NOTE: This article was formerly host to a thousand-plus words used to get my thoughts together. The complete, unedited version of an early draft can be found at TwitterNotesMTH.

BONUS NOTE: I was late to the final because I chose to write a PowerPoint presentation about this topic. Writing this from class, I have no idea if I'll be using it -- but in any event, it exists here. Enjoy!

For this project, I had initially chosen to focus my efforts on defining how the use of Twitter has added credibility to the web presence of many online professionals, but it expanded more into how the personal connection manifests (through tweets) that assists in boosting credibility.


Twitter is often referred to as a "microblog", but can also be perceived as an alternative (but not a replacement) to instant messaging. Imagine you found a brilliant burrito place in your immediate vicinity, and decided you had to spread the word to all your friends and help this business you've decided you love. Before Twitter, your course of action was to either call or instant-message your friends individually, or send out a single e-mail to a group of friends (which many people don't check very frequently). Now, you can just issue a public update to your Twitter account: "ATTENTION, ALBANY RESIDENTS: Bros Tacos, on the corner of Morris and Ontario, serves bombtastic mission-style burritos at brilliant prices." (example: Greenspeak.) Suddenly, there it is, out in the open for everyone (or every one of your followers) to see, and thanks to the immediacy of the format, you can tweet this discovery from your cell phone at the place itself, while waiting for your food to cook!

This sounds like a digression about the wonders of technology, but it's leading to a point, and that point is this: Where in other formats you would be required to contact an array of specific people, Twitter has the benefit of being only as public as you want it to be. Topics that were once only kept in private communication archives attached to AOL Instant Messenger accounts are now freely available to be looked at anywhere. On the Internet, it's difficult to strike up a conversation with many professionals, since they typically cannot be readily contacted for a friendly chat unless you either already know them personally or do something noteworthy that gains their attention. If that professional wants to communicate with his or her fanbase, their options are limited; they can put up a blog, send out an e-mail to a mailing list, or send out a tweet and let everyone know what they're up to. Because the format has a certain level of personal communication to it, it gives the impression that he or she is initiating a dialogue with their fans, and even allows those fans to message them right back.

general form

Thanks to the technological limitations of SMS services, tweets take up 140 characters of the 160 available in a standard text message; the remaining characters are taken up by usernames and possibly other metadata. If you use the website or a Twitter application on your computer/handheld computing device, however, you can send more data along with your tweet. This is typically used to create a link to someone you've decided to respond to, if your tweet contains a response (example here, 'in reply to tabbiewolf'), which contributes nicely to the notion that Twitter can be used not just to update, but to converse. Websites exist to artificially extend this limit (TwitLonger is an example), but though they can occasionally have 'legitimate' uses -- the natural compactness of many Asian languages makes it a valuable resource when translating tweets that were 140 characters long in their native language (example) -- they are rarely used as such.

But why? Well, it requires you to click a separate link to read more, and that's a pretty big turnoff if you want your message to be read by an audience on a website typically suited to absorbing information in microblog-formatted messages. I am certain, however, that even if Twitter messages could be 250+ characters long, the format itself would suffer immensely! Twitter's 140-character limit does more than encourage brevity in communicating concepts; it also caters to an audience's need to see the current status of a person without being hindered by superfluous language or the overwrought restatement of key issues. "You. Okay, now you. You next. Oh, you installed Ubuntu? How sad." This rapid-fire effect enables followers to follow more accounts, and stay current with a larger amount of people in a smaller frame of time. Brevity creates a social sphere.


Criticism of Twitter seems to be focused on the notion that anyone involved in updating a throng of followers on the dull minutiae that defines one's life is clearly incredibly vain and cynical, if only because they assume that people will read these updates to begin with. To someone like me on the inside, this feels like a shortsighted and poorly-researched criticism! It either assumes that no single piece of English under 140 characters is worth reading on its own, that people with Twitter accounts have nothing to write about other than bland minutiae, or that certain minutiae isn't made either exciting or worth reading when written by someone you genuinely care about.

