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Summary:

Is Twitter like a spoken conversation, the kind you would have with friends in a bar? Or is it like a written discussion? One of the things that can make Twitter hard to define is that it can be both of those at the same time.

Is Twitter like a spoken conversation, the kind you would have with friends and/or strangers in a bar? Or is it more like a written discussion — like online forums or chat rooms used to be in the early days of the Internet? One of the things that can make Twitter hard to define, particularly for new users, is that it can be both of those things at the same time. In some cases, the “rules” of Twitter and the expectations that people have seem to be more like the etiquette of speech, and in other cases — particularly when it comes to legal concerns around libel, etc. — it is a lot more like writing or publishing. In reality, it’s a blend of both.

Sociologist and researcher Zeynep Tufekci was one of the first people I came across who looked at this dual nature of Twitter, in a recent post about how a lot of social-media tools represent a return of sorts to an earlier “oral culture.” In Tufekci’s view, the way that services like Twitter allow us to comment and respond and converse with others in real-time is a lot more like talking than it is publishing, and therefore it represents a move away from our Western print-based culture (Andy Carvin of NPR has talked about what he does in curating news via Twitter as “preserving oral history.”

Twitter: A return to oral culture?

Tufekci noted that those who are more familiar with oral cultures — users from Eastern Europe, for example, or African-American users — often seem more comfortable with the transient nature of social media, the inability to pin things down, the fact that information is constantly changing, and so on. Those are things that we are accustomed to when we speak to others; but when we type on a computer we often revert to thinking about writing as publishing, and expect things to operate the same way they do in print: namely, that we can save content somewhere, refer to it and so on (as Megan Garber discusses in her excellent piece at the Neiman Lab).

Tufekci is not alone in making this kind of connection between online behavior and oral culture: she mentions the research of Walter Ong and his concept of “secondary orality” as it applies to media, and when I mentioned Tufekci’s post on Twitter, Nancy Baym — a friend who is a sociologist and expert in online culture — noted that there has been a fair bit of work in that area (including some she did herself). Anthropologists have also started looking at how people use Facebook and applying some of the thinking related to oral cultures and groups in order to understand how they work.

From a behavioral point of view, one of the unusual things about Twitter is that it is “asymmetric,” in the sense that you can follow people (and be followed by others) without knowing them. Facebook is a very different kind of network, because you have to approve and be approved by those you become friends with. That makes Twitter much more chaotic in a sense — since you can talk to anyone you wish — and more like a conversation with a group of people in a bar or some other public place.

The other defining factor with Twitter is that there aren’t any rules. Some conventions have emerged over time, such as the @ mention — which users developed themselves and then Twitter adopted — and the retweet. But even there, confusion reigns: if you post a message that starts with the @ symbol and someone’s Twitter name, only people who follow both of you can see that message. To get around this, some users put a period at the beginning to allow everyone to see it. Unfortunately, that “breaks” the conversation mode in a lot of Twitter clients, and so people can’t click and look at previous messages in the thread.

When print expectations meet vocal behavior

That’s a perfect example of when the conventions of print — i.e. the ability to scroll back in time and see more of a person’s tweets — clash with expectations that are more rooted in conversation (such as the ability to ignore others if they are talking about something you aren’t interested in). I’ve also had people get upset when I used their tweets in a blog post, because I think they saw their comments more as conversation, and therefore not likely to show up in print. But things change when you are having a conversation that can be read by thousands of people, most of whom you don’t know.

This confusion extends to other things as well. I’ve had people complain that I retweet too many things, the implication being that I am filling up the conversational stream with too much additional “noise” (in the early days of Twitter I had debates with others about whether retweeting was appropriate at all, and now there are different kinds of re-tweets, which makes it even more confusing). In a way, retweeting doesn’t make any sense if you think of Twitter as a conversation — we wouldn’t expect someone to constantly repeat things the person beside them just finished saying — but if you see it as an information network, retweeting items of interest for others seems like a natural thing to do.

To take another example, my colleague Stacey Higginbotham recently asked whether a retweet meant that someone endorsed the idea or statement they were retweeting. My answer was “it depends.” And when Stacey asked her followers on Twitter the same question, she got a variety of answers — some people retweet simply as a way of passing on something interesting, while others only retweet if they agree. Some like to add their own comments at the end, others at the beginning. I’ve seen the emergence of the term “MT” meaning “modified tweet,” to indicate that someone edited the original, which some users seem to think is fine and others criticize as verboten.

In the end, Twitter is unlike either speech or writing because it is a fusion of both. We are speaking, but with computer keyboards — and we are talking to thousands of people, some of whom we have never met, which simply wasn’t possible before the Internet came along. So in a very real sense, we are making the rules up as we go. Which tends to make things a lot less predictable, but also a lot more interesting.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Groupon

  1. I use Twitter for semi-conversations and for finding news fast. As it and Facebook become increasing important, then the historical archives of both will too, and right now they aren’t particularly easy to access, much less index in a useful way

    (And I bet you didn’t know your photo for the post is of a revolutionary Marxist. Heh.)

