At time of writing, the infamous bird app, Twitter, is going through a rough patch. For those of you who are enviably unaware, the platform recently gained a new owner, whose grand designs for his acquisition are still being revealed to everyone, apparently even to the man himself. The site currently has an ‘end of days’ feel to it, as each wave of reports of change and misfortune rolls in and pushes us another step further down the road to some inevitable yet unclear digital doom. A fire is raging, at least through the minds of many tweeters, and there is a sense of urgency compelling all to offer up their final hot takes, niche parodies and virtuous invectives before the flames bring the whole house down.
I don’t claim to understand Elon Musk’s mind and motives, nor the behind-the-scenes workings of an Internet behemoth. I claim only to know the Twitter experience very well. I have visited, consulted, posted on and enjoyed Twitter on an almost daily basis since January 2019, when I first felt that like-induced dopamine rush and began to succumb to the affliction of being terminally online. None of this is a brag. It stands instead to serve as credentials and as some justification for why my response to this as yet ongoing saga has been one of sadness and of bracing for grief, as the blue bird flaps through its death throes. There’s no better time to reflect on the value of something than when you might be about to lose it, and I would like to explore why I have formed this attachment to this particular website above all others. Here is that reflection in prose; here is my unsolicited thinkpiece on the matter, my apologia pro tweeta sua, my love letter to Twitter.
First off, I must acknowledge that my experience of the Internet’s favourite hellsite cannot have been universal. Many people would recoil at my glowing endorsement of a virtual platform that is responsible for so much hurt, infectious rage, division and misinformation. None of that I deny. The poisons of bigotry, hostility and resentment mingle in the very flow of Twitter, and slowly seep or sometimes suddenly surge right down to the base of the soul. The outpouring of others’ intolerance is hard to avoid, though avoid it I do, partly through cunning, mostly through cowardice. When my own tweets are confronted, it’s nearly always on the basis of some point of information, in response simply to what I say. Others, however, are confronted because of who they are, for their audacity to exist publicly as themselves. Prolonged exposure to Twitter can make one suspicious, cynical, too quickly defensive; it engenders in many a penitential obsession with purity of thought, without due consideration for the unknown circumstances and the simple erring humanity of other people. The thin-skinned do not fare well. Twitter also has its own closed economy of value; a common experience is the difficulty of translating the meaning and importance of online events, and even the humour of online jokes, for people IRL. So Twitter can leave you feeling split, caught up between the never-ending shenanigans of the people who live in your phone, and an offline world that doesn’t understand and doesn’t care.
So, with all that as unhappy prologue, how could there be any positives? Who would frequent this pandemonium, save sadists and masochists? My defence, which can only serve to highlight some good among the bad, boils down to two points: that Twitter has made me twice the scholar, and that Twitter has made me twice the human being. Permit me to explain.
Very gradually over the past three years, I have developed not only an online presence but also a distinct brand. This hasn’t happened according to some grand plan or pre-existent status earned in the real world. I’ve both made myself and been made into “you know, that etymology guy”, as one friend once referred to me. Under this august title I take the hard-won insights of my beloved field, linguistics, and cram them into 280 characters. The guiding goals of my tweeted output are that it should always be accessible to a wide audience and interesting – entertaining even – yet also niche, not too well known and and not too basic.
This means that every new tweet needs not only to include that day’s primary nugget of information, but also to communicate (at least implicitly) why readers of the tweet should care, how it’s of relevance to them, and why they ought to pause their scrolling and spend their precious attention. When writing something for specialists and non-specialists alike, you have to keep your assumed knowledge to a minimum, judge where to place the threshold, and explain everything above it. All writing is an exercise in empathy, so my general linguistics tweets often work to the same structure: first mentioning a thing, then explaining a little about what it is and how it works, and only then giving the (hopefully) interesting info that is the whole raison de tweetre.
With all these necessary steps to take (and I certainly don’t claim to have always got it right), every single character matters. You are forced to be creative and extremely economical with your wording, seeking synonyms, shifting syntax and pruning punctuation, all to raise the total character count out of the red minus numbers. The humble en dash becomes your truest ally, capable of carrying the grammatical weight of a long subordinate clause. Yet minimality battles against clarity, as cutting characters risks throwing out both bath water and baby.
