professional reflections

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.


[…] 12/08 call, including discussion of how Twitter can help you prepare a bid and how it was used (and perhaps abused) during the marking process. Andy Powell has vented his frustration on some aspects of the process […]

Luckily, the dangerous radical people carry on regardless! ;-)

Yes, an organisation may chose to regard Twitter as formal disemination channel. That's for them to decide (I appreciate you may feel they're mistaken).

I am saying that technologies (email, Usenet, Web, usenet, Twitter, etc) may be used for both personal and work uses and policies, preferences, etc. need to recognise this. The dangerous, radical tools do get institutionalised eventually!

@Brian - I don't quite see how a tweet about the university being closed is a 'formal record'…. unless Bath University has already established a records management regime for tweets?

I think we are violently agreeing that not everything needs to be preserved ;-)

I wonder if you are conflating the personal/non-personal aspect with issues of officialdom and permanent record….

It's clear that there are several axes to this - probably orthoganal!

@Paul - I don't think anyone suggested that we "must preserve everything". Indeed the JISC PoWR (Preservation of Web Resources) project (provided by UKOLN and ULCC) argued the opposite, saying that you needed to understand the purpose of such archiving.

However there may be reasons why you feel that you should do this. In a post in "Preservation Of Your Tweets I gave some examples of insitutional use of Twitter in which a tweet could be regarded as a formal record - and the recent heavy snow in Bath gave an example of this, will the announcement that the University was closed being made in a tweet (amongst other channels).

Another example of how Twitter is being used in non-personal contexts can be seen in the article on "U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Marten gets it. He’s the judge who has allowed a reporter to Twitter court proceedings in a trial of six Crips gang defendants taking place in his Wichita, Kan., courtroom.

@Kevin - great comment. I hadn't thought to consider usenet in this context but it does seem apposite. Usenet spanned many levels of discourse but was a less restricted medium than Twitter clearly.

Hmmm… I didn't buy your déjà vu argument before, but now I'm not so sure ;-)

@Richard - some good points, & I don't have ready answers….

I don't know that tweet preservation is something Im concerned about…. must we preserve everything?

I agree that this is more about expectations and tacit trust than about a firm distinction between what is publishing and what isn't. Owen's analogy of the coffee break or bar discussion at a conference seems apt - these are not private spaces, and yet all of us are probably willing to say things there that we would not say in print, and which we would be unhappy to see reused by someone else in a more formal or more permanent medium.

I still feel that we (the community as a whole) has been here before in some sense. The launch of dejanews caused uproar from many quarters, because those who posted to Usenet also saw it as a transient medium. Although every site had different expiry times for news articles, there was an assumption that everyone threw away news eventually. It led to the creation of the X-No-Archive header, still honoured by google news. But that actually adds to, rather than subtracts from, the chaos, since archived conversations now often contain holes because some, but not all, participants don't want their contributions to be kept.

Twitter has a long way to go before it is as chaotic, subject to such random abuse of quoting, and as generally flawed as usenet. But usenet still has its uses.

Hi again Paul

I'm still inclined to think anything online and public is fair game in the right circumstances, be it blog, website or tweet. We recognise the potential benefits and concomitant risks, and still decide to do it.

You and Owen compare it with reporting back of pub conversation - well, alas, that does happen sometimes. Luckily, if it's a proper pub sesh, no one can remember a blind thing the next day: truly "ir-retrievable discourse"! In the case of Twitter, though, it's not someone else doing the recording, it's us ourselves - the danger is there (perhaps that's the thrill?), of being hoist, Nixon-like, by our own self-inflicted petard of sousveillance.

Aren't we (sub)consciously striving to keep a record anyway, or why would we Tweet? Sad, in some ways, that Twitter itself does expire. You won't find anything about #jif08 on Twitter search now; luckily on, you can still find a record, including, for example, your doubts (which I shared) about the premise behind that lively but unenlightening debate on disruptive technologies: . Looking elsewhere on that page brings it all back! I wonder now whether Rachel was asserting her own view that "librarians are not literate in digital technologies and different media", or merely reporting that assertion - and therefore, exactly what Owen was agreeing with…. :-)

It took me a while to fully appreciate Brian's concerns about Tweet preservation, but that seems to me a good example: a record of something(s) that happened in our field, and what some people said or did at the time.

It exists, we can't pretend it doesn't. Now, what should we do with it?

@Owen - while writing a tweet and pressing 'send' is, technically, clearly a form of publishing, I still don't know if it is useful to think of it as such in many cases. When I write a blog post I do so with 'publication' in mind… my intention with tweeting is very different I think.

Too many years ago I studied 'discourse theory' as part of my undergraduate degree - I think I many need to revisit this discipline for a framework to adequately describe these differences.

The expiry time idea is interesting…. but I think the Web would see this as a flaw and route around it. It could even provoke those who want to expose certain tweets more widely to post them ASAP/semi-automatically….

