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Is Twitter writing, or is it speech? Why we need a new paradigm for our social media platforms

New tools are at their most powerful, Clay Shirky says, once they’re ubiquitous enough to become invisible. Twitter may be increasingly pervasive — a Pew study released yesterday shows that 13 percent of online adults use the service, which is up from 8 percent six months ago — but it’s pretty much the opposite of invisible. We talk to each other on Twitter, yes, but almost as much, it seems, we talk to each other about it.

Often, we yell. The big debates about Twitter’s overall efficacy as a medium — like the one launched by, say, Bill Keller, whose resignation from The New York Times’ editorship some Twitterers have attributed (jokingly? I think?) to his Twitter-take-on columns — tend to conclude without much consensus. A recent (and comparatively calm) debate between Mathew Ingram and Jeff Jarvis ended like so: “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”

But why all the third-railiness? Twitter, like many other subjects of political pique, tends to be framed in extremes: On the one hand, there’s Twitter, the cheeky, geeky little platform — the perky Twitter bird! the collective of “tweets”! all the twee new words that have emerged with the advent of the tw-efix! — and on the other, there’s Twitter, the disruptor: the real-time reporting tool. The pseudo-enabler of democratic revolution. The existential threat to the narrative primacy of the news article. Twetcetera.

The dissonance here could be chalked up to the fact that Twitter is simply a medium like any other medium, and, in that, will make of itself (conversation-enabler, LOLCat passer-onner, rebellion-facilitator) whatever we, its users, make of it. But that doesn’t fully account for Twitter’s capacity to inspire so much angst (“Is Twitter making us ____?”), or, for that matter, to inspire so much joy. The McLuhany mindset toward Twitter — the assumption of a medium that is not only the message to, but the molder of, its users — seems to be rooted in a notion of what Twitter should be as much as what it is.

Which begs the question: What is Twitter, actually? (No, seriously!) And what type of communication is it, finally? If we’re wondering why heated debates about Twitter’s effect on information/politics/us tend to be at once so ubiquitous and so generally unsatisfying…the answer may be that, collectively, we have yet to come to consensus on a much more basic question: Is Twitter writing, or is it speech?

Twitter versus “Twitter”

The broader answer, sure, is that it shouldn’t matter. Twitter is…Twitter. It is what it is, and that should be enough. As a culture, though, we tend to insist on categorizing our communication, drawing thick lines between words that are spoken and words that are written. So libel is, legally, a different offense than slander; the written word, we assume, carries the heft of both deliberation and proliferation and therefore a moral weight that the spoken word does not. Text, we figure, is: conclusive, in that its words are the deliberate products of discourse; inclusive, in that it is available equally to anyone who happens to read it; exclusive, in that it filters those words selectively; archival, in that it preserves information for posterity; and static, in that, once published, its words are final.

And speech, while we’re at it, is discursive and ephemeral and, importantly, continual. A conversation will end, yes, but it is not the ending that defines it.

Those characteristics give way to categories. Writing is X; speaking is Y; and both have different normative dimensions that are based on, ultimately, the dynamics of power versus peer — the talking to versus the talking with. So when we talk about Twitter, we tend to base our assessments on its performance as a tool of either orality or textuality. Bill Keller seems to see Twitter as text that happens also to be conversation, and, in that, finds the form understandably lacking. His detractors, on the other hand, seem to see Twitter as conversation that happens also to be text, and, in that, find it understandably awesome.

Which would all be fine — nuanced, even! — were it not for the fact that Twitter-as-text and Twitter-as-conversation tend to be indicated by the same word: “Twitter.” In the manner of “blogger” and “journalist” and even “journalism” itself, “Twitter” has become emblematic of a certain psychology — or, more specifically, of several different psychologies packed awkwardly into a single signifier. And to the extent that it’s become a loaded word, “Twitter” has also become a problematic one: #Twittermakesyoustupid is unfair, but #”Twitter”makesyoustupid has a point. The framework of text and speech falls apart once we recognize that Twitter is both and neither at once. It’s its own thing, a new category.

Our language, however, doesn’t yet recognize that. Our rhetoric hasn’t yet caught up to our reality — for Twitter and, by extension, for other social media.

