On Twitter and Language


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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24 Responses

  1. First, information and knowledge were shaped slowly from generation to generation.  Later, oral tradition gave way to silent reading as the book became the predominant from, and then you jump ahead to the explosion of the novel with the printing press.

    I’m not sure I agree with this, or that this statement is as obviously correct as it might seem at first glance.  I do believe–as you hint with your nod to the Iliad and the Bible–that there were for a long time supposedly authoritative texts and that what passed for formal, educated knowledge claimed to adhere to or be in conversation with these texts.  I also believe that there was and still is a large reservoir of “folk wisdom” and its equivalents that pass and have passed for something like a popular version of authoritative knowledge, against which newer knowledge was and still is judged.

    But I don’t think we can say that knowledge necessarily moves and is shaped more rapidly than, say, 100 years ago, or 400 years ago, or 1000 years ago.  I know that this seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people (not to me, however, because I have a bias toward seeing continuity over change in time, although I acknowledge mine is probably a minority view).  Who’s to say that a non-literate or semi-literate person in any time period is not going to live life and draw their own conclusions from their own observations and masses of information in a way that passed for new knowledge and information?  (I submit that even before the printed media, the amount of information one was faced with in a lifetime far exceeded one’s capacity to absorb it all.)

    This doesn’t mean Mr. Gach is wrong.  Indeed, I have no proof, just my own sensibility, and I don’t know much about Twitter other than that it exists, so I haven’t much to say about Mr. Gach’s larger point.  Just my two cents on the matter.




    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      If knowledge is still moving at the same pace, it’s because the amount of information created in the latter part of the 20th century is so overwhelming and dis-organized that knowledge has become something of a lifestyle choice (a highly individualized or sub-group centric one).

      We all have our own knowledges, many of which internally conflict with one another, not to mention with other people’s, and perhaps that’s why we can’t even begin to agree on the “case-facts” that form the basis of our political disputes.

      Another example would be the number of health studies trumpeted in books, newspapers, and on websites/television, that seeminly offer irreconciliable recommendations.Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    What Fiennes perhaps does not understand is that Twitter isn’t designed to replace the novel, it’s designed to promote the novel.

    I agree with Kain’s larger point, but that statement is just plain absurd. Twitter’s no more designed to promote the novel than, say, radio is designed to promote the novel because some guy on NPR talks about books. Maybe language is fucked.

    Anyway, you write:

    Today’s forms of communication aren’t just new or different, they’re part of an underlying shift toward quicker, shorter, more readily forgotten interactions.


    It’s not that Twitter is just another form of communication, it’s one more on a clear path toward a flighty, un-focused, and distraction-ridden media landscape where conversations consist of smaller and smaller bits, last for shorter and shorter lengths of time, and become obsolete within months, weeks, or even minutes after they take place.

    This is also somewhat absurd. “Flighty, un-focused, and distraction-ridden” describes the default human conversation, and likely describes the default human conversation as it’s been for the last 50,000-150,000 years (depending on which origin of language story you buy). The written word before novels, before the printing press, was something only an elect few could understand, and while oral traditions are an interesting contrast to ordinary, “flighty, un-focused, and distraction-ridden” conversation, they are just that, a contrast to ordinary conversation, the primary use of language. They were unusual, often carried on by an elect few as well. Twitter is so popular not because there’s a millenia-old trend of which Twitter is the apotheosis, or something close to it, but because it works so perfectly with the main functions of human language: gossip, social signalling, and other such “flighty, unfocused, and distraction-ridden” communication.