Now, granted, there's a line to be drawn; if someone tweets from the bathroom about what certain orifices are up to, for instance, it's common practice to instantly consider them dead to you! But otherwise, two examples come to mind. The first is something a friend said a while ago which, while innocuous to the outsider, initiated a conversation that helped me learn more about her:

TabbieWolf educates me on the characteristics of good ice cream.
In this conversation, I'm the one with a face.
It was a small interaction, but I feel like I know her slightly better as a result of it. I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, this is what the practice of 'getting to know somebody' is all about: small conversations like these, about small, inconsequential things. Here I was taking an active role, but most Twitter communication is passive; you absorb information from your followers and only respond to what you consider necessary. Noteworthy about this is how every message in this sequence is available to the general public at a moment's notice; from this, you can glean the idea that she and I are acquainted, though in the context of Twitter, conversations like this are also appropriate between total strangers.

The other example -- and this is an extreme one, but it represents a larger phenomenon -- is from the one and only @commanderkitty. His account reflects a series of goings-on in the made-up world of a fictional character where cartoon animals engage in massive space-battles. His account is updated sporadically, and the relevance of each individual entry can occasionally be called into question, but it serves two purposes. The first is to act as a notification for all his followers that a new update to his webcomic is available to be read. The second is to introduce a sequential narrative through the act of notification; in order to determine exactly what one of his tweets refers to, they must head over to the corresponding strip. The fact that the notifications are presented as an inner monologue is key; it gives us further insight to the character's motivation and gives us a window into his own little world. What's important to note, here, is that this situation is not exclusive to this fictional character (or even just to fictional characters alone), but to every person you follow on Twitter. Following someone gives you small snippets of their way of thinking, and helps complete an image of them in your mind; in this sense, Twitter accounts host the characters in our lives.


The 'personal' way in which Twitter professionals are able to address their audience can be attributed to the way in which tweets are constructed. More often than not, they reflect the immediate situation that surrounds the rhetor's life. This can be expressed as dis/satisfaction with their present circumstances ("this just happened to me"; example: Moult), but is also displayed in links to archival data ("hey, this old thing is what I've been thinking about"; example: KartoonistKelly), photographs ("this is what immediately surrounds me"; example: PRguitarman), news items ("I just saw this -- check this out"; example: Zarawesome), recent actions by the twitterer ("I made this; read it if you like"; example: PRguitarman), or even opinions ("I just thought of this"; example: JeffreyATW). Even when tweets are retweeted, it follows this basic format ("I agree with this guy; everybody should see this"). Notice how every undercurrent has an 'I' statement of some sort? You could look at this as the reason Twitter has been criticized as an avenue of vanity, but consider what's been revealed so far. These are people we've chosen to follow; we want to hear about their exploits, else we wouldn't have followed them in the first place.

When applied to web professionals, this personal touch has the ability to enhance the credibility of anyone who takes advantage of it. Unless we know them personally, we often think of 'professionals' in terms of the work that they put out. As an example, let's take Frank Conniff. If you've only seen him through his work, you likely either know him as the character "TV's Frank" from the legacy TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 or from his current exploits as a member of Cinematic Titanic, a team of comedians who ridicule bad movies for fun and profit. His work doesn't serve as an avenue in which people can learn about him, but his Twitter account exists basically for that very purpose; from it we now know he's into jazz, he has liberal political views, and often phrases his tweets in the form of jokes; though he uses the Twitter format to communicate about himself, he also uses them to entertain, which says something about the man himself: He wants to be seen as an entertaining person. Since he makes his living as a professional entertainer, this message works out great for him; it adds credibility to both him and his performance. His Twitter account currently has over three thousand followers, all of whom are currently reminded on a daily basis of his presence, not just as a funny person with cute interests, but as a tertiary character in their lives.

Recently, Ice-T and Aimee Mann had a public scuffle over Twitter. Here are two musical celebrities who have Twitter accounts with which they can express their personal lives to their fans. Aimee writes a cynical message about Ice to her fans; Ice catches wind of it, takes personal offense, and starts posturing with crazy threats, crass insults, and clever catchphrases. Aimee's response initially just looks like the messages of a scared, ignorant white girl, but anyone familiar with her rhetorical style can instantly see that they're dripping with sarcasm. Both players, whether consciously or not, are playing to their fanbases with these tactics, and both have had their credibility as professionals enhanced as a result; neither of them give off the impression that they're willing to kowtow to the emphatic opinions of an enemy party, and each of them do so in a way that fits their audience's expectations of them. In this "fight", both contestants come out victorious -- it's a dream come true!


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