IVP - Strangely Dim - The Meaning of a Tweet

August 25, 2009

The Meaning of a Tweet

Many thanks to Dave for his kind introduction. Many thanks to Dave, Lisa and Christa for giving me a little platform here at Strangely Dim. And many, many thanks to you, dear reader, for giving me a chance when you don't know me from Eve.

As the web editor at IVP, I spend a good deal of my time writing copy that packs a lot of meaning about books or authors in short spaces. But the shortest of these short-form communiqu├ęs has to be the tweet.

Recently one of our authors (don't even try to guess, I'm not going to give any hints who it was) said that he didn't believe anything that had any real meaning could be said on Twitter. What determines the meaning of a tweet? Is it the content? Is it the format? And is this kind of broadcasting of short thoughts really so revolutionary in the history of the world?

In his book, Flickering Pixels, Shane Hipps defines media as "anything that stretches, extends, or amplifies some human capacity." If we accept Hipps' definition as at least somewhat accurate, then it seems that media forms are not simply passive tools but active reservoirs; we pour into them the meaning from our lives for the sake of passing it on.

Viewed this way, I see tweets as little micro-compressed extensions of our lives. Just like lives, tweets are

  • Fleeting. There are so many of them, a single tweet flows down your screen sometimes before you've even had time to read it. So too are lives, passing before our eyes more quickly than we can grasp and competing with so many others for prominence, each one pregnant with meaning and potential.
  • Speaking. Each tweet speaks to the world, whether or not it expects to get a response. So too the details of our lives speak to the world about us--and yes, even what we ate for breakfast can communicate something. Why else would people carve words into a tree or spray paint a message on a highway overpass or tatoo symbols on their bodies? These kinds of shout-outs to the world may feel meaningless in one sense, but their meaning lies in the very human outpouring of a desire to speak into the world, to have a voice, to declare something, and ultimately to be heard and understood.
  • Fickle. Tweets, like people, can be beautiful, funny, mean, lewd, misleading, spiritual, profound or mundane. They are conduits for all the things that lie in the human heart, which is perhaps one reason why I find these little missives so fascinating.
  • Constrained. In a tweet there are only 140 characters available to work with. We can't cram every word ever written in. We have to make choices to communicate most clearly, deciding what we want to say at the expense of what we can't say. The same is true with life. Most people have around eighty years to work with. Like a tweet, we are constrained by the boundaries of what is and what is not, what we choose and what we don't choose.

Working within constraints is one of the things I love about writing. I can't use every word in the universe; there's really only one that is best for each idea I want to convey. And part of the fun is figuring out which words to use and which not to.

This idea certainly isn't new. How about the book of Proverbs? "When words are many, sin is not absent, / but he who holds his tongue is wise" (10:19). At seventy-eight characters, including spaces and punctuation, eminently tweetable. What about memorable speeches? We don't remember the whole speech. But the short quotes are bite-sized, so they stick. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country" (seventy-nine characters). Long? No. Meaningful? Yes. Or how about song lyrics? "I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for"--128 characters. Tweet it, baby.

This highly lauded poem by William Carlos Williams could be tweeted with 51 characters to spare:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Or this Japanese Haiku:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water's sound

Simple. Beautiful. Tweet-worthy.

Of course, the short form isn't appropriate for everything. The Odyssey doesn't work very well in tiny chunks (though someone somewhere is certainly trying to tweet through it as I type). Verses from the Bible can be taken out of context and twisted beyond recognition fairly easily. Twitter, like any other media form, needs to be used with discernment, a quality many users will, unfortunately, lack.

It's that potential for misuse that may turn you off to Twitter. Or maybe it's because you think it's impersonal, or you think most of the people using it are idiots and you don't care what they have to say, or you don't like computers, or you think Twitter contributes to the general deterioration of Western society and our ability to comprehend and engage in longer forms of communication, or any number of other perfectly acceptable reasons. But please, let's cross "I don't like Twitter because it doesn't mean anything" off our lists, okay?

Posted by Rebecca Larson at August 25, 2009 8:46 PM Bookmark and Share | TrackBack


Nice post, Rebecca. I'm trying to figure out why I love Facebook status updates but am so unenthusiastic about Twitter. Maybe it's not so much the issue of brevity as it is the difference in kind of community. Twitter seems to be more like blogging - open to anybody to be read, and thus a little more indiscriminate in how a tweet might be presented to its potential readership. Whereas Facebook status updates are (at least hypothetically) bounded by a particular community of friends, and thus feel somewhat more relational.

Comment by: Al Hsu at August 25, 2009 10:06 AM

Just tweeted Prov.10:19 - think it's a great proof text for tweeter :) I'm @revtrev.

Comment by: revtrev at August 25, 2009 9:48 PM

Just like anything Twitter is what a person makes of it. It is only meaninless to onlookers but to those that use it serves a purpose. To some they network and get word about their organization, some keep up with friends activity and or make new ones. And to some it fills the void in their day. Whether it was the creators intent Twitter means something different to each user. Some do tweet spiritual thoughts and some not. It is used in many different fashions.

Comment by: charlotte at August 26, 2009 1:33 PM

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rebecca. I am not a fan of either Facebook or Twitter--I find them an annoying waste of time--but your take on the medium of the tweet (and I presume, its Facebook analogue, the status update) is fascinating, and new to me. It's apparent you've thought about this, and now I'm afraid I'll have to, too.

How annoying; it's so much more fun to have a decided dislike of something without any reason. As Elizabeth Bennet says, "It is such a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit to have a dislike of that kind." But after reading your post, I fear my judgmental scorn of Twitter and tweeting may have to give way to compassion.

Comment by: Kimberlee Conway Ireton at August 28, 2009 12:14 PM


Thanks for your comments. Hearing that I have caused a few intelligent people out there to ponder a bit further a topic they might have otherwise disregarded is truly humbling.

Comment by: Rebecca Larson at September 2, 2009 11:29 AM

Great post, Rebecca.

I'm one of the idiots who uses twitter and have found community, friendship, encouragement and inspiration through it!

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Comment by: CvLUCY at January 5, 2010 6:16 AM

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Comment by: Anjanette Talton at September 17, 2010 3:10 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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