which the blogger, and the readers, never see. We are reporting our version of a conversation conducted in a crowded pub, involving people we half know and people we don’t know at all.

In the comments, Paul Boag says:

I think the problem is that because twitter is new, we all see it as playing a different role. You could argue twitter is a place for sharing personal experience. You could argue it is the place where you post ‘what you are doing’ (the original intention). Or you could argue it is a place to have a dialogue with your followers. All are valid as are many other uses. Ultimately it comes down to personal choice.

Quite so. Paul goes on to say:

People should use twitter as they want and others should stop criticising them for it. If they don’t like it they should stop following.

This is in the context of a response to a tweet by someone else, reported in the main body of his post. I don’t imagine the person who made this short comment to their network on Twitter did so in the expectation that their words might be used in this way. Now that people in my particular peer-network realise that anything they say in that wonderful, peculiar space that is Twitter might be lifted and repeated, very likely out of context, on a blog, I wonder if this will gradually stifle the free-flowing, relaxed conversations which spring up there. It is almost inevitable that people would be misrepresented in this way. Going back to that pub, would we, for example, speak as freely if someone was standing there with an audio recorder, waiting for something juicy to copy and paste into their podcast? Going back to Paul’s comment, I think he misunderstood the reported remark - but the lifting out of context has probably been partly responsible for this, and has left no obvious channel for a response.

‘Exchanges’ of Tweets can start and finish in a matter of minutes. I tend to take time over a blog post, marshalling arguments, checking references, re-reading for tone to avoid offending people unnecessarily etc. I take much less care with tweets, because I expect them to be taken much less seriously. Now I do understand that tweets are, for the most part, on public record, on the Web. I think this is mostly beside the point. It’s how we use the thing which counts, and how we expect it to be used. I think a Twitter which consisted only of quotable statements of verifiable fact or carefully thought through arguments would become, in Brian’s own words:

a sterile environment [which] could well lead to a killing of the golden goose

People may not expect their Tweets to be taken as seriously as something they might write in a blog. I certainly don’t. Of course, we know that most of our Twitter output is public - that’s part of the point of it. Many conversations happen in near-real-time: this gives Twitter a dynamic ‘edge’, where people can respond to topics with an off-the-cuff response. Of course not every Twitter exchange is like this - the point is the expectations about how seriously one’s Tweets will be taken is difficult to anticipate but should, I suggest, default to ‘not necessarily’. Clearly, we have different levels of discourse. We probably wouldn’t want to quote ‘tweets’ in academic papers…. would we? And yet I wouldn’t hesitate to quote a blog post in a paper.

There are some who do use Twitter as a micro-blogging platform. For example, Paul Boag is a highly successful broadcaster, with many followers in several media-spaces (Twitter, blog, podcast). Gaining and expanding an audience is important to him, as it is for many people. (Paul has even written a guide to broadcasting and responding to followers in Twitter). However, I suggest, tentatively, that a predilection for gaining followers obscures the fact that others don’t really think this way, and value Twitter for very different reasons. Where one person welcomes any exposure on any platform, another might be disconcerted by suddenly finding their throw-away 140 characters appearing on someone’s blog.

I note today that Brian has used a set of Twitter exchanges on another post. I would suggest that at least one of the tweets featured there was not something the author would necessarily have wanted to be broadcast more widely.

As a matter of courtesy I would ask believe people should consider carefully before quoting tweets in their blog. I hope it doesn’t become common practice for bloggers to treat Twitter as a cheap and easy source of (sometimes provocative) material.

Again, I want to make it clear that this should not be viewed as a personal criticism of Brian, or his blog. It is only by doing these things that such issues can be revealed and discussed. However, we have to be able to realise what doesn’t work, and to recognise the possible consequences of the practices we necessarily are evolving through trial and error.



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