And whether we deem Twitter a text-based mechanism of orality, as the scholar Zeynep Tufekci has suggested, or of a “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong has argued, or of something else entirely (tweech? twext? something even more grating, if that’s possible?), it almost doesn’t matter. The point is to acknowledge, online, a new environment — indeed, a new culture — in which writing and speech, textuality and orality, collapse into each other. Speaking is no longer fully ephemeral. And text is no longer simply a repository of thought, composed by an author and bestowed upon the world in an ecstasy of self-containment. On the web, writing is newly dynamic. It talks. It twists. It has people on the other end of it. You read it, sure, but it reads you back.

“The Internet looking back at you”

In his social media-themed session at last year’s ONA conference, former Lab writer and current Wall Street Journal outreach editor Zach Seward talked about being, essentially, the voice of the outlet’s news feed on Twitter. When readers tweeted responses to news stories, @WSJ might respond in kind — possibly surprising them and probably delighting them and maybe, just for a second, sort of freaking them out.

The Journal’s readers were confronted, in other words, with text’s increasingly implicit mutuality. And their “whoa, it’s human!” experience — the Soylent Greenification of online news consumption — can bring, along with its obvious benefits, the same kind of momentary unease that accompanies the de-commodification of, basically, anything: the man behind the curtain, the ghost in the machine, etc. Concerns expressed about Twitter, from that perspective, may well be stand-ins for concerns about privacy and clickstream tracking and algorithmic recommendation and all the other bugs and features of the newly reciprocal reading experience. As the filmmaker Tze Chun noted to The New York Times this weekend, discussing the increasingly personalized workings of the web: “You are used to looking at the Internet voyeuristically. It’s weird to have the Internet looking back at you….”

So a Panoptic reading experience is also, it’s worth remembering, a revolutionary reading experience. Online, words themselves, once silent and still, are suddenly springing to life. And that can be, in every sense, a shock to the system. (Awesome! And also: Aaaah!) Text, after all, as an artifact and a construct, has generally been a noun rather than a verb, defined by its solidity, by its thingness — and, in that, by its passive willingness to be the object of interpretation by active human minds. Entire schools of literary criticism have been devoted to that assumption.

And in written words’ temporal capacity as both repositories and relics, in their power to colonize our collective past in the service of our collective future, they have suggested, ultimately, order. “The printed page,” Neil Postman had it, “revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism.” In their architecture of sequentialism, neatly packaged in manuscripts of varying forms, written words have been bridges, solid and tangible, that have linked the past to the future. As such, they have carried an assurance of cultural continuity.

It’s that preservative function that, for the moment, Twitter is largely lacking. As a platform, it does a great job of connecting; it does, however, a significantly less-great job of conserving. It’s getting better every day; in the meantime, though, as a vessel of cultural memory, it carries legitimately entropic implications.

But, then, concerns about Twitter’s ephemerality are also generally based on a notion of Twitter-as-text. In that, they assume a zero-sum relationship between the writing published on Twitter and the writing published elsewhere. They see the written, printed word — the bridge, the badge of a kind of informational immortality — dissolving into the digital. They see back-end edits revising stories (which is to say, histories) in an instant. They see hacks erasing those stories altogether. They see links dying off at an alarming rate. They see all that is solid melting into bits.

And they have, in that perspective, a point: While new curatorial tools, Storify and its ilk, will become increasingly effective, they might not be able to recapture print’s assurance, tenacious if tenuous, of a neatly captured world. That’s partly because print’s promise of epistemic completeness has always been, to some extent, empty; but it’s also because those tools will be operating within a digital world that is increasingly — and actually kind of wonderfully — dynamic and discursive.

What the concerns about Twitter tend to forget, though, is that language is not, and has never been, solid. Expression allows itself room to expand. Twitter is emblematic, if not predictive, of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the notion that, under the web’s influence, our text-ordered world is resolving back into something more traditionally oral — more conversational and, yes, more ephemeral. “Chaos is our lot,” Clay Shirky notes; “the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures.” One of those forces — and, indeed, one of those futures — is the hybrid linguistic form that we are shaping online even as it shapes us. The digital sphere calls for a new paradigm of communication: one that is discursive as well as conservative, one that acquiesces to chaos even as it resists it, one that relies on text even as it sheds the mantle of textuality. A paradigm we might call “Twitter.”