    If there is a trend, it’s towards reading in lieu of speech. Humans, in developed societies at least, probably read more now than they ever have, because so much of their life takes place on the internet. It seems, then that what’s happened is, in a way, a reverse of what you describe. The written word has gradually become more and more like the spoken word, to the point where Twitter, Facebook, and even blogs (of which Twitter and Facebook might be seen as special cases) are essentially replacements for everyday conversation, whereas the written word was once more of a replacement for long-form oral traditions. In a sense then, the tradition was towards deeper and deeper separation of speech and writing (writing starts as an encoding of oral traditions, and ends up being a medium entirely its own, with its own conventions that are in some ways completely unrelated to speech), with the internet reversing the trend, so that writing and speech become more and more similar with each internet communication innovation. They’ll likely never be identical, because we’ll always be less fluent writers than speakers, and writing will therefore require shortcuts that don’t easily translate into speech, but Twitter is pretty much what language is for.Report

    • Avatar Elizabeth in reply to Chris says:

      I think that you have actually managed to describe the exact potential problem that was asserted by E.C. – that is, that there is an incresing trend of written and oral speech becoming “more and more similiar with each internet communication innovation.”

      The written form of our language is it’s formative foundation; it solidifies the structure and lexicon from which oral communication is anchored. Spoken language has almost always been the primary source of change and innovation in langugae and sometimes those changes stick and are then incorporated into standard written English and sometimes those innovation are mere whims of fancy and are forgotten almost as quickly as they are spoken.

      The problem is that if the gap between written and spoken communication blurs to the point of indistinction then we do in fact lose large swathes of English’s potential by more or less diminishing the complexity and depth of usage that is really only achieved via the written word.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Elizabeth says:

        Except that this wasn’t the trend until recently, which flies in the face of his claim. In fact, I think this is a return to what writing was initially, which rather reverses the trend that turned writing into something largely separate from speech. I doubt it will be a complete reversal of the general trend towards a separation of the two, though. There will still be people like us who read literature because, well, it’s what people like us do.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Chris says:

          As I understand it prior to the printing press, manuscripts looked more like blogs on paper than modern books.  Each scholar who read a manuscript would write their own views or comments in the margins or after the body of the text, so manuscripts were constantly being revised and edited.  It was only with the invention of the printing press that the notion existed of a work being “finished”.

          So I think you’re right that the internet is actually taking us back as much as forward.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Chris says:

      The written word before novels, before the printing press, was something only an elect few could understand, and while oral traditions are an interesting contrast to ordinary, “flighty, un-focused, and distraction-ridden” conversation, they are just that, a contrast to ordinary conversation, the primary use of language.

      Have you ever been chatting with some as they tweet?  Or tweeted to someone as they were tweeting at a handful of other people?  Perhaps I’m just immersed in a younger more techno-genic culture, but I can’t even count the number of times I’m talking with someone and they’re on the internet, on their phone texting, or partially engaged with some other conversation, e.g. advertisements, television, movies, music, raido, etc.  Or the number of times that that other person is me.  Twitter isn’t the end-all of distracted interactions, but it certainly seems representative of the overall shift via new media.

      As for new media technologies like the Internet reversing the trend of separation between oral and written communication, I agree with you but think that it misses the larger problem, which is that though our written forms are much more oral on the surface, they lack those filters and institutional controls that had previously sorted through the chatter to help interpret and render various utterances important and meaningful.

      So I’m not concerned so much with the fact that the Iliad was a spoken narrative, but that because it could only be maintained through a group consciousness (since it wasn’t written down),  it wasn’t such a disposable commodity.  Even in that oral culture, Iliads weren’t being created left and right because they took time. 

      In the written chatter of the Internet, there’s the problem that the group consciousness that sustains the conversation is not up to the task of regulating all of the content that is produced round the clock, and will in fact be buried under the weight of it’s uselessness.  Language and knowledge do need to be regulated, else it’s all uninterpretable noise.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        It’s true that recent technologies: cell phones, cell phones with text messaging, cell phones with internet, along with iPads and iPod touches, laptops, and even desktops with the internet, and internet technologies like chatrooms, instant messaging, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, have made it possible to communicate with more than one individual roughly at the same time, on multiple topics, at once in a way that has never been possible before. However, that is so radically new, as far as I can tell, that it doesn’t fit with any historical narrative, and everything else you say in this comment fits more with my narrative than yours. Particularly when you write,

        which is that though our written forms are much more oral on the surface, they lack those filters and institutional controls that had previously sorted through the chatter to help interpret and render various utterances important and meaningful.

