Learning the Foreign Language of Twitter

Any time I go to Europe, as this week, I come back ashamed of my lack of linguistic skills. This time I struggled through a brief conversation in French with a Brussels taxi driver trying to talk about the impact of the snow on Eurostar, my sentences larded with ghastly grammar, incorrect syntax and the odd English word. Goodness knows what he made of it. I then went to the European Commission where everyone from the security guards at the door to the secretariat I encountered at the top of the building seemed to speak faultless English. In the case of the former, it didn’t alter the fact that they wouldn’t let me into the building as no one had given me my correct badge, but they could at least explain fluently why I couldn’t get in until someone came to vouch for me.

I realise the ‘language’ I have been trying to learn most recently has, however, been Twitter. It is of course not just the words but the syntax, conventions and abbreviations. Some of these have come from texting I suspect, and personally I have never mastered the art of emoticon symbolisation. But my tweets can cope without a smiley (or any other kind of face), so I’m not troubled by this. But there are stylistic conventions I have quite consciously set out to learn and others where I remain  uncertain.

Dorothy Bishop has written a helpful introduction to Twitter and if you aren’t familiar with the medium at all you could go there for wise words which I won’t attempt to recapitulate. I have also written an explanation of why I think tweeting is helpful for academics and other professionals to enable them to access articles, commentaries and so on they might otherwise miss, in a very efficient way (albeit that article was written with a specific emphasis on women in science, the arguments hold equally true in other spheres).  I don’t want to cover that ground at all here. What interests me is how one ‘learns’ how to use the medium. It does seem to me the parallels with learning a language are very close.

I spent some time reading other people’s tweets before I got myself an account and started tweeting, so I had to learn how to recognize twitterhandles (@), shortened links and hashtags (#). The latter still seem slightly mysterious to me because you seem able to make up your own whenever you want. I think. Sometimes you suddenly see a whole string of tweets with some particular hashtag which takes off. #overlyhonestmethods seemed to be a particularly successful and entertaining hashtag(see here where the stream seems still to be going strong many weeks after its creation and a write-up here), with brief descriptions of what isn’t put in scientific methods.  People can be very creative given the right nudge. Twitterhandles are easy because they are essentially just like one’s email address, but knowing how to shorten links so that a web address fits into the 140 character limit is something that required 5 minutes homework on my part, noting how many of these started bit.ly and simply Googling that. (These days Twitter does the abbreviation all by itself, if you want to leave it to it).

But it is the customs and shorthand that take rather longer to get to grips with. The abbreviations such as RT (retweet), MT (modified tweet) and HT (heard through) seem simple enough, but the tricky question of when is a RT really a MT seems on a par with how long is a piece of string. If I modify someone’s tweet to fit it into 140 characters should I label it with an RT or MT – and does it matter? It seems to me that people behave differently but I’m not sure that, whatever one does, it can amount to a serious breach of etiquette. I try to indicate where I heard something from using HT, but sometimes that gets squeezed out by the character limit (particularly if a twitterhandle is long). I regret sometimes being sloppy in this way but I won’t lose sleep over it. The trouble is, I have reached my conclusions on these points simply by trying to read between the lines, as it were, of what other people tweet. Maybe my tweetguistic skills are as good as my French and I’m actually quite out of line – but I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

There are other kinds of courtesy that I’m unsure about. Suppose someone’s #ff’d me (which turns out to stand for Follow Friday and its message is ‘I like this person so why don’t you follow them too’ and is tweeted by some people on – you guessed – a Friday, usually at least) do you thank them for the thought or take it in your stride and ignore it? I tend to thank them, although when someone did this about me for a significant number of Fridays in a row I stopped. Once was enough (by them and hence by me) in my book.

If someone retweets me (sorry, RTs me), I feel pleased that I’ve said something significant enough for someone else to want to pass it on, but I’m hardly going to send them a vote of thanks. But if they’ve retweeted my tweet linking to a recent post of mine – or even more if they’ve actually said some nice words about a particular blog I’ve written – then I try to say thank you because it means a lot to me. Sometimes, though, this becomes impossible simply because I can’t keep an eye on the twitter feed closely enough to spot the RTs – and once or twice just because the numbers of RTs were so numerous it was simply unfeasible to thank everyone, chuffed though I was (which was the case with the impostor syndrome  post of mine). I am conscious of the fact that several tweets in quick succession thanking a number of people for their RTs make for very boring reading for other readers, so apologies to you!