To illustrate: a fundamental distinction in linguistics is the difference between the language you are investigating and the language you are investigating it in. The former is the object language, as it’s the object of study, while the latter is the metalanguage. Since it’s perfectly possible and frequently done to write about English in English, how do you distinguish between the two? The usual method is to put the object language in italics, but Twitter doesn’t readily support this font option on which a whole field depends. What I love is that, in response, Twitter linguists have come up with different accessible ways to mark object language, pretty much through personal trial and error. While I’ve settled on ‘single quotation marks’, others use “double quotation marks”, _underscores_ or «guillemets» to do the job. Then you have the additional need to provide translations for any foreign words that are tweeted about. How do you separate these from the rest of the metalanguage? Quotation marks again? Brackets? Whichever you choose, it’s eating into your character limit.
Now, why mention all this? I do so because, as a writer, this almost daily struggle has been invaluable. The tweet offers limitations that crush and strain your language, refining it and making diamonds of phrasing. It’s practice that makes the skill, and practising in the Twitter format has forced me to get to know my own skill in writing with the eye of a surgeon. Needless to say, this has consequences for my output that goes far beyond tweets; it offers my ongoing doctoral studies, to use universities’ phrase du jour, transferable skills.
Twitter also provides ready response and feedback; there’s no need to wait for reviews, as thousands of potential critics gleefully await your every mistake. Well, no, that’s unfair and untrue. People are enthusiastic, receptive and keen to contribute what they can out of simple passion. A tweet begets comments, and those comments beget comments, and onward rolls the incessant conversation that is academia in its purest form. The unpredictable opportunities to learn, to discuss and to learn in order to discuss better are, frankly, a privilege. The proportion of linguistic knowledge that I now owe to that website is worryingly large by any metric, in terms of what it has directly taught me and what it has inspired me to teach myself. As a result, I am today twice the historical linguist, twice the typologist, twice the syntactician and thrice the etymologist that I could have ever been without it. So, as I reflect on what it has gifted me, I feel justified in a sense of preemptive loss for what I may soon no longer have the chance to receive.
Yet Twitter, like language, is nothing without people – glorious, complicated, interesting and all-too-human people. You might think that it is other linguists who I have been most eager to make virtual acquaintances with, other people like myself. It’s certainly true that I am deeply grateful for their scholarship and companionship, and for their similarly esoteric senses of humour. It’s a relief that someone somewhere enjoys my puns. On reflection though, the opportunities I treasure most are not to discover people who are like me, but people who aren’t. Twitter brings right to my door whole communities that live far outside my comparatively beige real-world existence. Some of these are communities of common cause, such as the scientists and political commentators who raise awareness of interesting events through helpfully bitesize opinions that I can later pass off as my own. Others are communities of being, thanks to which I can learn about the kaleidoscopic lives of queer people, people of colour, people of different faiths, people with disabilities.
Nor am I merely a passive observer of all of this. By informing me, it has changed me, overall for the better. It makes the world more complicated, and complications make your thinking more cautious, your beliefs more sagacious. Awareness chastises any grand claims you might make about the world. It takes a scalpel to your assumptions, and makes what you think, say and write resemble something somewhat closer to the truth. I cannot claim though to have been transfigured into a perfect ally to these communities. I don’t know all the history that they have been through, all the pain endured, nor all the theory through which they understand themselves.
Yet Twitter provides me daily with the single strongest argument in support of marginalised people: their sheer existence. No sound syllogism will ever bear the same weight in confirming for me the various lived realities of gender than a transgender woman complaining about a late train, or a transgender man sharing nice pictures of an old church. No organised debate can empassion me to defend gay rights as effectively as can a gay couple posting cute pictures together. Normality normalises, and it’s through Twitter that I have encountered the real normalities of other people – not caricatures or abstractions, but people, and people will always be the best argument for themselves.
So, strange as it feels to say it, Twitter has been a light in my life, a light now at risk of extinguishment. Bigotry boils up from ignorance, and the visibility of the other is the first necessary step for understanding and accepting it. Without such a light, so many will be bereft of so much life that we will no longer have the easy opportunity to see.
I can only now hope to have successfully made the case for the defence, and to have conveyed and justified the debt that I owe to this often infuriating website in which I have made a digital home. I really cannot predict how this drama will play out; perhaps all will end well and the storm will blow by, leaving Twitter to grumble on for another sixteen years. Perhaps it won’t. Since no other platform seems to offer the same benefits and experiences, I remain resolved to stand firm with those going down with the app, stoically saluting and probably tweeting about it all too.
Danny Bate is a linguist and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Read his introduction to the language of the Old English epic poem Beowulf here, and find his blog here.