        Except that those filters are unusual, arbitrary even, fairly unique to writing, and have been built up over the history of written language. They weren’t really part of ordinary conversation. What’s happening is that writing is just becoming ordinary conversation. I don’t find this odd. I’m more surprised that it took this long. I guess we needed technology that made writing as close to as instant as speech to get here, and that technology required fast interconnection over distances (otherwise, why use writing?) that wasn’t possible until recently. Otherwise, this would have been what writing was like long ago.

        I also don’t find it disturbing. I do think we risk information overload, which will make it more difficult for us to filter out the real shit from the bullshit, but this has less to do with Twitter or any other single aspect of information technology than it has to do with the number of people connected and writing/ reading. (Academic disciplines can and do counter this with their previously existing trend towards increasing specialization, but that’s another topic altogether.)

        What your account is missing is that knowledge and information have always been the province of a select few, it has always been a “lifestyle choice,” though less a choice than a social and economic status in the past (I actually prefer it as a lifestyle choice, and one that is open to many more people).

        Where your trend may actually exists is in the increasing access of the uninitiated to both information sources and to the media for putting out information. The increased availability of writing and media has made this possible, and the internet is a huge leap forward in the level of such access. It’s not surprising, then, that the language of information transfer would become less refined, and more and more like that of ordinary people. But again, I don’t think this is a bad thing.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        Language and knowledge do need to be regulated, else it’s all uninterpretable noise.

        I meant to address that, too. Language and knowledge can only be regulated to the extent that the language or knowledge community’s membership is limited. Everyone has to agree on the conventions, for language or knowledge, and the community has to enforce adherence to those conventions. This is why academic knowledge and language are under no real threat: academic communities are extremely limited, with high barriers to entry, and deeply entrenched methods for enforcing adherence to conventions. But the general world of knowledge and information, and of the written language, has become accessible to a huge number of people with the advent of the itnernet, the web, blogs, Twitter, etc., and the only barriers to entry for most of the world are relatively low (for the western world) econonomic ones. Regulating this world is impossible, because access to it is not limited. And again, I don’t see this as a bad thing. It does mean the signal to noise ratio goes down, and this has, among other things, wreaked havoc with our political system to some extent, but that’s because the rest of our systems are still adjusting.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It’s the regression to the mean of written language.

    Once upon a time, the only people who knew how to write were, like, smart and rich. The handful of smart and poor people out there joined a monastery to learn to write or, sometimes, ended up working for the dumb and rich as tutors or scholars.

    Now people write things with their thumbs.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Today’s forms of communication aren’t just new or different, they’re part of an underlying shift toward quicker, shorter, more readily forgotten interactions.

    I have discovered a truly remarkable proof of this which 140 characters are too few to contain (#fermat).Report

  5. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Ethan – I might suggest that both the dynamics that you are describing and the the dynamics that Erik is describing are both happening simultaneously.  That is to say, I agree with Erik, that writers are still writing quality works of differing lengths.  Frazen and Ishiguro, for example, still take tremendous amounts of time to produce amazing, achingly beautiful prose.  New writers continue to produce works that challenge, such as The Savage Detectives.

    And on top of that, David Hasselhoff tweets.  As does Ochocinco, Megan Fox and the whole cast of Jersey Shore.

    I think this simply means that there is more happening; it does not mean that short, staccato bursts are replacing meaningful prose.  I have no data to back this up, of course, but my gut tells me that those who read little besides tweets by their friends and celebs were the same subset of people that, a generation ago, just didn’t read much at all.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      You may be right Tod.

      My sense is that decades ago, if someone wanted to “be smart,” they’d be told to go to the library and read Othello or open up a biology textbook, but that now, instead of telling that person to do those things we’d wonder (the average-case “we”) what it is we can learn from Othello that can’t be gotten from brushing up on our Desperate Housewives, or what can be gotten from teh biology textbook that can’t be gleaned faster from a message board or wikipedia.

      In other words, to Fiennes’ point, it’s not that the Shakespeare will be explored and found wanting, but that he and his work will become irrelevant to the journey all together.

      Of course there is another route to go on all this new media stuff.  Rather than ask if people will still find Shakespeare relevant, we can ask if people will still have the time and focus to ever create similar works.