[…] also this post from Paul Walk: Anything you quote from Twitter is always out of context. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Link Love for Martin - “I Heart […]

I agree about the issues of expectation and trust - these are not simple. The comment about publication is interesting, as my instinct is that Twitter is definitely a form of publication - and that this is part of the problem. What we say to each other is clearly not published.

I'm pessimistic that in a large distributed community using the medium in different ways we will see the adoption of behaviour that is acceptable to all. One thought - what if Twitter supported an expiry time on a message? Tweets would automatically be deleted after x minutes - would this give us a more explicit form of 'grey' publication?

@Kevin - You're right of course - there is a sort of spectrum of 'casualness' perhaps ranging from the academic paper at one end to the 'tweet' at the other. It comes down to how people use these media of course.

Here's a thought: I would characterise blogging, primarily, as 'publishing'. Would we use the same term to describe tweeting?

@Owen - clearly, we need to listen to our inner censor when writing in a public space. Clearly, there are some things I might say that I would not Tweet. But I return to this notion of expectation and tacit trust - by exploiting this grey area our discourse can be richer - unless someone ruins it by broadcasting what is said, out of context. It's the possibility of the richer discourse which interests me.

Like PeteJ (I think) I do remain concerned about my use of Twitter in my professional life. I'm taking risks with this, but the potential benefit to me professionally is also significant I think.

ooooops there you go, didn't take the time to think what I was writing. Should read "difference".

Kevin - there is a different between "informal" and out of context and chaotic.

I feel a certain sense of deja-vu here, brought on in part by your description of a blog post as something you take time over, and re-read before posting. It seems not very long ago that we saw blogs as refreshing precisely because they could be used in ways that were more impulsive and less edited than other forms of online writing. Yet I'm sure you are right. So how long will it be before Twitter acquires the same sort of semi-formal status and we need to find somewhere else to be informal in ? (Not that I've actually started with Twitter yet, but that's by the by.)

I agree completely this is a tricky area. I was approached recently for permission to use one of my tweets and I responded "my tweets are public, so reuse as you want". I definitely approach twitter in this way - I very much try to avoid saying something I wouldn't want repeated. This leads to me self censor - there is stuff that I just don't say on twitter, and also some aspects of my self-expression - for example I have to admit I avoid swearing on Twitter because it is very closely aligned to my professional identity, and I tend not to swear in professional contexts (in fact I'm probably more careful about this on twitter than I am in real life). I integrate my Twitter feed on my blog, so I'm aware that each time I tweet I'm putting something in a relatively public space alongside my professional writing.

In another incident this week a tweet of mine was quoted without permission (to which I don't object I should be clear), with what I felt was an unfair interpretation of my tweet. The quote was not attributed (I guess to preserve my anonymity). I let the person know that I felt they had misinterpreted my comment, and commented on the blog post in which it was mentioned. (again I want to stress that I'm not particularly upset about this just adding some further examples of the issue).

I've also noticed that the more I use twitter the more relaxed I get in the environment - I have to remind myself more often that this is public - this is perhaps the reverse of what you might expect where a more experienced user would automatically be more careful?

I think that more than 'acceptable use' this is an issue of what we feel is culturally acceptable - what is polite. If I go for a drink with a work colleague, and express a slightly outrageous opinion after a few drinks I'd be a bit upset if they came in the next day with a recording of me to play to others!

I think the considerations listed by Brian are quite good ones - Paul suggests that Brian perhaps was wrong in one case in his assessment that the tweeter would be happy for the tweet to be shared by a wider audience. I don't know which is right, but of course we all make faux pas from time to time - we should expect this in the online world as well (of course, not all faux pas are easily forgiven or forgotten, so this is not a trivial issue).

I would say that if someone has protected their tweets then their privacy should be respected even if they have let you follow - to quote them without permission would be the height of bad manners.

Finally, I realise this says something about how I use twitter, but one of the things I really like about twitter is that I'm meeting people who share (some of) my professional interests and passions, but I'm also seeing different sides to them. Generally twitter seems a bit like the coffee break in a conference, and occasionally like the bar in the hotel at the end of the day - I like that, and hope we can find some way to sustain it.

"Beyond the need for absolute privacy for some communications it’s a grey area of overlapping contexts & tacit trust."

Yes, very nicely put.

And that is why (to me) it's about more than licencing, and why I'm a little sceptical of attempts to reduce such things to neat, bounded "best practices" and "acceptable use policies" (though I recognise there may be some elements which can be codified in ths way).

Richard's notion of a "literacy" is perhaps rather more appropriate, as it seems to me it embodies more of the "cultural" dimension, a sense of a developing, emerging set of shared capabilities & sensitivities.

