The Twitter Essay

Jesse Stommel

Consider the tangible violence technology has wrought upon grammar. We rely on automated grammar and spell-check tools in word-processing software (so much that they’ve become a crutch). E-mail shorthand fails to live up to the grammatical standards of typed or handwritten letters. And many believe our language is being perverted by the shortcuts (and concision nearly to the point of indifference) we’ve become accustomed to writing and reading in text messages and tweets.

For many teachers and writing pedagogues, this is a travesty, a torturous fact of modern life that we all must contend with and defend against in our classrooms. However, I would argue that we are at a moment in the history of the English language where the capacity for something wondrous is upon us. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been other wondrous moments in the evolution of human language, but there has not (and may never be again) a moment just like this one, a moment where the very fabric of how we speak and how we express ourselves through language has become so tenuous that every new textual utterance threatens to either devolve into gibberish or reinvent the very way we speak and write.

The evolution of written language is speeding up at an exponential rate, and this necessitates that we, as writing teachers, reconsider the way we work with language in our classrooms. We can no longer be the staid grammarians that taught so many of us to write, nor can we simply dismiss or overlook the teaching of grammar entirely. Rather, we must think consciously (and practically) about how our students’ conceptions of (and contexts for) writing are changing, and we must approach the teaching of grammar in new and innovative ways.

While I agree that technology has wrought a certain violence upon grammar, I would argue that writing instructors can exact an even more punishing and permanent sort of violence. Students aren’t terrified to send text messages or post status updates to Twitter or Facebook, but they are often terrified to write academic papers.

David Crystal writes, in txtng: the gr8 db8, “The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon — as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards. There is a widely voiced concern that the practice is fostering a decline in literacy. And some even think it is harming language as a whole.” His use of the word “deviant” here is telling, suggesting that, in the eyes of detractors, text-messaging as a medium threatens not just grammatical errors, but moral infractions. It isn’t just that technology, and text-messaging in particular, threatens to undermine language, but in so doing, it threatens to undermine the very culture upon which literacy is so precariously perched.

Crystal goes on to refute this belief a few pages later, writing, “All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong, or at least debatable. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a totally new phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to the young generation. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy.” He points out that the average texter is aware when they are breaking the rules. He or she is aware of the ways that text-message-speak distorts Standard English — aware, in fact, to the point of revelry.

One of the primary goals of abbreviations in text- or Twitter-speak is to condense an utterance to fit the 160 character limit of a text message or the 140 character limit of a Twitter post (or Tweet). However, there is also a certain charm, a playfulness, involved. There is pleasure in the act of composing with these constraints, an intentional and curious engagement with how sentences, words, and letters make meaning. Composing a text message or tweet is most certainly a literate (and sometimes even literary) act. And, interestingly, the average text message or tweet distorts grammar much less than the naysayers would have us believe.

In fact, more often, text messages and tweets rely on very conventional sentence structures and word order to create clear contexts for the various abridgments. However, like a poem, this form has the ability to condense what might otherwise be inexpressible into a very small and self-consciously constrained linguistic space. And, also like a poem, a clever text message or tweet unravels, offering layers of meaning and interpretability for the reader. For example, neologisms are quite common in the world of texting. In a recent exchange I had via text, “hiyah” came to mean both a greeting (as in “hi ya”) and the sound effect accompanying a karate-chop, a calculated portmanteau, a “hello” that feels like an assault. Granted, this sort of inventiveness is not always rampant in the wild, but the medium certainly offers and encourages this potential.

I’ve recently experimented in my composition classes with an assignment I call The Twitter Essay, in which students condense an argument with evidentiary support into 140 characters, which they unleash upon a hashtag (or trending topic) in the Twitter-verse. Tweets often attempt to convey as much information in as few words as possible. A tweet could be seen, then, not as a paragon of the many potential horrors of student writing, but as a model of writerly concision. In composing their Twitter-essay, I have students proceed through all the steps I would have them take in writing a traditional academic essay, including brainstorming, composing, workshopping, and revising. I also have them consider and research their audience, the Twitter members engaged in discussion around a particular hashtag. Finally, I have them work dynamically with the Tweets of their peers, responding to them on Twitter and close-analyzing them in class. I ask the students to consider their word-choice, use of abbreviation, punctuation, etc. To model the activity for them and to give them a sense for the shape of a Twitter Essay, I compose my instructions for the assignment in exactly 140 characters and post them to Twitter.