      Frazen is good, but he’s also the anti-Twitter, as he demonstrated in a recent comencement address.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I think what worries me is that it is basically the same subset but a much larger subset than it once was.Report

  6. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    “Thomas Friedman exemplify the twitt-ificaton of long form journalism.  Friedman is the modern day de Tocqueville but with a much wider audience.”  Oh! My bleeding ears!

    But I do think the comparison is valid. Jaybird makes a good point above about the written word having regressed to the mean. I’ll second that suggestion.

    A guest wrote a post for my site on this topic a while ago that even goes beyond Erik’s defense of Twitter to praise Twitter as the savior of argument: http://www.theinductive.com/blog/rhetoric-revolutionized-how-twitter-facebook-and-text-messag.html


  7. Avatar karl says:

    Has anyone compared the constant creation/erasure cycle of these new electronic media to the digging and filling in of intellectual ditches?Report

  8. Avatar stuhlmann says:

    “‘You only have to look on Twitter to see evidence of the fact that a lot of English words that are used say in Shakespeare’s plays or PG Wodehouse novels — both of them avid inventors of new words — are so little used that people don’t even know what they mean now.”

    Languages evolve and change over time.  If you listen to recordings of speeches given in the early 1900s, the words used are remarkably different from those used today.  Whether this is good or bad (or both) depends on one’s point of view.

    To compare plays and novels (by Shakespeare, Wodehouse, or lesser mortals) with tweets is to compare apples and genetically modified oranges.  Plays and novels are written primarily to entertain and are painstakingly edited and corrected.  Most playwrights and authors hope that their works will be good enough to stand the tests of time and still be pleasing audiences and readers for many years to come.  Most Twitter users write for the moment.  They want to pass to their friends (or followers) a recent experience or passing thought.  Twitter is basically a conversation in text form.  It’s fire and forget.  I don’t use Twitter myself, but I can’t picture the average user, thesaurus (or thesaurus app) in hand, agonizing over whether to use happy, joyous, jubilant, blissful, blithe, merry, or gay to express a particular feeling.  But I can see modern playwrights and novelists doing so, even if their choices in words would not match what Shakespeare or Wodehouse would have chosen.


  9. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Eliot in Burnt Norton:

    Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
    Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
    Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
    Always assail them. The Word in the desert
    Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
    The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
    The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

    The detail of the pattern is movement,

    Amongst the papyri found in the Egyptian trash dump of Oxyrhynchus, we find more than copies of Euclid’s Elements and lost gospels.   Old warrants, letters full of complaints (in atrocious and often hilarious Greek), bills, shopping lists, magical text amulets, the detritus of a literate people from the middle to late Roman world rescue these people from the anonymity of time.   They write as they speak, and yes, they abbreviate.

    Fear not:  the letter is not dead.   Perhaps it’s not the stylized form of the letters from John and Abigail Adams, but it’s doing just fine, as it always has.   The English language, like the Greek of Oxyrhynchus, has become a lingua franca for millions, perhaps even billions of people who speak it as a second language.

    But the people of Oxyrhynchus still cared about the theater and its impact on society.   If Fiennes complains of the difficulty of coming to terms with Shakespeare, it was a problem in Shakespeare’s time.   Shakespeare’s English combined high and low speech, unique verbs and nouns from all over England.   That was part of the charm and genius of Shakespeare, like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks.

    Theater was always a great equalizer and improver of language.   If Fiennes has a point, and I think he does, it’s this:   we’ve put Shakespeare on a pedestal he was never meant to occupy.   We see the same problem with classical music:   once it was just much-loved music which survived the centuries.   The same seems true of the blues:  once it was encased in the straitjacket of scholarship, it turned inward and became Traditional.   Its rogue children ran off happily in other directions.   It’s the scholars who’ve imprisoned once-living art and crucified it upon their ikonostases.   Give art a chance.

    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?Report

  10. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    You’ve either been with the Occupados, or on a CIA black ops/wet work operation? However, a librul quoting T.S. is a bit disconcerting.Report