Since its conception in 2006, Twitter has gained a huge user base from across the planet. Like flies attracted to a light, people can’t help but be drawn towards this ‘new’, ‘hip’ social media platform; they abandon Facebook, disenchanted by the latter’s ‘complexity’ and ever growing population of parent/adult users. To keep up with the times, we fly into the world of the Tweet – “an expression of a moment of idea”1(Twitter.com) limited to only 140 characters. We can compare the “tweet” to the formalist school of literary criticism, in that a tweet puts a cap on expression to 140 characters, while formalism channels our attention to just the text, instead of the context or reader response of the work.
Twitter has realized its considerable popularity through the attraction of high-profile users such as politicians and celebrities. Justin Bieber, for instance, sent his first tweet on May 11, 20092 (abcnews.com). Practically every remotely famous person in the world has followed suit including pop artists like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Kayne West; movie stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, DiCaprio; world leaders like President Obama and even the 89 year old Queen of England @Queen_UK.
Millions praise Twitter for its ease of access. They say that the 140 character limit makes news simple to learn about, providing “up-to-the-minute information”3 (debate.org) unseen in other social media sites/apps. Further still, Twitter boasts an attractive, streamlined interface for both smartphone and internet browser that make reading the world’s chirps a pleasant visual experience.
Less heard amongst the sounds of tweets in the cloud are the cries of traditional news outlets – already forced to switch from printed editions to their websites to reach readers – as people’s attention spans dwindle to a mere 140 characters. To illustrate this point, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic used the statistics Twitter itself provides users on tweet activity. He crafted a post designed to drive traffic to an online article he wrote forhttp://www.theatlantic.com: complete with a picture, a catchy 87 character message, and a link to his full article onhttp://www.theatlantic.com. Thompson reveals that his tweet got a seemingly impressive 155,260 views… wow! He further clarifies, however, that only a disturbing 1% of users actually clicked on his link to read the full article.4 (theatlantic.com)99% of readers were satisfied with a 140 character tagline summarizing the article’s contents. The bottom line is this: you can spend an obscene amount of time perfecting your 140 character howl to the letter and it can actually achieve great visibility, but yet still not captivate readers enough to draw them to an external link with more information than 140 characters. Given this, I assert that Twitter is not a valid news source – or at least isn’t a good medium for online newspapers to drive traffic to their articles.
We can compare Thompson’s frustration with the tweet to what may be considered the shortcomings of the formalist school of literary criticism. Thompson laments that users only consider the 140 character tweet instead of seeking deeper meaning through clicking on embedded links. Formalism stresses that we must consider a text as it is… or its “realized” intention, according to Brooks. By focusing only on the text, (effectively setting aside elements like context, reader response, or the author) formalism promotes a potentially limited analysis of the text. I maintain that a complete analysis of literature cannot be divorced from those elements that formalism rejects.
Is the reality Thompson describes really Twitter’s fault?
One could argue that the advent of Twitter has ushered in this trendy dehydration of human expression into sentence fragments… and I admit quite freely to being one of those people. With that said, it is also important to note that sound bites (brief and emotionally pungent statements) have been employed by politicians in debates for decades. Additionally, air-time costs drive the length of TV commercials down to 15 seconds in some cases. Most You-Tube advertisements have a “Skip Ad” option after only 5 seconds. We have taught each other that in order to be heard, thoughts must be concise and impactful – lest they be lost in the sound of the leaves.
Really?! Me?! Too aggressive?!
Kayne West is apparently running for president in 2020. At least Mr. West had the decency to announce this in person at a concert instead of tweeting something to the effect of “vote for me because iTunes sales #voteforkayne”. This surprising demonstration of face-to-face communication didn’t stop the Democratic Party from tweeting on their official Twitter account, @TheDemocrats: “Last night @kanyewest declared his candidacy for president in 2020. Welcome to the race, Mr. West. Glad to have you.”5 (twitter.com)
Lets implement some close reading here. The Democratic Party tweeted:
“Last night @kanyewest declared his candidacy for president in 2020. Welcome to the race, Mr. West. Glad to have you.”
Using a formalist lens, we will only consider what is explicitly written here. First off, the fact that this tweet is in response to an event of “last night” demonstrates the immediacy and real-time responses that Twitter promotes. Next, they refer to Kayne West by his Twitter ‘handle’: @kanyewest. This shows the extent to which Twitter-lingo (handles, hashtags, etc) have made it into modern vernacular. In the next sentence, they refer to Kayne West as “Mr. West”. I found this interesting. Within a single 140 character tweet, they refer to the pop artist as both “@kaynewest” and “Mr. West”. Whether this was intended or not, @TheDemocrats started the tweet off in a way that Twitter users are very comfortable with, but ended on a more characteristically formal note as one would expect in a note regarding presidential candidacy.
My political beliefs aside, how have we come to a point where one of the nation’s two main political parties acknowledges the advent of a new candidate for the office of the President of the United States in such a flippant and detached way? This tweet was accompanied by a GIF – a brief three-five second picture-video – from his speech at his concert.