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    1. Thanks, Bob — I find that somehow fitting that the photo is of a revolutionary :-)

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  2. Context is not only words.
    Context is based on culture, but any computer conversation has losses in pitch, tone, shared environment, body language and many other parts of oral culture and communication. Do I miss something or does somebody try to hype up something?

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    1. That’s actually a really good point — written communication of any kind, whether Twitter or texting or email messages, misses the verbal and physical cues that we use in real life, and that can affect how we communicate online in some pretty fundamental ways. Thanks for the comment.

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      1. Trololo Baggins Sunday, June 5, 2011

        I have to say, the title you chose is probably the worst example on how blogs try to play with words these days. And to be clear, words are words, speech is speech. Communication, which brings into play context, tone, etc is as complex as the society in which it originated. Twitter is a tool to communicate, but it is not in any sense comparable to speech. Twitter is written information with all the bells and whistles of the21st century, but it consists of words. Now, some may say you could tweet a link of a video or any other form of multimedia, that is just the bells and whistles. So I completely disagree with your conclusion in which tweets are a fusion of speech and written info, it is not, they are just information which is in a vast network, useful, but not the beginning of something as fundamental as speech or written words.

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  3. Yes, Twitter has lowered the barriers for starting conversations between complete strangers, and that’s a good thing.

    I’ve always said that Twitter has multiple identities which we are currently discovering, just as the Internet started to exhibit multiple identities when it started. I would say these include being a network, a marketplace, a development platform, a communications (conversation) medium and a content (writing) space. These are the same broad categories that the Internet inherited but their reincarnation is slightly different with Twitter. Specifically, the read/write & social aspects of Twitter are way more amplified than the Internet.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, William — I agree it has a lot of different facets to it depending on what we use it for.

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  4. Hi Matthew,

    I think you make a sound case for using Twitter as a fusion of dialogue and publishable text. Your insight and investigation of the ideas are extremely clear.

    For me personally, retweeting is a great way to endorse someone’s tweet. Just aimlessly sharing content because one thinks it’s helpful may end not being helpful at all. “Super retweeters” (i.e. people who retweet a lot) come on my timeline too much and it soon becomes a distraction.

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  5. Taariq Lewis Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Great post, Matthew!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you. However, you missed an entire opportunity to talk about HASHTAGS Twitter (#) chats! There are over 410 of these conversations happening on Twitter covering thousands of individuals.

    I currently moderate 2 Twitter chats and sit on about 14 Twitter chats and conversations, per week. Real-time updates have encouraged the growth of conversations on Twitter and more people are seeing this as a new way to share and learn from each other on Twitter. However, the problem is that Twitter conversations are muddying up the Tweet stream, more than RTs, of those folks who don’t want to see one-sided conversations in their stream for which they’re not a part. Imagine seeing a customer-service discussion flowing through your home stream of the chatter who sends about 60 tweets an hour in a conversation! Eck!

    Twitter users are already off and running on the hosting more conversations on the platform and I believe it won’t outpace the writing side, but may generate much more content that folks won’t understand unless they’re in the conversation.

    I write a few ideas about this on my blog: http://blog.stanzr.com and you can find me hosting a conversation on sales, #saleschat, every Wednesday on Twitter and on Stanzr at http://stanzr.com/saleschat

    See you in the conversation!
    Taariq
    @taariqlewis

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  6. I agree with you, Michael, on “super” retweeters versus endorsing retweeters. But I also enjoy a few “passing-on” retweeters – those who see things from their followings I might not have seen in mine. (I follow a scant few quality folks and sources, and their retweets give me a further insight as to their personalities.)

    I also think Twitter is often a form of writing. I enjoy the challenge of making a concise artful statement, butting up against the 140-character limit, bleeding the statement down to essence before I blurt it out. Great exercise for any writer. (See, in contrast to Twitter, how I’ve been sloppy and verbose in this post?)

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  7. Interesting take on Twitter. The ‘fusion’ of speech and writing. I think that’s one of the reasons it took me so long to get into Twitter. Great post!

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  8. I’m new to Twitter, so all these concepts are still pretty new to me. I think I use it more as a news/information source than as an ongoing conversation, but maybe that’s because I don’t really know anyone yet. It’s interesting to see how people use it because it seems that almost everyone has their own way of sharing information on Twitter and even their own way of retweeting and mentioning that you have to get used to.

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    1. Hi Constant Writer,

      I can see how folks could think it’s about just sharing content and serve as a update about your current status. However, every time someone sees that they are interacting and engaging with your content. If it’s relevant and useful a dialogue can occur by taking action either through retweeting your content, direct messaging you, or even start following you. We should connect there (@sylvanmedia). See you there!

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  9. I cannot even believe that this article was written. Twitter, regardless of etiquette, is written communication. There is no speech on Twitter, until they allow 10 second sound files instead of 140 characters. It is not a fusion of anything. It is WRITTEN.

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  10. Good article, however the ‘a bit of both’ is the same conclusion as Naomi Baron came to with regard to email, and later, instant messaging. See particularly chapter 4 in her book “Always On”, where she concludes: “Speech or writing? Some of both, but not as much speech as we’ve tended to assume.”

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