For example, in my upper-division writing course, “Queer Rhetorics,” I instructed the students to,

Write an essay about #queer in 140 characters that does real work in the world, not wasting one character. Make something happen with words.

The most interesting response I got to this particular prompt was from a student that had never used Twitter previously:

#queer #kwear #qu’eer #ckwewr #QuEeR #qr #kuere #CWEER #qawear #kwier #cawe’re #ckuere #cwear #qwere #chweir #q-u-e-e-r

Without even fully understanding the function of hashtags, the student managed to disrupt (or queer) the primary organizational structure of discussions on Twitter. The essay was about #queer in both its content and its form, while also savvily disrupting how we tag ideas within a discourse.

I assigned a similar activity to a group of composition students in a class on “The Posthuman,” another topic that lends itself well to experiments with modality and the disruption of language and discourse. I asked these students, again in exactly 140 characters,

What is the posthuman? Write a Twitter essay on #posthuman in 140 characters that explores or complicates the term. Don’t waste a character.

More interesting than the responses I got for that particular question were the ways my students took to using Twitter after doing the activity. Twitter became a space for investigating and troubling language. Outside of any required class activity, one student tweeted,

#Rhetoric is a means by which humans imbue each other with their ideas. Through the use of ideas, authority, emotions, and logic.

My students also decided to send @replies (or messages tagged for a particular Twitter user) to one of the authors we were studying in class, Steven Shaviro, asking questions about and responding to his work in an attempt to bring him into the conversation we were having in class. This particular author, though himself an avid Tweeter, didn’t respond; however, for me, the success of the activity was measured by the hum in the room as the students realized they could use Twitter to communicate directly (and in real-time) with the author of the essay we were discussing that day.

Here is the text I used for the Twitter Essay assignment in my “Monstrous Bodies” course in Fall 2011:

INSTRUCTIONS: The Twitter Essay

1. Write what I call a “Twitter Essay.” In the next few weeks, we will return to some of the overarching questions of the course, so let’s use this activity as a way for us to begin formulating the revised thinking we have about monstrosity, the human, horror, etc. Here are the instructions:

What is a monster? Answer in a Twitter essay of exactly 140 characters using #twitteressay. Play, innovate, incite. Don’t waste a character.

(The instructions above are exactly 140 characters, so this gives you a sense for how much space you have to work with.) Post your essay on Twitter. The only rule is that you must include the hashtag “#twitteressay” somewhere in your Tweet. You can add additional hashtags or links, but you can only write one Tweet and it must be exactly 140 characters. Feel free to address any aspect of monstrosity. (No need to use our course hashtag, #monstersclass, unless it makes specific sense for you to include it.) You can offer a revised definition of the word “monster” or narrow in on a more specific topic. Spend time carefully composing, making sure every character of your tweet is necessary and meaningful. As you work, think also about the components of a traditional essay: a hook, an argument, supporting evidence, etc. While you can take creative license in how you interpret the word “essay,” you should at least be able to make an argument (if pressed) for how your Tweet functions as an essay.

2. Now, peer review. Search #twitteressay on Twitter to see all of the Twitter Essay tweets. Respond to (and, perhaps, retweet) at least two of the ones you find. In your response, analyze the choices the author made and/or offer additional thoughts. Include the author’s handle and our course hashtag “#monstersclass” somewhere in your tweet. So, for example, if I were peer reviewing my own instructions:

@Jessifer’s use of “incite” in the #TwitterEssay is unusual juxtaposed with “play.” Incite often has negative connotations. #MonstersClass

(Note that the peer review tweet does not have to be exactly 140 characters.)

Gary Small writes, in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains . . . Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now — at a speed like never before.” David Crystal concludes his book on texting in a similar way, “Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. Some love it. I am fascinated by it, for it is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. In texting we are seeing, in a small way, language in evolution” (175).

Small and Crystal locate the evolution they each describe in different places. For Small, it is our brains themselves that are evolving, whereas for Crystal, it is language doing the evolving, as though words are somehow distinct from the people uttering them. Both highlight the way that learning and language are defiantly dynamic processes. The perversion of language in a text-message or tweet has both use value and intrinsic value. There is both the end result of concision and the fun to be had in attaining it. There is both the undoing of language for the purpose of making meaning and the undoing of language for its own sake, calling attention to the fundamental oddity of its rules and structure.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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