Award-Winning Fjords Thomas Reynolds

The Tweets They Are A-Changin'

How you do add more meaning to 140 characters optimizing for brevity over clarity? You can infer meaning and intention from what you know about the author. If you know the author in real life, often you can hear the way they would have said a certain word or imagine the way their eyes sparkled when turning a clever phrase. Even then, careless writing can confuse even those who know you best. It doesn't help that we often affect a certain style in our writing that is absent from our speaking.

Twitter's original purpose was to broadcast your short opinions to a selection of people who wanted to hear what you had to say. This small tribe were likely to know you well enough to read between the lines or, if they couldn't, they would simply to stop following you.

But Twitter grew up. Rather than providing a way for small, mostly overlapping, groups of people to communicate, they've decided to push the idea of one, massive, system-wide conversation organized by Trending Topics. This means a message between friends can find its way in front of thousands of unfriendly eyeballs unwilling to treat a pithy statement as something they does not require a response.

As Twitter's growth accelerates, it seems the number of angry conversations I am having on it are increasing as well. For the most part, something I say intended for friends or developers is retweeted and suddenly some Tea Party moron I've never met is yelling at me for infringing on his freedoms.

I guess there isn't much I can do to fix this situation. The universe tends towards entropy and human conversation tends towards anger, indigence and a lack of basic respect for others' opinions. That said, I have developed my own kind of "emotional inference style guide" and I'm going to tell you about it.

Personal Opinion, Expressed Anger & Direct Attack

Let's say my iPhone crashed. Here are three ways I might tweet about it. Each has its own meaning to me, though others may read them all identically.

In the first case, I am complaining out loud about a mass corporation who I would never expect to give a damn. I can say whatever I want, it's venting plain and simple.

In the second case, I'm complaining directly to an account for that company. Likely this will be a Customer Relations person and there is an off chance they will respond. I've seen organizations like Comcast doing actual troubleshooting and refunds over their official Twitter accounts.

In the third case, I am directly attacking a human being with a Twitter account. They should take this personally and I wouldn't be surprised if they fight back.

The Example Prompting This Article

Earlier today I had a similar issue. @BoazSender, a friend who I've met at several conferences, retweeted a blog article from his company's official account. I chose to express my opinion at the company @Bocoup account because I wanted to attribute the original tweet, but I also didn't want to address the author himself because that would be too confrontational.

Needless to say, nobody but myself knows my own internal logic so my glib opinion landed as an insult instead. Even worse, since all the employees follow their official account, they all took it personally. Twitter multiplexed my opinion into a dozen tiny insults. Whoops. Sorry guys.

Auto-Searches and Passing Along Hate

The above example is probably my fault. I tried to fix it as quickly as possible. However, there are even worse ways in which my system fails. In my first example, I did not reference a real Twitter account and assumed that a real human would not read or respond to it. It turns out that I am very wrong. Many people seem to be running automatic searches for their names on Twitter and then responding to anyone who mentions them. This seems like a good way to go crazy unless you are universally loved.

Now my first, and least insulting, example has suddenly jumped to the most insulting level. Still, if you're searching for people talking about you, you deserve what you get. All I can say is, I have opinions and I will express them and I did not intend to be confrontational.

Finally, there are toadies who follow me even when the recipient of my opinion does not. I know big wigs don't follow my little account, so I feel safe to call them out on things. But then a fan of whoever I insult reads my tweet and passes it along to the target. Whereas my original statement was vaguely directed, the retweet basically says "Hey X, so and so thinks you suck." It's hard to recover from that kind of introduction.

Conclusion (Poor John Gruber)

All I can say is, everyone should try to assume opinions are just opinions and take disagreements as gracefully as possible.

That said, I'm starting to feel back for John Gruber. John writes the incredibly popular Daring Fireball blog. He has a @daringfireball work account and a @gruber personal account. He has strong opinions and tweets them from his personal account. His blog and that account are usually well-reasoned and researched.

And yet, he receives tons of directly targeted hate tweets. The internet is a mean place. It was nice when it was in the Youtube Comment Ghetto, but really sucks when it spills over into your personal communication.

Most of these assholes (fuck those guys) message @gruber directly with some raw hate about his blog. In my system I wouldn't feel bad saying "I think John Gruber is wrong," if I felt that way. If an article needed a correction, I'd message @daringfireball. But never would I say mean things to @gruber for something he wrote on @daringfireball.

Twitter is becoming the defacto source for Ad Hominem attacks.