Do human beings need more than 140 characters to convey our “expressions of a moment or idea”?
140 characters isn’t enough to appropriately replace a good old-fashioned newspaper article. But it is certainly enough to hurt ourselves or others with our words.
Poor Justine Sacco was fired within 12 hours of a tweet. Before boarding a plane for a work-related trip to Africa, she told the world: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”6 (hellogiggles.com). As shown by Sacco’s case, the apparent ease with which one can post their thoughts to Twitter may not be a good thing; it promotes little reflection before tapping the send button.
In my opinion, this particular tweet provides an example where close reading alone isn’t enough. Without the context of American/World history (eg. the Slave Trade, and the racial issues in America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries), I don’t think that one can fully appreciate the gravity of what Sacco has written here. In this way, this is an instance where pure formalist analysis cannot provide a full critique of the meaning of this tweet.
Finally, I deliver the most disturbing piece of information I have learned about Twitter in the process of writing this blog. This true story is so horrific that it confirms for me my previously poorly defended logic for refusing to ever make a Twitter account.
In 2012, a 16-year old girl from West Virginia got intoxicated at a party and woke up naked the next morning next to a star football player whom she knew from her high-school team in Steubenville, Ohio.7 (newyorker.com) As you can imagine, a huge amount of horrible details accompany this nationally known case. Let’s just focus on the role Twitter had to play in this. One of her ex-boyfriends posted a picture (in this blog) on Instagram (another up and coming social media platform) of her being grabbed by her hands and feet by her attackers. Tweets from her high school classmates in reference to this photo were as follows:
(Image credit: Google Images)
“Whores are hilarious”… “If they’re getting ‘raped’ and don’t resist then to me it’s not rape. I feel bad for her but still”… “Some people deserve to get peed on”…
Furthermore, in retaliation to the criminal charges brought against the two boys who raped her, one of their classmates tweeted:
“Young girls acting like whores there’s no punishment. Young men acting like boys is a sentence.”
— In the case of these tweets, while understanding the context of the case adds meaning to their literal contents, I think formalist methods are plenty fine in working to understand the horrific nature of these statements.
Clearly a lot can be communicated in 140 characters. Take the last statement for example. Close reading reveals to us that the author of this tweet refers to the girl who was raped as a “young girl”… but his male friends who raped her “young men… acting like boys”. This clearly implies that the girl is immature as a condition… whereas her attackers are grown up, mature, ‘men’, but had a moment of regression into a harmless childhood youth, as if they were playing on the playground again.
The intense and repeated verbal brutality produced on Twitter surrounding this incident is a stark example of how dangerous and harmful Twitter can be. It further illustrates how much can actually be said in only 140 characters.
Meaning in 140 Characters?
From researching this subject, I think that there are plenty of examples in which 140 characters is not enough to convey any significant meaning. With that, there are also times when 140 characters can be similarly or even more painful than a physical attack on a person.
It is the responsibility of companies to decide whether or not Twitter is an appropriate medium to pour advertising revenue into. It is the even greater responsibility of individuals to make sure that their tweets are not an unmitigated stream of consciousness and instead a reflective “expression of a moment or idea” as Twitter claims to intend.
Twitter cannot police every user. Unfortunately, unless another user reports a tweet, emotionally harmful posts usually go unrecognized until they are involved in a trail. In the future, I would like to see users take more action against abusive Tweets. One of the things that users enjoy the most about Twitter is that it requires and publishes less personal information than Facebook… so why don’t users use this perceived increase in anonymity to stick up for others, especially in extreme situations?
In considering the paradoxical superficiality and yet potency of the Tweet, we can also work to understand formalism better. While one can gather a great deal from just considering the text, we also miss out on a lot by discarding the author, the context, and readers’ response.
Although once again, I must ask – Is this reality Twitter’s fault? Think of the endless examples of bullying in movies or even our own lives where bystanders did nothing. Think of the endless examples, some of which I mentioned, of our limited attention span and inability to listen to others’ ideas outside of a small time frame or character limit. Perhaps the real issue with Twitter is it has too aptly captured what it currently means to be human in the digital age.
- Inc, Twitter. “Story of a Tweet.” The. Twitter.com, n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2015. <https://about.twitter.com/what-is-twitter/story-of-a-tweet>.
- Messer, Lesley. “Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and More: Relive Their First Tweets.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 01 Sept. 2015. <http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/katy-perry-justin-bieber-read-stars-tweets/story?id=22985614>.
- “Is Twitter Better than Facebook?” Is Twitter Better than Facebook?p., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2015. <http://www.debate.org/opinions/is-twitter-better-than-facebook>.
- Thompson, Derek. “The Unbearable Lightness of Tweeting.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 01 Sept. 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/the-unbearable-lightness-of-tweeting/385484/>.
- Twitter.com @TheDemocrats
- Drexler, Peggy. “Twitter: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” HelloGiggles. N.p., 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 01 Sept. 2015. <http://hellogiggles.com/twitter-good-bad-ugly/>.
- Levy, Ariel. “Trial By Twitter – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/08/05/trial-by-twitter>.