Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Interpreting Tweets: Written on Seashore Sand, Until The Next Wave vs. Cuneiform Tablets

Are your tweets simple sentences in a chat you have with someone on Twitter?  Are they mini- thoughts carefully framed and considered?  Are they jokes you pass on?  Are they information?  Do you know if the information you offer is correct or not?  Are Twitter discussions real discussions, given that the system doesn't quite allow us to know who the participants are?  What is the sound of a tweet when it drops into the universe without any response?  Did you reach someone or not?  What if you tweet about what you had for breakfast and someone saves that tweet and uses it later in some completely different conversation? 

Are there powerful goddesses and gods of Twittersphere?  Does talking to invisible people you don't know make you feel freer to say what you mean?  Or less free?  Is it easier to be angry on Twitter than in real life?  Is Twitter more democratic than the mainstream media (however defined) or no more democratic?  Are tweets like scrawls on the seashore sand which the ocean smooths away in the next moment or are they like cuneiform tablets, to be one day (soon!) unearthed by future archeologists?

How are tweets to be interpreted?

That is a very serious question, my friends.  I ask it, because Twitter, right now, is one of the best imitators of actual oral discussions or chats on the Internet, because it is a way of carrying out a conversation and because the way the tweets are restricted in length makes each tweet resemble one short snippet of an actual conversation.

People chat on Twitter, people post kitten pictures on Twitter, people transmit opinions, arguments, information and feelings on Twitter, and all of that is done in very short soundbites, in a way which makes one feel there's just this conversation going on, and if something is misunderstood then you clarify, the way you would while sitting around a kitchen table or on a bar stool in a pub.

I'd argue that most people think of Twitter use as close to oral communication.  But once a tweet has been birthed and sent off into the Twittersphere it is also something quite different.  The extreme analogy I use in the title of this post is that it's like a cuneiform tablet, to be regarded as an independent piece of written evidence, to be read in isolation of the conversation it belongs to and to be judged, pretty much, as if it is not that different from a book excerpt or an excerpt from a published speech. 

Except that the context itself can be very difficult to properly establish in Twitter conversations.  A published speech or a book allows those who wish a fairly quick way for checking what the context was.  It is much more difficult to establish the overall contents of a Twitter debate.  Some of them continue for days, for example.

I see individual tweets used in blog posts and in articles where the author posts screenshots of various tweets, tied to some wider topic, and usually that treatment doesn't cause problems, because the tweets are picked carefully, to present a range of opinions or feelings, say.  But it's easy to see that taking one tweet out from a longer debate also offers a different way of analyzing it.

As I noted, we have always had the problem of taking statements out of context.  But when those statements can be produced almost instantaneously,  by large numbers of people, and not always with much thought given to those future archeologists, in a setting which resembles spoken communication, that problem is made much more common.

The cuneiform tablet approach to the analysis of tweets is to assume that some particular tweet stands alone (which it may or may not do), and to then continue to dissect it on the basis of  its own contents.  In an extreme form this can resemble the way archeologists use a cuneiform tablet, written by one scribe,  to draw conclusions about, say,  the ancient Sumerians.