Is Twitter Like Speech or Like Writing? The Answer Is Yes

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

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