I wrote most of this post in June 2022, before a lot of us decided to try out Mastodon. I didn’t publish it because I despaired of it making a difference. It felt like so many people were set in particular practices, including not reading blog posts! My experience on Mastodon has been so much better than the past several years on Twitter. I think this is connected with how Twitter and Mastodon handle threads.
A few years ago I wrote a critique of Twitter threads, tweetstorms, essays, and similar forms. I realize now that I didn’t actually talk much about what’s wrong with them. I focused on how difficult they are to read, but I didn’t realize how the native Twitter website and app actually makes them easier to read. So let me tell you some of the deeper problems with threads.
In 2001 I visited some of the computational linguistics labs at Carnegie Mellon University. Unfortunately I don’t remember the researchers’ names, but they described a set of experiments that has informed my thinking about language ever since. They were looking at the size of the input box in a communication app.
These researchers did experiments where they asked people to communicate with each other using a custom application. They presented different users with input boxes of different sizes: some got only a single line, others got three or four, and maybe some got six or eight lines.
What they found was that when someone was presented with a large blank space, as in an email application or the Google Docs application I’m writing this in, they tended to take their time and write long blocks of text, and edit them until they were satisfied. Only then did they hit send. Then the other user would do the same.
When the Carnegie Mellon researchers presented users with only one line, as in a text message app, their behavior was much different. They wrote short messages and sent them off with minimal editing. The short turnaround time resulted in a dialogue that was much closer to the rhythm of spoken conversation.
This echoed my own findings from a few years before. I was searching for features of French that I heard all over the streets of Paris, but had not been taught to me in school, in particular what linguists call right dislocation (“Ils sont fous, ces Romains”) and left dislocation (“L’état, c’est moi”).
In 1998 the easiest place to look was USENET newsgroups, and I found that even casual newsgroups like fr.rec.animaux were heavy on the formal, carefully crafted types of messages I remembered from high school French class. I had already read some prior research on this kind of language variation, so I decided to try something with faster dialogue.
In Internet Relay Chat (IRC) I hit the jackpot. On the #france IRC channel, left and right dislocations made up between 21% and 38% of all finite clauses. I noticed other features of conversational French like ne-dropping were common as well. I could even see IRC newbies adapting in real time: they would start off trying to write formal sentences the way they were taught in lycée, and soon give up and start writing the way they talked.
At this point I have to say: I love dialogue. Don’t get me wrong: I can get into a nice well-crafted monologue or monograph. And anyone who knows me knows I enjoy telling a good story or tearing off on a rant about something. But dialogue keeps me honest, and it keeps other people honest too.
Dialogue is not inherently or automatically good. On Twitter as in many other places, it is used to harass and intimidate. But when properly structured and regulated it can be a democratizing force. It’s important to remember how long our media has been dominated by monologues: newspapers, films, television. Even when these formats contain dialogues, they are often fictional dialogues written by a single author or team of authors to send a single message.
One of my favorite things about the internet is that it has always favored dialogue. Before large numbers of people were on the internet there was a large gap between privileged media sources and independent ones. Those of us who disagreed with the monologues being thrust upon us by television and newspapers were often reduced to impotently talking back at those powerful media sources, in an empty room.
USENET, email newsletters, personal websites and blogs were democratizing forces because they allowed anyone who could afford the hosting fees (sometimes with the help of advertisers) to command these monologic platforms. They were the equivalent of Speakers’ Corner in London. They were like pamphlets or letters to the editor or cable access television, but they eliminated most of the barriers to entry. But they were focused on monologues.
In the 1990s and early 2000s we had formats that encouraged dialogue, like mailing lists and bulletin boards, but they had large input boxes. As I saw on fr.rec.animaux in 1998, that encouraged long, edited messages.
We did have forums with smaller input boxes, like IRC or the group chats on AOL Instant Messenger. As I found, those encouraged people to write short messages in dialog with each other. When I first heard about Twitter with its 140-character limit I immediately recognized it as a dialogic forum.
But what sets Twitter apart from IRC or AOL Instant Messenger? Twitter is a broadcast platform. The fact that every tweet is public by default, searchable and assigned a unique URL, makes it a “microblog” site like some popular sites in China.
If someone said something on IRC or AIM in 1999 it was very hard to share it outside that channel. I was able to compile my corpus by creating a “bot” that logged on to the #france channel every night and logged a copy of all the messages. What Twitter and the sites it copied like Weibo brought was the combination of permanent broadcast, low barrier to entry, and dialogue.
This is why I’m bothered by Twitter threads, by screenshots of text, by the unending demands for an edit button. These are all attempts to overpower the dialogue on Twitter, to remove one of the key elements that make it special.
Without the character limits, Twitter is just a blogging platform. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with blogs! I’ve done a lot of blogging, I’ve done a lot of commenting on blogs and I’ve tweeted a lot of links to blogs. But I want to choose when to follow those links and go read those blog posts or news articles or press releases.
I want a feed full of dialogue or short statements. Threads and screenshots interrupt the dialogue. They aggressively claim the floor, crowding out other tweets. Screenshots interrupt the other tweets with large blocks of text, demanding to be read in their entirety. Threads take up even more of the timeline. The Twitter web app will show as many as three tweets of a thread, interrupting the flow of dialogue.
The experience of threads is much worse on Twitter clients that don’t manipulate the timeline, like TweetDeck (which was bought by Twitter in 2011) and HootSuite. If it’s a long thread, your timeline is screwed, and you have to scroll endlessly to get past it.
One of the things I love the most about Mastodon is the standard practice of making the first toot in a thread public, but publishing all the other toots as unlisted. That broadcasts the toot announcing the thread, and then gives readers the agency to decide whether they want to read the follow-up toots. It’s more or less the equivalent of including a link to a web page or blog post in a toot.
There’s a lot more to say about dialogue and social media, but for now I’m hugely encouraged by the feeling of being on Mastodon, and I’m hoping it leads us in a better direction for dialogue, away from threads and screenshots.