How to read on Twitter
First published on 23 August, 2019
Previously I spoke of literacy as the ability ‘to understand how text functions within social institutions or contexts’. I underlined the need for us to ‘develop cognisance of the biases or slants colouring the content we read and [to] understand how these are leveraged to have an impact on us’. I took a step back on #alevelresults2019 day to highlight that this skill is not new, nor soft, as many would have it.
After much hard thought, today I honour my promise to start the deep dive and sense-making endeavour for one particular context. My context of first choice is one many of us now encounter multiple times on a daily basis and one in which brevity and volume paradoxically coexist in a frenzied world of clucks and chirps. This context is Twitter.
The rationale for this first move is the way in which the platform has served as host to myriad expressions of both euphoria and despair both last week and this. It reminded me of a parallel moment in my educational past, which is my starting point here for a long-ish read; I hope you’ll bear with me.
A C21st social context
I remember the time, place and mixed emotions behind this post with staggering clarity. It was 2 years into my PhD and I had just come away from an update meeting with my supervisor. A descending sense of complete overwhelm had translated into a brisk walk down the length of Euston Road towards St Pancras station. Convinced that there was no time like the present to really and truly get underway with the writing, and frantically searching for a quick-fix comfort to support this, I dived into one of the swanky cafés on the upper level, acquired an overpriced pot of tea and started to settle in. I then took this photo and released my 22nd message into the twittersphere and awaited the response. It never came. One ‘like’ dribbled in a few hours later. In the meantime, I sat nursing my soggy tealeaves, trying to bring order and sense to the ever-ballooning bibliography of manuscripts, scholarly commentary and ephemera I had been storing up for the great moment, all the while hoping for approbation from the world at large.
I start with this personal anecdote as I think it reveals a lot about our relationship with the C21st social context which is social media and the typical, surface-level engagement with language, and ultimately, other people, it encourages. I as much as the next person have been guilty of flicking through the reams of content and giving most contributions, at best, a cursory glance. But with the growth of the platform’s social, cultural and political influence, we must take the time to pause, to take stock and consider how we engage with it and, in turn, set an example to young people who might (or might not, depending on what you read) also log on and contribute to the cacophony.
Twitter is a prime context in which close, analytical reading has the potential to reap huge value, both on an individual and societal level.
So here’s my first experiment with something which, although might seem quite different to the writings of Dickens or Malala, shares more with both than we might think at first sight.
1. The Twitter ‘genre’.
Our starting point should be to begin to think of Twitter as a genre, or simply a category or type of space where words feature. This is standard practice when we sit in an English literature lesson at school and perhaps even when we are doing our own personal reading. We know that when we open Great Expectations we are reading a work of fiction, something characterised as ‘the type of book or story that is written about imaginary characters and events and not based on real people and facts’. When we open I am Malala, we know that we are now engaging with something commonly considered to be ‘non-fiction’ or ‘writing that is about real events and facts, rather than stories that have been invented’. Once we get into each book, we might think about the type of fiction and non-fiction writing we have before us, so, in other words, subgenres or subtypes. We might think about Great Expectations’ status as a novel, a ‘long, printed story about imaginary characters and events’. We might remark upon I Am Malala’s status as an autobiography, a ‘book about a person's life, written by that person’. We then turn to structure and know that there are likely to be chapters and sections in both. We expect words to be used to conjure up the worlds, imaginary or real, the writers wish to transport us to. We are on our guard for language craft and the way in which words and expressions might feed into forming our impressions of the characters or personas, imaginary or resembling the real, whose narrative we are following. We are ready to look beneath the surface. (And we might even reflect upon whether we can honestly make a distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ given the craft involved. But I’ll save elaboration on this point for another time.) An awareness of the type of writing we are tackling gives us
a structure, a base camp from which we can start to make informed forays into the worlds someone else presents us with.
When we come to social media and Twitter, things become much more hazy. But types and subtypes, structure and language expectations and, above all, personas, are equally as pertinent here.
Twitter, as we all know, is a popular social networking, micro-blogging platform. Type and subtype, tick. It has a very specific structure in that all outputs come as a ‘Tweet’, which is to be no longer than 280 characters (though many are much shorter). Brevity is key, and to stand out amongst the mass of micro-blogs or ‘tweets’ published by the nanosecond, wittiness or incisiveness often essential. Linking statements with existing discussions through the #hashtag meanwhile does some of heavy lifting words would otherwise have to undertake.
We could argue that language and personas become all the more important in the context of Twitter. Worryingly, general awareness of this is pretty low.
