Friday, July 22, 2011

Do people think like they tweet or tweet like they think?

Years ago Andrew Harrison told me the proper etiquette for communicating with people on eBay. When you give feedback, he advised, you've got to exaggerate. A thank-you isn't enough, he said. It has to be accompanied by the word "brilliant" and a thicket of exclamation marks. He was right.

That was years before Twitter. When you've only got 140 characters to work with adjectives tend to take the place of thoughts. This produces a language in which the world is divided into people who are either "lovely" or "bad" and every experience is either "amazing" or "crap". There's no way of dealing with the average or of discriminating between monstrous events and everyday disappointments.

I wondered yesterday whether this was a case of language changing the way people thought or language changing to reflect the way they already thought. I was still wondering when the first news came in of the events in Oslo. Radio was running its usual programming and so I searched "Oslo" on Twitter. I'd never done that before in the moments after such a terrible event. Suddenly my screen was alive with thousands of messages in many different languages. Some were close to the event - there was a Word reader who lived ten minutes away - others were trying to find out about loved ones; most were, like me, just turning up to gawk, like people slowing down when passing the scene of an accident.

Some people seemed to be trying to set down their feelings before they'd decided what their feelings were. Did the person who wrote "Oslo bombed. Shitty day" really feel that the events of Friday were a bit like standing in a puddle or missing a few buses? Did the person tapping "this is so surreal" know what surreal meant and did they really find the idea of a bomb in a major European city in 2011 "hard to believe"? Maybe they did.

I'm sure all these messages were motivated by nothing but simple compassion. I suppose a lot of the people doing the messaging were very young. Surely that's the case with the one who wrote "peeps in Norway. Hope you're OK." I only hope they don't forget about it as quickly as they tweeted about it.


  1. you have to be careful building a meaningful trend from a few posts on the internet. I think people have always said banal things in response to climatic events. The differences is they generally weren't recorded and read out of context. I have a copy of Tom Phillip's book the postcard century which collects postcards (the nearest thing then to a tweet or text message) from every year of the last century and reprints the picture and the text. Even on significant days in WWII or during the moon landing the messages on the back are notable for their bland banality.

  2. Also, remember that rather a lot of people really aren't terribly good at using the English language. This includes many of those who have it as a mother tongue. So, no, the "surreal" Tweeter probably doesn't know what "surreal" means. Or, almost certainly, "ironic".

  3. So are people who don't have great command of the English language just supposed to shut up and let the professionals (who earn their living by their use of language) do all the talking?

  4. Look no further than Paul McCartney and his infamous 'it's a drag' comment when asked about Lennon's assassination.

  5. Anonymous3:47 pm

    Methinks that whether it's a postcard or a Tweet it's to do with the fact that in these contexts people are very casual with their thoughts and don't, as Dr. Johnson may urge them to do, think nor apply themselves to what are they writing. It is, as is the way with most modern emphemera, more to do with the attention span, doing it, pressing a button and then discarding it. Which is ok for lighthearted banter but heaps insult on subjects such as yesterday's bombings when you find Norway 'trending' with Hawkwind and the Kardashians. I even saw a Tweet: - Sorry about Lucien (Mr. Freud). Good bloke. - But this is is the way of the world for many, and no I am not from Tunbridge Wells