from memo to tweet

Posted on February 20, 2012

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[further musings based on things I’ve read… looking at different ways to think about Twitter and tweets and communication on Twitter.]

what is transmitted in a tweet? information? knowledge? facts? all of the above?

in his essay, The Memo and Modernity [pdf], John Guillory says that

“The difference between information and fact is based on value in transmission.”

so, according to Guillory, facts become information when there is a value attached to that fact and it is important to transmit this information in a timely manner. once that window of time that supports the relevance of that information has passed, the information is no longer as valuable. Guillory is talking about the memorandum – but the description serves as an early metaphor for today’s tweets.

Guillory describes memorandum as something that

“… gives directions, makes recommendations, but, above all, it is a means of transmitting information within the large bureaucratic structures organizing virtually all work in modernity.”

this isn’t all that a tweet can represent, but it provides a very good description of a basic function of a tweet. so, in essence, a tweet can be thought of as a memo – to oneself, to one’s followers, to a particular user; it is a transference of information.

for example, in different “#____chats” on Twitter, information transmitted during the weekly meetings is relevant, timely, and contextual. this is valuable for the duration of the meeting, but the information transmitted can be valuable beyond just the meeting, which is why members sometimes archive the chats or favorite certain tweets. tweets made at other times can still be valuable, based on who they are addressed to and what information they are transmitting.

in describing the nature of a memorandum, Guillory also touches upon another feature of the tweet – ephemerality. he characterizes memos as both ephemeral and permanent. ephemeral because memos contain information for a particular audience or oneself, and when the transfer of that information is complete, the memos are no longer required. permanent because even though they have fulfilled their purpose, they will be preserved and filed. in the same way, after a tweet reaches its intended audience, it is gone – it passes by in the Twitter stream and if you missed it, there is no way to know that you did. but, even if it is not visible in your Twitter stream, there are different ways in which it has been recorded; the most permanent of which is in the archive at the Library of Congress.

tools like Twapperkeeper allowed us to archive and save Twitter activity over a particular period of time based on different parameters, but Twitter revoked their access because it was in violation of their API. to get around this, people often archive the weekly chats in a wiki, or follow other useful workarounds. another way to save individual tweets for later is to “favorite“ them. people also Storify twitter exchanges, creating “social stories” or archives of interesting conversations. these solutions address some of the issues of ephemerality of Twitter, but those tweets that are not archived or favorited, are lost in the ether.

Guillory spoke of the memorandum as another sign of the death of rhetoric. in his analysis of how the attitude towards rhetoric changed and what role the memo played in redefining the norms of information transfer, he talks about clarity and technicity.

“The norm of clarity arose form the publicness of print culture, which presupposed that written communications were addressed ideally to everyone, to the hypothetical general reader.”

this helps to set a tone for tweets – the need for clarity is of importance because of the character constraint, the public nature of the tweet, and the wide audience that it needs to inform. on the other hand, technicity also brings up an integral feature of Twitter – if you don’t understand the language of Twitter, you may not understand the information being transmitted.

communities use the specific language of Twitter in addition to the specific language of their own communities, the #_____chat communities, for instance. given the character constraint and specific language, the rhetoric undergoes a certain change – not necessarily a death, but definitely an evolution. newcomers have to spend some amount of time deciphering not only the language of the tool, but also the language of the community.

[note: a friend pointed out that I don’t touch upon memos as a bureaucratic/intra-organizational form of communication, being intended for a closed or specific audience, or even how confidential memos (DMs?) work or can be leaked. while not a focus in my research, I agree that this is something I should at least look at a little. I hope what I’ve got here makes sense nonetheless. and, thank you to my friend who read over and encouraged me to post this.]

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