A picture tells a thousand words, but a tweet tells only 140 characters. Or does it? Camilla Ackley believes Twitter Threads are the voice of a generation.
I joined Twitter not too long after it started to rise in the ranks of social media, not quite sure how to use it and incredibly puzzled by the arbitrary character count. What it was then is entirely different to the platform it has become. While we still use it to update people on our whereabouts and tweet out benign music recommendations #nowplaying, it’s become a platform for the way our generation consumes information. One man has even gone so far (too far) as to use it to attempt to run a country. Facebook feels cluttered with the friends that you’ve accumulated over the years, too attached or embarrassed to unfriend those who clog up a newsfeed which is now 50% baby pictures, and 50% memes that may or may not make you laugh. People don’t avoid political commentary on Facebook, but it’s always so disappointing to find out your uncle voted Leave. You can’t unfriend him, but you can follow whoever you want on Twitter. It’s curated.
There were rumours at the start of the year that Twitter was done – users were leaving and growth had stagnated. The era of the tweet felt like it was coming to a close. People were flocking to Instagram or whatever else people do with their free time if they don’t have twelve social media accounts (genuinely, what do people do? Leave their homes? I’m so millennial and confused). There’s no denying that the platform was slowing down, but if Trump has done one thing well, it’s make tweeting great again. With the leader of the free world so frequently thrusting out his opinions in 140 characters (taking up far too many of those characters with exclamation marks, a sin on Twitter), people are responding in the same way. What is it they say? If you can’t beat them, tweet them? Others just want to be in on the action. Only recently, they announced an increase in character limit which has led to intelligent, and persuasive tweets such as this:
Oh wow you guys it seems I’m one of the small group of users to get the 280 character Twitter expansion this is just so exciting and will let me tweet much more complex thoughts and hilarious jokes so let me start by thanking Jack Dorsey and Twitter for enabling me to better shar
— Petra #VoteYEStarke (@petstarr) September 26, 2017
One element of the platform is shining bright in what feels like post-apocalyptic politics; the thread. A new era of political, and social, commentary has arrived. A thread is a series of tweets in which a user essentially has a conversation with themselves, replying to their previous tweet until their point is sufficiently made (or not). Threads usually begin with, unsurprisingly, a tweet saying: “A THREAD”. The lure of Twitter is to be succinct, and while threads might be hundreds of tweets long, they’re snappy, digestible debates for the modern age. Make your point, but make it quick. They’re short and demand structure; no rambling allowed.
They aren’t always intelligent and opinionated take-downs; they range from important political commentary, to descriptions of hilarious encounters or inane rants. People have gone viral for describing the time they shat in their Tinder date’s cupboard and for explaining complicated scientific theories. There is something that the thread leaves a lot of space for; they are perfect place for the funny and political to mix. Twitter is a platform that lends itself so well to sharp, intelligent wit and opens the world of politics to a younger generation. A thirteen-year-old is probably more likely to read a Twitter thread explaining why the NHS is at risk rather than a five-page long piece in Time magazine. Even when the debate turns serious, there’s almost always an element of humour – it’s acceptable on social media, whereas it might seem out of place in a feature on the same topic. Threads have become a breeding ground for cutting political satire, tailor made to capture the explosiveness and absurdity of the current political climate. Things feel transient, with no time for the dust to settle before the next major event – a thread of tweets seems to reflect that temperament well. There’s a kind of symmetry between them. For a younger generation, this era of politics seems like new, unchartered territory. There are endless op-ed pieces on the seriousness of Trump, Brexit and so on, but what our generation wants is a space to break it down, to make it short and to make a point. Most recently, a man proceeded to disrespect every single flag in the world to make a point about the hostility towards those NFL players who took the knee for the National Anthem to peacefully protest violence against African Americans. In the same vein, another user tweeted all the ways in which Americans disrespect the flag on a daily basis. What seems like basic humour makes an important point; condemning people peacefully protesting for racial equality in the twenty first century is ridiculous.
