Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Twitter: #ThePlainestOfPlain

How does the public get their news? It used to require picking up the daily newspaper, turning on a morning radio show, or tuning into a television news broadcast. With the modernization of technology the easiest way to see what is happening in the world is checking social media websites such as Facebook or Twitter. This has become so popular that even traditional news sources have incorporated social media into their programing. Twitter uses the plainest form of writing that is becoming more and more popular with the younger generations. It is similar to texting language, in which the least amount of words is considered better. This is a great technique when updating the world about how your day went, but when reporting on things that can affect multiple people it might not be the best method. When some people use Twitter as their sole source of news they are likely to receive biased, overly simplified, or even false information due to the plain style of Twitter language. People are also more likely to misunderstand a Tweet then they are a full length article or explanation. So what causes these problems? Why can’t news be told in 140 characters or less?
Twitter is accessible to anyone with internet connection, and has been integrated into our national politics, business, and news. The art of sending a message or making a statement in 140 characters requires the writer to be “clear” in that bluntness is necessary in such a short time. This “clarity” can actually lead to trouble by leaving out crucial information. Anytime you have a short time to get your point across you will miss some important aspects that could have clarified things to your audience. This happens every day on Twitter, with endless lists of “twitter gaffes” exploiting the unintentional meanings taken from certain tweets (the Google definition of gaffe is “an unintentional act or remark causing embarrassment to its originator”). An example of this would be ‘The Office” star Rainn Wilson tweeting: “If I were ever date raped I would want it to be to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zepplin.” or after the 2011 tsunami in Japan Gilbert Gottfried tweeting: “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.Both of these tweets led to public uproar, with Rainn Wilson losing fans and Gilbert Gottfried getting fired. This may be an extreme example of when Tweets can go wrong, but if they had elaborated or better explained what they meant they might not have offended so many.
Twitter is “credible” in the sense that Twitter verifies accounts to “establish authenticity of identities of key individuals and brands on Twitter” (FAQ page). Verified identities include popular users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, etc. Besides account authenticity, Twitter is not the most credible source for information. Twitter is branded to share breaking news before traditional news venues even know about the story, like the January 2009 tweet about the plane landing in the Hudson River, or the following tweet that unknowingly live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Ladin:
This was one of many tweets from Sohaib Athar that contained details unknown to the public about the bin Ladin raid. Due to Athar’s access to broadcast his thoughts live to the rest of the world he unintentionally reported details of the raid before the United States government could explain the situation. This didn’t affect the result of the raid, but it easily could have. We can recognize that this Tweet isn’t an official report due to the context and the plain language, but many people probably took this as one. How can we recognize this statement as plain language? Well instead of a detailed account of what he heard around him, Athar tweets in one single incomplete sentence that is clear and straight to the point. There are two ideas in the statement separated by the parentheses, which could have been said in one more complex sentence.  In spite of these two informal incomplete ideas Athar chooses to use punctuation that would suggest an effort to be more formal. The effort the punctuation suggests shows that Twitter might constrain people that would otherwise use correct grammar or a more formal tone, because who would want complete, grammatically correct sentences on their Twitter feed?

The Sohaib Athar tweet is just the beginning of Twitter being the venue for breaking news. The plain language shown in this tweet can exemplify the problems with reporting news through social media. Even with follow up tweets, almost all details about the event were left out. Because this was the only report people received at the time, misconception, uproar, and even the possibility of ruining military missions could have happened. Trying to keep up with the fast paced Twitter news ideal, traditional news sources like CNN and FOX have made mistakes on Twitter: “Supreme Court strikes down individual mandate portion of health care law. on.cnn.come/LvVRcK” (@cnnbrk) when actually the Supreme Court backed the new healthcare law, and it came into effect soon after. When people try to be the first ones to report on the news, which is essential for getting the most attention on Twitter, they are more likely to send out a message that might not be correct.

According to an American Press Institute study 7 in 10 adults under the age of 30 say they learn news through social media. No one expects official style when going through their twitter feed, but if this is the future of how people receive news should it really be this plain? Only getting 140 characters to announce something important can lead to misunderstandings, omission of information, offence, or biases. It can also be seen as too simple to get the message across clearly. Are we dumbing down our messages too much? NASA has been recognized with awards for its use of social networking to deliver updates on missions and results. A specific account, @MarsPhoenix updates its 286,000 followers on NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander mission. One of the most popular tweets by @MarsPhoenix describes the discovery of ice on Mars:
This is such an important message put into such a plain style. This 98 character announcement has a readability score of 105.9, with a scale that usually caps is ease of readability at 100. A second grader can read and understand this text. There is obviously less complexity, no formality, and no difficulty in figuring out what is happening.