Here goes my attempt to construct the base-camp for this context a little more fully.
1.1. Language and the historical moment
When we first encounter the likes of Great Expectations or other literature at school, we tend to consider how these smack of the historical moment in which they were produced and the effect this has on the language contained within. In other words, we think of the relationship between broader context and granular detail.* In the case of Great Expectations and I am Malala, there is the common broader context of social inequality, albeit in wildly different times and places, which the works are set within. This broader context in turn shapes the language used: figurative language drives home the plight of the young Pip; colourful descriptions punctuated with Persian and Pashto transport us to a place far away where girls do not have easy access to education. Taking the bigger picture and its individual building blocks as one, the opportunity is there for us to acquire a deeper understanding of societal tensions and appreciate the centrality of education in effecting social mobility.
(*Note: I readily acknowledge that here I am adopting just one means of deciphering text. But given that this isn’t the place for extended discussion of critical theory and since this method is widespread, I hope I can make a reasonable case for its relevance here.)
So far, so good.
Next to think about personas.
When we open any given book, especially when it is an autobiography, we will automatically think about the author themselves. The autobiography is where the individual seeks to tell their story and own it. Inevitably, there is an element of selection and, oftentimes, we are presented with the story of one voice, one side, however great the efforts to proffer a fact-based account. We are aware of the personal and professional context in which that person functions. In the case of Malala, it is as a young girl targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan and now working with leading NGOs to champion peace and education for all. This context inevitably shapes the presentation of character or persona with which we are presented. The role of I am Malala is, we could say, to show how each part of Malala’s life has brought her to the point where she has (inspiringly) come to be.
We would equally go through the same process were we to open the autobiographies of a politician or other public figure. We would take, hopefully not just our own knowledge, but as informed and generalised an understanding as possible of their personal and professional context, one which tends to be coloured by a need to account for past decisions and actions, and take this as a framework for our reading. Or at least, this is what we might aspire to do.
1.3. Language, historical moment and personas on Twitter
The exact same thing goes, or should go, for Twitter. When we are faced with that interminable feed, we should be thinking about the historical moment in which we are living and how this shapes the language of each statement release. Currently, our historical moment is sadly one of division; it is one in which bold and often controversial statements achieve greatest prominence. It is one whose technologies, including those powering social media platforms, allows us to erect the now proverbial echo chamber with incredible ease, an echo chamber that can quickly reverberate out of control. The common result is that we can quickly end up in a highly destructive cycle which is visualised in the top half of this model by Otto Scharmer.
Here, I am hinting at the bias or slants that we bring to bear on the material we read and am nodding to the need to do our utmost to place these to one side and engage in the journey defined by Scharmer as ‘Social Emergence’. I will halt there for now as this definitely warrants its own post. But it was worth flagging at this point given its overwhelming relevance to how we engage with social media, not least Twitter.
To get back to the current undertaking for now –
Within even the briefest consideration of the context of our historical moment and language, we should meanwhile be thinking very carefully about how we understand the public persona which is inevitably sounding out before us. Twitter is by its very nature public and, since 2006, has been a way for people to align themselves with their chosen set of values and to slot themselves as they see fit into any given professional sector.
At this point, the best thing is to see some of this in action and suggest how some of this thinking might be applied.
2. Close-r reading in the Twittersphere.
Keeping our knowledge of Twitter as a ‘genre’ or type in the background, I am going to take a few contrasting examples, starting with something that is analogous to what we encounter in the classroom: the output of a professional writer.
2.1 A writer’s tweet.
Joanna Harris is a teacher-turned-author who penned the best-selling novel, Chocolat. Here, she tussles with a narrow definition of what it means ‘to read’. Here, her choice of language – repetition – and layout – heading each line with ‘Reading’ – is reminiscent of something that might feature in an anthology of poetry, for example. Flicking through quickly, we might simply remark upon a difference in opinion between herself and The Folio Society. Reading her response in context and in the knowledge that she is a highly-acclaimed published author herself should, however, make our ears prick up. Here is someone whom we might expect to agree wholeheartedly with a publisher of high-end books. (And, if we were to do a close reading of the tweet to which she is responding, we might interrogate the commercial interests which lie behind the statement.) Instead, Harris is insisting that we broaden our understanding and harnesses her characteristic flair to underline this point. If we are in the happy position of suspending own view before we make any judgement, as Scharmer’s Social Emergence model above suggests we might, we have the opportunity to make a constructive foray into an issue of deep cultural interest. What we return with is up to us. But the main point is to have embarked upon an informed journey before settling on any conclusions.