Photos by olalindberg and Tony Hall used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    April 21, 2014
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  • http://twitter.com/CarolDWoodward Carol Dois Woodward

    “orality”, “textuality”  OED take notice for the next edition.

  • http://twitter.com/DanFarfan Dan Farfan

    #Brilliant. A #triumph
    I can now sleep better at night.

    And to think you successfully contributed to the intellectual evolution of humanity without so much as an information trick, a misaggregation of anyone else’s work or an intellectually dishonest headline to bolster display ad revenue. If I were standing, I’m quite certain my knees would be momentarily weakened.

    For my money, this topic has a new scale against which all entries must be measured:

    From:
    -10) Unfortunate waste of bit and bytes unworthy of a web page address much less the memory of its unfortunate audience

    To:
    10) Megan Garber

    Thanks! 

    @DanFarfan:twitter 

  • http://twitter.com/tcarmody Tim Carmody

    I think whatever we call Twitter — orality, literacy, hyperliteracy, secondary orality, secondary literacy — we have to recognize its kinship with text messaging, instant messaging/chat, forums & newsgroups, lots of other kinds of social media, and even blogging and email, at least in some of its forms.

    All of them are text, all of them are electronic, all of them take place in something approaching (but hardly ever exactly) real-time, and all of them break many of the social norms and readerly expectations touching writing. 

    Twitter is a really powerful example of this new kind of textuality, and maybe the clearest and purest form. But it’s much bigger than Twitter, just as Ong’s original secondary orality was bigger than radio, television, movies, gramophone records, the telephone, etc., considered in isolation.

  • http://twitter.com/tcarmody Tim Carmody

    I think whatever we call Twitter — orality, literacy, hyperliteracy, secondary orality, secondary literacy — we have to recognize its kinship with text messaging, instant messaging/chat, forums & newsgroups, lots of other kinds of social media, and even blogging and email, at least in some of its forms.

    All of them are text, all of them are electronic, all of them take place in something approaching (but hardly ever exactly) real-time, and all of them break many of the social norms and readerly expectations touching writing. 

    Twitter is a really powerful example of this new kind of textuality, and maybe the clearest and purest form. But it’s much bigger than Twitter, just as Ong’s original secondary orality was bigger than radio, television, movies, gramophone records, the telephone, etc., considered in isolation.

  • http://twitter.com/tcarmody Tim Carmody

    I think whatever we call Twitter — orality, literacy, hyperliteracy, secondary orality, secondary literacy — we have to recognize its kinship with text messaging, instant messaging/chat, forums & newsgroups, lots of other kinds of social media, and even blogging and email, at least in some of its forms.

    All of them are text, all of them are electronic, all of them take place in something approaching (but hardly ever exactly) real-time, and all of them break many of the social norms and readerly expectations touching writing. 

    Twitter is a really powerful example of this new kind of textuality, and maybe the clearest and purest form. But it’s much bigger than Twitter, just as Ong’s original secondary orality was bigger than radio, television, movies, gramophone records, the telephone, etc., considered in isolation.

  • http://twitter.com/tcarmody Tim Carmody

    I think whatever we call Twitter — orality, literacy, hyperliteracy, secondary orality, secondary literacy — we have to recognize its kinship with text messaging, instant messaging/chat, forums & newsgroups, lots of other kinds of social media, and even blogging and email, at least in some of its forms.

    All of them are text, all of them are electronic, all of them take place in something approaching (but hardly ever exactly) real-time, and all of them break many of the social norms and readerly expectations touching writing. 

    Twitter is a really powerful example of this new kind of textuality, and maybe the clearest and purest form. But it’s much bigger than Twitter, just as Ong’s original secondary orality was bigger than radio, television, movies, gramophone records, the telephone, etc., considered in isolation.

  • http://twitter.com/neous Janina

    “Twitter is… Twitter?”

    Then I’d say: text is text! And yes, Twitter is text! 
    ‘Cause text today is definitely more than “written letters”. It is speech, it is film, it is hypertext. But in most cases, it has the same communicative purposes and functions traditional texts have/had and is by no means completely different to what we understand as conceptually oral or conceptually written stuff.

