Hacking The Tweet Stream
M.G. Siegler
1396

Great publishing works with the medium, not against it

Today MG Siegler pointed out that there is a new trend on twitter: posting long passages of text with highlights accompanying your tweets. He is right, and I have seen a similar trend. You might have come across posts like this one, too:

I am quite sure that many of my readers here are now confused as they have no idea what I am talking about. These are readers have some issue that they can’t do much about:

  • Maybe they are blind and can not see text in an image
  • Maybe they are on a tiny device and whilst the font here is readable the text in a small JPG with artifacts is less so.
  • Maybe they are on an unreliable connection and the image hasn’t loaded yet
  • Maybe they have a mis-configured ad-blocker that is overzealous with its blocking

None of these things are uncommon, and that is my problem with this new trend. Siegler’s post saw this trend as a great idea and wondered if Twitter shouldn’t offer a way to make this simpler. As many people do it, this should become a feature, right?

Adding features that users invented can be a sensible thing to do. Let the users decide what to do with your product and make it easy for them. Many features of Twitter came about this way and a lot of them are useful.

Posting massive text passages as text is not. Accessibility issues aside, text in images has other problems:

  • You can’t translate it
  • You can’t search it
  • It is likely to be too small to read and you need to tap the image and leave your news stream

This kind of Twitter usage assumes a lot of good-will on the side of the reader. It is much more costly in terms of data traffic and steps of consumption.

If Twitter were to offer this as a feature and make it easier, it would also soon become a moderation nightmare. Hashtags are already going that way. They remind me of the times when “SEO experts” flooded the keywords meta element of pages. Or added lots of keywords in tiny text to pages to boost search engine indexing. We valued the linking of our texts above the content of them. Why write something sensible when you can just flood your post with hashtags and thus show up in people’s feeds?

As Chris Dixon points out the engagement of these posts is much higher than a link. However, this might be because it is a new thing. If the spammers and annoying loud-mouths of Twitter will make every tweet like this, you’ll lose your readers again.

Boundaries are good — they force you to be creative

I love that Twitter is limited to 140 characters. I like writing postcards, they also are in a fixed size. I liked sending text messages. I got annoyed when people sent me long ones that got cut up into several ones and didn’t arrive in the correct order.

Limitations aren’t a thing we need to fight every single time. Sometimes they can be a beautiful reminder:

  • Let’s re-phrase what we wrote
  • Let’s keep things short and to focus on the important bits.
  • Let’s find terser wording and add to our vocabulary
  • Let’s use that second chance to wonder if we really want to send this message out to thousands of people. Is it really a necessary message? Could it be misunderstood?

A lot of the use cases of the technique of “text in images” explained in the post are mimicking more sensible, already existing solutions:

  • Instead of taking a screenshot of a part of text of a post, leave a comment on that site. In commenting systems you can quote longer parts of the original text and give your answer. Comments get a URL. Your tweet then just links to the comment and keeps the context intact.
  • If the site has no commenting system or one that is ridiculously hard to use (I am looking at you, Business insider, asking me to allow you to update my Twitter profile) use a system that allows you to post something. Like medium, or tumblr, or pastebin — anything that allows you to publish some text.
  • As people use the Notes app on their iPads to create these posts, why doesn’t Notes have an option to share this text as a text and give it a nice to read URL? Surely that is isn’t hard?

Twitter is great for a few use cases:

  • Posting resources with a very short explanation what they are (articles, images, videos)
  • Posting personal updates about what is happening
  • Posting pictures of fluffy animals

Twitter is absolutely terrible for:

  • Posting long text content that needs to stay in context. Cutting it up into [1/16], [2/16] and so on doesn’t count as your tweets will get interspersed with others in the feed.
  • Arguments. It is so easy to misunderstand one another when a medium is that short, and harsh words tend to be much shorter than supportive ones.

There have been many solutions to allow people to tweet more than 140 characters. All of them came and went, and Twitter didn’t add that feature. I think this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with limiting yourself and play by the rules of a medium. Uploading a 2 hour video of yourself on YouTube will not get you many viewers that watch it all. Doing a punchy one minute one or a well organised 5 minute one will.

Twitter is a firehose of information. It’s search feature is terrible, it’s archiving feature not really easy to use either. It is a global chat room. Go and chat. Use the web to write and point to it with Twitter. That way you will get many people to read you. If you publish text as images to give context you put your own needs above the ones of your readers. You better be super important if that is how you act. Somehow I doubt you are. I know I am not, that’s why I keep to 140 chars, that’s why I add alternative text when I can, and that’s why I don’t publish my tweets as videos or interpretive dance.