There is one aspect of Twitter which a lot of people seem to have failed to decode, demonstrating a real linguistic failure to pick up a basic rule of operation. This concerns in essence a confusion between replies and retweets. If you want to reply to someone the tweet will begin @joannabloggs,  followed by the message you want to send them. However if you want to reinforce a message that @joannabloggs has already tweeted, you may want to stress that this is something she has said. In speech you might well say ‘Joanna Bloggs makes a good point…’, on Twitter if you begin with @joannabloggs then only she will receive the message (plus those who follow you both). I frequently see this syntax going astray; the correct thing to do is to begin with some other character rather than the @ sign. People use a  . or sometimes “ (as in . @joannabloggs or “ @joannabloggs ), although I think any character would do. Again that is only ‘ I think’; I may be wrong. I find myself feeling slightly disappointed when I spot people who obviously wanted to pass on that they’d liked something I’d written but who only manage to say so to me!

This is clearly exactly the sort of thing when concentrating on your ‘language’ and looking at what other people are doing, should enable you to pick up the correct syntax just as with learning a foreign language as a child. The difference is that there is no parent to correct your mistakes and I don’t think total immersion in Twitter – as in being sent on an Erasmus year abroad or, the old-fashioned female way, of becoming an au pair – would be a desirable way to spend one’s time. So syntactical errors continue and we each develop our own modus twittendi , to coin a (bad foreign) phrase.

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7 Responses to Learning the Foreign Language of Twitter

  1. Grant says:

    I have to admit I first thought #ff was a reference to FriendFeed… (As must be obvious, I haven’t bothered to do “homework” on twitter and simply figure it out as I go…)

  2. A Walrus says:

    There are, in fact, basically no rules about what you can and cannot post to twitter (assuming you haven’t broken the law, by e.g. breaking an injunction). I’d caution you against thanking people for retweets and #FFs (unless they’re above you in the twitter food chain), as it will take you a long time!

    I’d liken twitter etiquette learning to more like a computer game than a language – it is much more accessible than Chinese, or even French, since it’s written in (mostly) natural language. (indeed, if you’re French, there’s plenty of feeds to follow in that language too! Less so in Chinese, you want to be on Weibo instead.) It is also important to realise that you can make up your own hashtags etc, just don’t expect them to trend (although, if they’re tweeted by @AtheneDonald I suspect that would increase their chances!)

    I used to spend a lot of my time on twitter, and would post long (4-5 tweet) rants about political things that annoyed me just that minute. Of course this meant that many people who actually know me unfollowed me for tweeting too much! I try to keep my feed cleaner now, and generally only post my own thoughts there I think they will amuse, and links to interesting things. This is a much better route to twitter success (some followers, occasional spontaneous mentions) than letting your brain run riot.

  3. Owen says:

    I always thought HT stood for Hat Tip, but the peculiarities of twitter punctuation are beyond me. I gather a lot of it used to be relevant for telling people what to do in the early days but isn’t any more, but I don’t really know…

    I was certainly not under the impression that starting a tweet with someone’s name restricted who could read it though.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’d always thought that HT meant Hat Tip, too, but Heard Through works just as well!

    Starting a tweet with someone’s name means that only that person, and people who follow both of you, will see it show up in their feed. Anyone else can see it if they click through to your profile to read all your tweets, but most people don’t do that as a matter of course. So yes, starting with something else (I usually use “. @whoever”) will definitely mean that more people see your tweet.

  5. Martin Humphries says:

    No need to thank us for retweets Athene! P.S. HT also means ‘hat tip’

  6. On the use of hashtags # they are often used as markers for conference or discussion topics to allow live tweeting. So when I blog I sometimes insert them in the post title and this gets automatically tweeted with the relevant hashtag. Just me being lazy perhaps? Live tweeting is an art in itself which requires rapid assimilating skills and a good keyboard if it is done accurately and objectively. You can use Storify to look at a record of a series of tweets and share it with others. You can also use TweetDeck which manages simultaneous streams of tweets in parallel columns. Finally, if you think 140 characters is not enough you can either send a stream of connected tweets, or to avoid over-tweeting use Twitlonger, which produces a tweeted link to longer text. I assume one day we may all just get bored with it …

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