    From a modern linguistic perspective, we talk about text (or discourse) as a (in most cases) multimodal artefact which dynamically unfolds – just like our Twitter timeline, the many replies and RT we find there with all the links, pictures and videos. This is all text and of course it is a broadened kind of textuality, but the criteria we have to analyse the textual quality (i.e. cohesion, coherence, intertextuality, etc.) are still the same. It is these criteria which guarantee that we understand which meaning is constructed and how = how we communicate and how we use the media we are now familiar with.

    We thus do not need a completely new paradigm for social media, but return to existing linguistic methods when asking: Is Twitter something new? 

    And the result will be: No, it isn’t. It is just another form of text or communication. 

  • http://twitter.com/garelaos Gareth Jones

    Twitter is a global chat room, period.  Some slight differences sure, but the behaviours, dimensions and nuances mentioned here were all present in chat rooms 15 years ago.  Unfortunately, chat rooms attracted a geeky, almost creepy status and once we jumped on the pedophile hysteria a large chunk of them were closed down.

    Now chat, thanks to twitter and possibly IM, has gone mainstream.  Its even gone professional.  Is it writing or conversation?  Well, its both, depending on how you engage with twitter.  If you engage in discussion and debate, seek to build relationships and connect with an international audience its conversation.  If you prefer to make ‘statements’, push out marketing messages or spend your time repeating lame quotes then its writing.

    Its funny, back in the days of chat, people who only made statements, or promoted businesses by posting links in the chat/newsroom, were banned by the moderator.  In twitter, we are all moderators, but its interesting to note, that only businesses, or people representing their own business interests fill the twitter stream with promotional garbage.

  • http://twitter.com/eggboxrobin Robin Houghton

    It’s quite an old debate. I remember writing a paper on this, but with email as the subject rather than twitter, in 1999. I should think by now it’s fairly well established that email/texting/twitter or facebook updates etc are a hybrid of the spoken and written word.

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  • http://maheshcr.com/blog maheshcr

    Wow..this is what writing is supposed to be like. The entire section after ‘Is Twitter writing, or is it speech?’ metaphorically speaking kicks into high gear and does not let you down. 

  • http://twitter.com/sparker9 Steven Parker

    That was a skillful and thoughtful examination. In the hands of others I’ve read on similar topics, it might have descended into a pile of navel-gazing designed to inflate the importance of Twitter, but it didn’t, so kudos. I love Twitter and am a fairly heavy user, but I don’t really understand the need to define it as a single thing. Is that meaningful? We don’t impose that thinking on other means of communication, do we? I mean isn’t a hand written letter both text and speech? It’s kind of like defining the telephone as a device for audio diplomacy, or acrylic paint as something for drawing unicorns. Using Twitter as a tool for nonviolent revolution? Fantastic! But Twitter DEFINED AS a tool for revolution? Laughable! It is so much more than that.

    One of my hobbies is collecting 19th and early 20th century picture postcards. You sometimes get a wonderful little slice of life in those days from them, very much like a tweet. If I HAD to define what Twitter is used for, then I would slice the application pie this way: 30% shared knowledge via annotated links; 20% breaking news; 15% humor; 10% 21st century postcard; 10% commerce/marketing; 5% miscellaneous; and 10% spam.

    The only rational answer to is it text or speech or conversation is “yes.”

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  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    #Aw. #Blushing. 

    Thanks so much, Dan — I’m glad you liked the post, and really appreciate the kind words!

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    Thanks so much! I love how you manage to make my ultra-nerdy post seem like a big-budget action movie… :)

  • Craig Thomler

    Why frame Twitter and other online media in the context of text on a page anyway?

    Online media is often ephemeral and fragmentary, not designed to be whole until itself as every article in print is often designed to be.

    If I talk of Twitter (instead of via Twitter) I consider it closer to telepathy than text – thought than words. Partial and ephemeral notions that tumble through the ether.

    Sometimes Tweets link and build on each other, with coalescing via hashtags into a complete or partial edifice of thought or action. Other times they stand alone and fade, momentary pearls of thought, feeling or realisation without connection or continuation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jilrene Jill Harwood Wilson

    Excellent article.

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  • Anonymous

    Megan;

    Thanks for a thoughtful article!