So what is going on inside the tweet that makes it so plain? The most obvious answer is its simplicity and readability. Unlike many official announcements of space discoveries, this tweet lacks jargon only accessible to the space experts. Instead, the tweet contains jargon of a different kind- the millennial jargon. In no other place but social media would it be acceptable to use excessive exclamation points, textualized verbal statements, zeros as the letter “o”, and incomplete sentences to announce such a huge discovery. Some common plain style strategies include metabasis, conduplicatio, exemplum, and distinctio. In the sphere of Twitter even these strategies are taken to a plain extreme. Metabasis and conduplicatio essentially refer to the repetition of words- whether stating what has been said or repeating a word near the beginning of the next clause. This tweet, which contains only twenty one words, repeats “ice” three times. They do this so the reader can spend even less time trying to decipher the message, just seeing the repetition would cause the reader to understand that the announcement is about ice without really needing the other words. Exemplum and distinctio are essentially providing examples or definitions of words or ideas to prevent ambiguity. This is seen in the tweet when they specify that the ice they found is in fact “*WATER ICE*”. Because this statement is dumbed down to the second grade level, they must assume people wouldn’t know what they mean by ice. Clarifying this eliminates any confusion of the matter. There is no need to think when trying to understand this tweet.

One might ask what the problem is with the plainness of this message. Shouldn’t news be easy to understand? It is important for news venues to be clear and direct, but where Twitter finds trouble is what people do with the length they are given for their messages. Some Tweets, like the Supreme Court example mentioned before, get around this by adding a link to a more detailed story. Being plain and understandable does not require emitting crucial details to the story. The @MarsPheonix example leaves a lot of room for a curious reader’s interpretation: What does the tweet mean? Why is it good that there is ice? Is this a sign of life on Mars? All of these questions are answered if you look at a more official report on the findings, like one found on the NASA website:

“Scientists relishing confirmation of water ice near the surface beside NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander anticipate even bigger discoveries from the robotic mission in the weeks ahead.”

The biggest difference between the tweet and the NASA report is a difference of fourteen grade levels! This excerpt from a much longer detailed article has a readability score of 22.8. The article also goes on to answer all of the questions the tweet could give someone and provides links for further information. This poses a question we have to ask ourselves: Would we rather glimpse at fast, easy, simplified news or challenge ourselves to more difficult, thorough, accurate news?

If you create a Twitter account and scroll through the trending tweets, you can begin to recognize the type of language common to this sphere. Besides the lack of proper grammar, capitalization, spelling, and punctuation, a deeper pattern emerges. Possibly complex ideas are shortened to short phrases and opinions are lessened to emoticons and onomatopoeias (“meh” is common, or from our above example “w00t”).  A good amount of what you can see are not original thoughts or ideas, but retweets, quotes, and responses from other users. You have to sift through these and search for the original tweet that started the string of responses. There you will find what we have discussed previously, the “breaking news” type of tweet. Most of these are clever or shocking statements about something happening around the world. Before you even see the original message, you receive millions of Twitter users’ opinions and reactions to the message. This would cause a viewer to begin to form their own opinion of the matter before they even see the original message. What does this do to our perception of news?

What happens when we base our source of news around Twitter? I believe the world will become filled with misinformed biasedness even more than what it is now. Twitter requires a meaning of the message to be discovered fast enough to be read while scrolling down a screen. This is the cause of the plain style, which is needed to create a fast, attention grabbing post. When a reporter has to pick through a story to post something with 140 characters they can choose 140 characters that fit their agenda or purpose. They end up intentionally distorting truths, omitting important information, and offending certain groups. Twitter makes it too easy to have unreliable sources, which isn’t a problem if Twitter is only used to supplement actual news stories, but unfortunately it is growing to be more than that. To date, Twitter has 135,000 new users signing up every day. With the younger generations relying more and more on technology, there might be a time when Twitter is the only source of information about what is going on in the World. Will Twitter and other social media sites take over as the public news sources? Will there even be a need for reporters or newspapers? Will this change in news dumb down our society? Instead of dumbing down our news and therefor our tweets just to grab attention, I suggest that when reporting on important things there needs to be as much information as possible in those 140 characters. If traditional news venues want to use Twitter they must use it accurately and efficiently. 140 characters can go a long way when you omit the plainest of plain styles.  

-Amber Middleton

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