Proper Form Applies In 140 Characters or Less As Well

Twitter is often written about, often used and as often abused. Everyday, thousands of tweets fly by me at break neck speed due to the volume of people I follow. Many of these short form messages in 140 characters or less are eloquent and precise. Others constitute butchered English short form that demonstrates a lack of attention to detail.

The rule of “Say it in 140” is critical. If you cannot convey your thought in 140 characters or less the first time, chances are your audience will miss the next tweet that continues the thought. Clearly, there are exceptions to every rule and often entire dialogues will erupt between two ore more twitter users. However, in general, a thought should be expressed clearly, concisely and entirely in a single tweet. It’s good form and it’s also good practice.

I’ve noticed that, since my adoption of Twitter in November of 2006, I have gotten much better at formulating these thoughts. Let me say, for the record, it’s hard! Very involved concepts take utmost care and effort to convey in short form.

As difficult as it is, especially when it comes down to cutting and trimming words, to not butcher the English language. Like prose, journalism or poetry, lack of attention to these details may earn the tweeter a bad reputation, and could be seen as unprofessional.

Does that mean that perfect sentence structure is required? Hardly. Shortened sentences are perfectly fine. However, choppy thoughts that are merely chopped to cram – maybe not so much.

Other areas of concern for me, as a Twitter reader, are:

  • Automatically pushed messages that simply consume an RSS feed and push tweets out into the ether. Generally, these are not well formed (being formed for a Blog post and not a tweet, and are cut off. Incomplete thought = FAIL.
  • Multiple streams of thought in a single tweet. Usually, with the intention of efficiency, someone might respond to two tweets at once. Though I suggest eliminating multiple tweets above, that rule applies to tweets around a single thought. If you have two thoughts you want to respond to, send two tweets. It’s a commodity.
  • Retweets are awesome. They are tweets from someone else that you think are valuable enough to “REtweet” to your own followers. Usually, retweets are indicated with a preceding “RT”. The area of concern here, as it applies to format, surrounds multiple retweets. Example: “RT @UTexasMcCombs: RT @statesman The House passed the $787 billion stimulus bill 246-183”. Retweets should be limited to the original poster. Everything else is simply noise and unnecessary. Plus, it removes available characterage.
  • Prolific use of “U” and other shorthand. The shortened form of “You” came from text messaging where it was more difficult to actually type a word out. Thus, we have tragic sentences like, “OMG WTF R U asking?” – Folks, we’re talking two additional characters. For the love of all that is good and right in this world, type the word out and make a statement about your intelligence.

I write this post because there is a new book coming out entitled “140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form” which seeks to help people understand this concept of form and style. It’s written by veteran Twitter users @dom and @adamjackson and thus comes from actual experience. Hat tip, by the way, to Jenna Wortham who covered this over at the New York Times Bits blog.

What are some of your Twitter form suggestions?

7 Replies to “Proper Form Applies In 140 Characters or Less As Well”

  1. My biggest pet peeve isn’t related to the 140 limit specifically, but popular twitterers not considering how their twitter frequency scales. I’ve seen ‘celebrities’ @reply dozens of people in a row, pushing other people’s updated down.

    Now I know I can turn off replies to people I’m not following, but that’s too restrictive for my taste. Plenty of times, people who twitter at low volume reply back to someone with an interesting comment or link, and I’d lose those too. I realize at some point, you’re not meant to be able to read every single tweet from your followers anymore, but I want to avoid one person using up a page worth of space with their rapid fire tweets.

    There’s no good solution here. The current wave of non techie celebs that are joining Twitter see it as a tool to get back in direct touch with their fans, so they’re being polite by replying back to as many people as possible.

    It would be great if Twitter (or a Greasemonkey script/Firefox extension) would roll up multiple tweets from the same person in a single item into one with a ‘more’ link to unfold the rest.

  2. I agree with Joost on people who reply many times in a row, although I notice it with non-celebrities too. It would be nice if you could apply the “turn off replies to people you’re not following” to specific people; “loosely follow” perhaps?

    Also, there was one Twitter account I followed for a (short) while that not only simply consumed an RSS feed, but didn’t have links to the articles! Double FAIL. There are some auto-tweets I still follow, but only because they’re doing something unique.

  3. New Twitters will do to the airlines what newbie travelers did. For years and years, business and experienced flyers all “knew” the rules, the “proper form” of travel. How to wait at a gate, how to walk with luggage, how to pack, what luggage MEANS, the rules of deplaning, the rules of boarding…. casual travelers shook up air travel — and not in a good way. But, the recession is making things all right again as the people who should not have been flying are no longer.

    Twitter will go through a swell of new people who do not respect the community enough to learn about it, will change it, kill it or get bored with it, then move on. Whether the community will have the patience to weather the disruption remains to be seen. My guess is they will not and quietly move on.

  4. U is probably my biggest pet peeve in the texting and tweeting world. Because when I’m talking to “you” I want to show “you” that “you” are important enough and worth all three characters. Or something. :)

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