    I just wondered: How does linking fit into your thinking? Is
    it writing or is it speech? Is it mostly nouns or verbs? I am curious as I
    understand about 45% of tweets have links, which increasingly ARE the content, with Twitter as a distributor.

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  • http://www.loundy.org/commoncents/ Mark Loundy

    Twitter bears no external definition. It is what its users make of it. There is a difference between a feed of 40 hand-picked professional news organizations and a feed from 35,000 random “courtesy” followbacks. There is a further difference between a user who uses Twitter as a broadcast medium and really follows nobody and one who uses it as a way to stay current with their real-world friends. The potential situations are infinite.

    This discussion reminds me of the days when people were positing the online distribution was not “publishing” for the purpose of copyright law.

    Mark Loundy
    Twitter: @markloundy:disqus 

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  • http://twitter.com/tom_leonhardt tom_leonhardt

    Stunning article. You mentioned that twitter currently lacks the feature of “preservation” in some way. I think it is exactly this quality making twitter pretty similar to speech. Not sure if it’s a deficit or a natural quality though.

    (And of course, it is possible to save hash-tag-based stories. But I don’t think you’d capture the real nature of twitter if you save the conversations as “text”.)

  • Meme

    people lie…..on Twitter

  • Meme

    and it too easy to lie on Twitter- No fact check- some people read too much in to Twitter——it is not law

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    That’s a great question, myrstad; thanks for it. I’d think that links are a new category, as well: Like text, like speech, they offer an architecture for signification. While they definitely act as content, links — with some notable exceptions —  ultimately act as vessels for meaning more than signifiers of meaning in themselves.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Megan Garber

    I wholeheartedly agree. The only thing I’d add, though, is that Twitter (and to an extent email, and certainly other social media, including blogging) are different from previous forms of electronic textuality in one significant way: their publicness. It’s a publicness that has to do with the fact that both my best friend from kindergarten (hi, Sandra!) and web crawlers from Mountain View (hi, Sergey!) can read this sentence just as readily as you can. 

    And while the way that the publicness of online text changes text itself could be the subject of a book or a field of academic study or, at the very least, a separate Lab post…what we can be pretty sure of is that it’s a change that will prove profound. Twitter and its counterparts definitely travel on the same historical arc as texting and IM and their counterparts; but I think social media’s implicit impulse toward broadcast will inevitably change that arc’s shape — and quite possibly its trajectory. 

  • Jim Burke

    This article is so well timed! I have been working on a chapter on speaking and listening for the next edition of my book The English Teacher’s Companion and in that chapter emphasized the extent to which any dialogic exchange (tweets, emails, threaded discussions, chat, text messages, etc.), even if written, are fundamentally speech acts by virtue of the nature of the change in real time (usually). When you add scenarios like Skype of Adobe Connect where backchannel conversations are taking place (via messages posted) simultaneously, these also count as acts of non-verbal speech, just as one might argue that when we monitor such exchanges we are almost “listening” to the spirit and tone of the change as much as we are reading it. 

  • Tom Thorne

    See some similar thoughts on my blog:http://tomthorneejournal.blogspot.com 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/carl.forde Carl Forde

    For people wondering about Twitter’s relationship to speech, some food for thought: Speech2Tweet http://www.powerapp.eu/en/apps/80-speech2tweet.html does (english) speech to text conversion enabling you to speak your tweets. All we need now is text to speech conversion.

    Carl

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  • http://www.webcanon.wordpress.com Jacob McCarthy

    Great point about other types of digital comp. Not only do these modes break the “readerly expectations,” they’re composed by folks who wouldn’t ever call themselves a “writer.”  This is what I really find fascinating about the distinction between “textuality” and “orality.” When we’re engaged in the practice, most of us just think of it as being “online.”

  • Tom Pettitt

    An insightful contribution; thanks. I call it (and other forms of digital instant textuality) ”speaking through our fingers” — but so far only in Portuguese (http://oglobo.globo.com/tecnologia/mat/2010/11/08/em-entrevista-professor-thomas-pettitt-defende-que-novas-midias-levam-humanidade-de-volta-era-pre-gutenberg-da-cultura-oral-922967564.asp
    – and agree it’s symptomatic of leaving the Gutenberg Parenthesis
    Tom Pettitt

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