2.2 A politician’s tweet
The elephant in this newsletter is the output of politicians, or what we might see as another sub-subgenre of Twitter. Here, public persona, professional context, historical moment and language are closely entangled in more than one political quarter. Donald Trump offers a good place to start.
Much ink has been spilled over Trump’s use of Twitter and the rhetorical style he has developed. This has led most recently to the fascinating publication, The Twitter Presidency, by academics, Brian Ott and Greg Dickinson.
For the present purpose, my aim is to highlight a few features as first indicators as to how we might start to engage more deeply with political material within the Twitter ‘genre’ and its subgenres and sub-subgenres.
Here is one of Trump’s tweets from today.
Keeping in mind our moment of division and the need for tweets to be eye- and ear-catching, we also have the particular context of the Trump position. This is:
i) that America is a ‘great’ nation;
ii) that Trump himself plays a key role in maintaining this status on behalf of ‘the people’;
iii) that American triumphs should be emphasised in contrast to the failures and downturns being experienced elsewhere;
iv) that suggesting otherwise is part of a bid to undermine Trump, his narrative and, ultimately, the American people.
All of this plays out right from the opening sentence of the first tweet above. Here, we have a presentation of success in America versus failure elsewhere, with the former underlined through 2 subjective words: ‘strong’ and ‘good’. We are encouraged to think that there is a worrying force to be countered through the reference to the ‘Fake News Media’, with capitalisation here hinting at its real threat. We then start to see references to ‘us’, that is, the country and American people, in the use of ‘we’ and ‘our’, and the alignment of ‘us’ with ‘I’ Donald Trump later in this tweet and the other part of the thread. Importantly, ‘us’ are presented as working for progress and in contrast to them who are trying to deny this progress. Together, these features and the thoughts they seek to communicate work to present two opposing forces: one which is good for America, and one which is bad.
We could continue. But the key point here is how an age-old device of political discourse, that is, to pit one group against another, features here. Most importantly, being equipped with this knowledge alongside awareness of a broader context helps us and others to engage in the process to make an informed, independent judgement on any given statement.
2.3 And finally, a tweet from one of many.
What I have done so far is taken different instances where language has very obviously and purposely been crafted. I have hinted that, just like when we are faced with a novel, we need to read through content methodically if we are to enjoy fruitful returns on our reading.
This is all very well and good, I hear you say, for the obvious instances. But what about the tweets of the average person? I would argue that all the above still readily applies and am happy to offer myself up as the guinea-pig.
So let’s finally return to the tweet with which I opened this whole discussion.
Hitherto, I have been laying emphasis on the need to consider the professional and personal context in which an individual is trying to function. Anyone who has undertaken PhD research will be aware that it can be a lonely and angst-inducing venture. Those in contact with academia might also be aware of the need for the academic to come out of the so-called ‘ivory tower’ and link even the most niche area of enquiry with real-world experience and concerns. Both of the contexts lie behind that 2014 tweet. I felt I needed to portray myself as the rising academic, casually whipping out her MacBook en route to the next research library and sparking original thought, meanwhile alternating between whimsical glances out of leaded-light windows and furious, inspired typing. This accounts for my decision to tag (or try to tag) key overarching research themes. Yet, note my choice of verb at the end: ‘aid’. I could have chosen ‘help’ or ‘support’, but ‘aid’ was what came out. This is a word whose connection with phrases such as ‘to come to someone’s aid’ perhaps suggests an action of greater urgency, and, as I explained above, that aligns exactly with how I was thinking and feeling at that time. It’s amazing what you can fit into 108 characters.
‘The wellness market’, claimed the Global Wellness Institute in 2017, ‘is growing at historic rate: nearly twice as fast as global economy’. A quick scan of the magazine rack in the supermarket or the self-help section of the bookshop pays testament to this. A huge range of titles and bulging issues adorn the shelves, all commonly delivering the same message: it is time to slow down. If only the same sage advice could be applied to our reading.
The process I have gone through above is hardly feasible for every tweet we come across, and, indeed, wouldn’t be advisable. But the key point to keep in mind is that there are always multiple layers of nuance hidden within even the shortest of statements and that a level of interrogation is required before we make decisions on any given statement.
When we tap the app, we can quickly get that same sense of overwhelm I felt as a researcher. But if we were to stop to draw breath and start to peel back the layers, not only would this feeling be mitigated but, importantly, we would, I argue, start to really engage with what is in front of us. In that spirit, I look forward to the critical responses to the Tweet which led you here or, indeed, any other part of this post.
For now, happy weekend all!