@Richard - "if you don’t want something public, don’t put it in a public place." I think it's more subtle than that. If I want a communication to be private, then I won't be using a public Twitter channel, obviously. Beyond the need for absolute privacy for some communications it's a grey area of overlapping contexts & tacit trust. I think we need a more sophisticated sense of proprietary in these matters.

@PeteJ - miss you on Twitter fella!

I have a few… anxieties… about Twitter too. I think it's important enough a development on the web that I want to practice it in order to understand it. And I do get real benefits from it in terms of its social function, the odd pointer to something interesting, sympathy when I'm up all night with the baby. Not to mention, as you point out, the laughs!

@Lawrie - might be worth a session somewhere. I think your point, that it is about emerging good practice is crucial. I don't know if we're at the point where we can start to offer advice, but we can certainly debate this and point out where things seem to be going a little awry.

Hi Paul

IMO it's both caveat citer and caveat tweeter.

Tweeter: if you don't want something public, don't put it in a public place. If you want X and Y to see it but not Z, tweeting might not be the best approach (there's always the DM option, though you might get an open reply - a bit like those BCC embarassments we sometimes suffer!)

Citer: if you don't know the sometimes obscure context or invisible threads of something you are quoting from Twitter, you're likely to embarrass yourself in front of the Twitterati!

Both: brief remarks are particularly prone to misinterpretation (doubly so ones dripping with irony). "Consider that a large audience will see your posts…. Neither post nor respond to incendiary material." (RFC1855)

Marieke's recent post about bitching on twitter (which unfortunately we probably can't call twitching!) seems also apposite ( unless you can live with the consequences, don't do it.

As Lawrie suggests, this is definitely an important emerging strand of Information Literacy…


Thanks very much for this. You articulate one of the concerns - not the only one, but one of them - which led me to delete my Twitter account last week.

Of course I'm well aware that the "technical" reality is that my Twitter posts do (err, did!) exist as identified, "atomic", "disconnected", decontextualised resources, and as such they are there for people to cite and use as they will. So I accept it's my responsibility to take that into account and "deal with it", but I do agree with you that there is also a "social" dimension of "expectation", which is perhaps more implicit than explicit, and probably even varies from person to person.

I'll probably rejoin Twitter, because I do miss the very valuable "support group" function it provided to me - not to mention the laughs :-) - and at the end of the day, I like Twitter: it's been my principal "social networking" tool for the last couple of years and I like the sort of communication it enables - even if I don't necessarily like all of that which actually takes place! :-)

But I want to take a step back and get some of these issues clear in my own mind before I do.

A platform like Plurk mitigates the decontextualisation effect considerably with its support for threading. I'm not advocating a migration to Plurk, btw, as it lacks many other things (like an API!), just noting the difference.

Contexts are different for everyone. If I read an exchange in Twitter, my understanding will depend on what I know about the topic, about the people participating, also what I am able to see, and what I am missing. Other people might read the same exchange and have a different view. If I quote anything from Twitter I would try to use it in a context I understand and which conveys my view. Unless of course I use my blog to write nonsense and/or do not take the time to think about what I write.

Paul, this is great discussion item, I wonder if there is a way of developing it as a session for a future JISC event (not dissimilar to goldfish bowls).

One of the things that I think should be emphasised is, as you point out, the context of tweets. Using tweet deck on my laptop, or twitterfon when mobile, I often only look at the top few. Sometimes these are quite provocative until you realise they are part of a conversation that you haven't followed completely and someone is being ironic - always dangerous in 140 characters.

Is there an emerging 'best' practice here? Is it something we need to address in HEIs?

Hi Paul - This is a really interesting area and one in which acceptable practices have not yet been established. Which is a reason why I'm pleased you have raised it.

The post on "Twitter Can Pimp Up Your Stuff - But Should It?" was about twitter posts and the initial two tweets I cited where an integral part of the discussion. The tweet from Mia I cited was based on discussions I've had with Mia in (public and in private) about the marketing versus social aspects of Twitter.

In my post on "What are the #jiscbid evaluators thinking?" I selected the tweets from people I know and which gave a coherent point of view which I felt they would be happy to be shared more widely. One tweet I did not quote (from Owen Stephens) was written in a semi-humorous style which may not have been meant to be taken seriously (Owen subsequently responded to my post and chose to repeat his position - so that it would not be overlooked.

I also included a screen image of the tweets which had been tagged with the #jiscbids tags. I was making the (perhaps unjustified) assumption that in tagging tweets in this way the poster wanted the comments to be aggregated and reused.

Interestingly the application of Creative Commons licences to tweets has been identified and the TweetCC service allows yo to assign Creative Commons rights to your tweets.

So I'd completely agree with your comment that "As a matter of courtesy I would ask believe people should consider carefully before quoting tweets in their blog". And for me the considerations include:

o Am I seeking to belittle or embarrass the Twitterer? o Am I attempting to take a remark out of context? o Do I feel that the Twitterer would like the views to be more widely shared?

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