Thread where I disrespect every flag of every country one by one
The US flag: god it’s shite
— Ken Cheng (@kenchengcomedy) September 25, 2017
And there’s the simple fact that a tweet can go viral in a way unlikely for other mediums such as an online feature. It feels simple to retweet and reply, a simple flick of the hand and the message is shared with however many people follow that person. In an era where people of all political inclinations feel like they’re not being heard, the Twitter thread is a megaphone to the public; make it insightful and relatable, and you’ll get an audience.
Not everyone thinks so highly of them however; a lot of threads come across as boasting professional knowledge where it isn’t needed, or isn’t entirely relevant. And as with all news and opinion on social media, you best be aware of the political bubble. Your feed may be full of progressive convincing people of the importance of abortion rights, but to extent we are all preaching to the choir. The next person’s feed has a thread just as long conveying the exact opposite sentiment – it is all about who you follow, but sharing content important to you makes it more likely to cross political lines. The Verge admitted threads can easily be a bit mansplain-y, and we agree. The worst of them hang loose like, well, thread – and never quite serve the intended purpose.
Twitter is a platform created for brevity; there’s a reason you can’t publish a novel on the platform, and the negative reaction to an increase in character limit shows that people appreciate that brevity. Few things say preachy like replying to your own tweets, over and over. Threads are a platform for anyone, and as such there is a lot to sift through; some really are junk and overly self-righteous. But while you don’t have to be a writer (grammar can be dubious, spelling shorted to slang to in keep with character limits) to create a meaningful thread, it’s demanded that you can tell a good story. To write a good thread is in essence, to keep people on their toes and reading until the end. The content of a thread demands to be told in a certain way. Succinctness is important, and humour is often key, but more so they need to be persuasive. No matter which way you slice it, that’s a skill.
The story can be about anything; a personal favourite of mine is a hefty thread on why Rachel and Joey should have ended up together in Friends; yes, it’s not world politics, but it’s important pop culture. It’s a show valued by millions, and under the surface it’s an insight into the ways that Hollywood glamourizes controlling relationships. The best threads often create an argument within a story – while they may be blunt, an opinion is conveyed and carefully argued for. A thread can capture the essence of a good opinion piece. I start every thread daring the tweeter to convince me, and feeling wholly satisfied when they do. I love a malleable literary medium, and threads work with almost any topic while retaining a sense of urgency. They give the same satisfaction of a long-winded article, the same feeling of leaving more knowledgeable than when you started, but they take half the time to read. The world is a busy place; sometimes 140 characters is more manageable than 5000 words.
1/ In Defense of Rachel and Joey: A Thread
— 💯Skaiplana 💯 (@kaneandgriffin) August 8, 2017
The thread is a breeding ground for using personal narratives to derive more important messages; the most salient often start under the guise of a humorous encounter, all the while conveying important messages about gender inequality, racial justice or transphobia. You inevitably find yourself drawn into another’s perspective as you scroll through, often without even noticing.
So I was on the Northern line reading ‘Why I No Longer Talk to White People about Race’ by @renireni and was in the corner literally minding my own wahala. The train stops at Elephant & Castle pic.twitter.com/mfwun7GBHx
— Stephanie Yeboah (@NerdAboutTown) October 1, 2017
Younger generations are getting their news online; a single tweet can be the source of their knowledge on current affairs, so where could be a better place to create a new form of opinion piece than right alongside those news alerts? As well as opening themselves up to viral sharing, tweets are inherently interactive in a way that a feature piece simply can’t be. They’re accessible and simple, and your response is less likely (depending on your number of followers) to get lost in a sea of comments, ignored by editors and readers alike. The language may be amusing but it’s rarely complicated, and even the factual threads serve to break down complex topics into bite size chunks to educate the masses. Politico called them ‘the literary genre of our epoch’ – and they’re right. Nothing will replace the feature piece, but you can’t ignore that Twitter threads might just be the most relevant vehicle for news, opinions and humour of our generation. Threads branch out; what starts as a self-reply can turn into a collaborative, multi-dimensional piece inspiring another thread and a new way of seeing things, as well as engagement magazines could only dream of.
Follow Camilla Ackley on Twitter: @camillaackley
Illustration: Camilla Ackley