The Syntax Of Twitter

John is as John does. Or something.

I’ll never forget the words of my year ten English teacher Ms. Beddoe. She wrote:

John is a fluent, careful writer.

This actually puzzled me more than anything that had appeared on a school report before. Fluent seemed like a wonderful compliment though I wasn’t sure if ‘careful’ was a good thing or not. Was I unable to take literary risks? Was I too bound to convention?

Perhaps I was. To think it only took me eleven years – and a humble status update service called Twitter – to reach this conclusion. Twitter is one of those inexplicable things in life that seems utterly pointless to the uninitiated. Yet to the true believers (myself included) its value seems so obvious. It poses one simple question: What are you doing? You respond in 140 characters. Of course in any given moment the question could just as easily be:

  • What are you thinking?
  • What are you wearing?
  • What excites you?
  • What frustrates you?
  • What inspires you?
  • Who do you love?
  • What is trying your patience?

The question could be anything, really, and your only constraint is the number of characters with which to respond. In my English classes I was taught that constraints were actually helpful, that form allowed you to concentrate on content. We analysed the poems of Robert Frost and Robert Gray. I laboured over a one stanza sonnet for hours and somehow by the end of that process it made it feel even more satisfying. Certainly this 140 character constraint was an invitation to be more concise. In a world where people are always complaining they don’t enough time this chunk of information is still easily digestible.

Yet the true power of Twitter is even more subtle. You are not merely your job title. Or your martial status. Our identities are a culmination of a lot of intricate factors – interests, beliefs, desires, values, subject matters – and Twitter allows us to disseminate all kinds of information, from the trivial to the profound. Every piece of information I have about you helps my understanding of you. If I know you in a professional capacity, I will know what you do. If you sell life insurance I will know that. However I might not know that you are a Michael Jackson fan. Indeed there may never be an appropriate context for you to make mention of it. Lots of people will tell you that there are things you should or shouldn’t do on Twitter. However I maintain the value of the stream of information is that it is presented ‘as is’ without judgment or prejudice. The responsibility is on the follower to opt-in and opt-out as they see fit, the only obligation the Twitterer has (in my opinion) is to be authentic. Social media is an invitation to be yourself.

The biggest stumbling block I feel I had with Twitter was my desire to impose a syntax and structure on the tweets I made. At the time I would see my tweets started with @johnlacey in my feed. The end result of this observation was basically that I took to talking about myself in the third person.

@johnlacey is going to bed.
@johnlacey is listening to Dinah Washington.
@johnlacey is as @johnlacey does. Or something.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Though what I found was that people would respond to the same observation (that I was listening to Dinah Washington for example) in different ways depending on how I presented that information. If I said I was listening to Dinah Washington all it really signified was my ears’ proximity to a recording of that particular artist. Other people might reply with, “Oh, I was listening to her earlier” (if they replied at all). As an observation it was too matter-of-fact. It said nothing about my relationship to the music (whether I liked it or not), it didn’t speak of my motivations for listening to it. There was no colour, just a chronology of events. It is the difference between an Encyclopedia presenting the ‘facts of the matter’ and a memoir of someone who was caught up in the situation itself. What was missing was personality. As much as your interests and beliefs and hopes and dreams, language – the very words you use – help construct a picture of who you are.

If you have a penchant for sarcasm and flippancy (and I know I do!), I want to know about it. If you’re caring and earnest I want to know that too. Certain forms of communication lend themselves better to these understanding than others. Remember you are not bot. (At least I hope you’re not. Perhaps you’re a search engine spider. In which case I meant no offense, please carry on indexing this site as you see fit.) Be yourself, express yourself. Happy tweeting!

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