Twitter and Context

“Bending the Medium to His Purposes”: Jeet Heer and the Twitter Essay

  1. I became interested in the “Twitter essay” as a genre during the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. #ghomeshi #surewastrendingforawhilethere #schadenfreude
  2. During that time, Oct and Nov 2014,  Canadian journalist Jeet Heer @HeerJeet sent out a series of numbered tweets on the subject. #twitteressay #whoisthisguy
  3. They were captivating; some now collected on Storify.
  4. Turns out Heer has been numbering his Tweets long before Ghomeshi. #robford #aoscott #adulthood #plagarism
  5. Heer claims not to have invented the form, although he is credited with popularizing it.
  6. The essay is different from a Twitter storm (a nice colourful example here) — which is merely a collection of tweets on the same subject. The essay has more form than this.
  7. The Twitter essay has strength!
  8. Followers can respond after the very first tweet, allowing the author to adjust direction and focus.
  9. Followers can retweet, generating interest and increasing the audience in real time.
  10. Immediate conversations and collaboration on Twitter affords what Heer calls “digital intimacy” not seen in other media.
  11. Unlike other forms of (solitary) writing, Twitter essays are performances.
  12. Author can directly address individuals in tweets, engaging their attention for dialog or response (@HeerJeet).
  13. When the tweets in an essay are numbered, you can tell when a single one is plucked from its context. #contextmatters #staytuned #moreonthis
  14. Heer announces the end of a series so followers aren’t kept on edges of seats. #theend

In using Twitter in this way, Heer has managed to subvert the expectation that a tweet must stand alone. When we get advice to “make it tweetable,” we are being asked to come up with an idea that can be communicated and understood by the intended audience in a 140 characters without any explanation or context. But Heer is, in the words of his colleague Michael Hingston, “bending the medium to his purposes,” and in so doing is arguably becoming one of Canada’s most interesting public intellectuals. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic Monthly demanded “WHO ARE YOU????!!???” on first encountering Heer’s novel redefinition of the Twitter form, but there are now plenty of examples of others structuring their thoughts in this way.

For more on Jeet Heer, check out his (rather low-tech) website.

A Lamb Without a Flock

sheepThere is more to say about Twitter and context. Numbered tweets don’t only serve to create a narrative, a progression, an ordered list of ideas.  They do something else that is also quite interesting.

Ordinal position aside, the numbers themselves also serve to mark an individual tweet to identify it as part of a larger structure, so that it cannot easily be taken out of context. Think of it as a brand or a daub of paint on a sheep’s coat: you come across a lost lamb with a blue mark on its coat, you just know it’s part of a larger flock.


Does an “unmarked” tweet (if I can use this term to talk about plain old regular non-Jeet-Heer tweets) stand alone, or must it be taken as part of a cluster of tweets, if one exists, on the same subject?

Consider the case of Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor who had his an offer of a tenured position withdrawn last year over concerns about the content of some of his tweets. Leaving aside the question of what this action means for academic freedom (nothing good), part of the trouble here hinges on whether context ought to be considered when it comes to interpreting someone’s tweets. Taken in the context of a larger body of work, Salaita himself says that his “history of tweeting and general political commentary…indicates quite strongly and clearly that I’m deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism including anti-Semitism.”

In isolation, though, we see a tweet like this:

Zionists: transforming “anti-semitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.

…and can see why some have been offended.

If we were to quote a statement by Salaita from – say – an essay, we’d provide a reference to that piece. You, as the reader, could go to the essay itself for more context. The essay is a discrete unit stands alone to make an argument. And it is to that unit that we go to if we have questions about a quoted passage.

But when we quote a tweet, the reference is only to the tweet itself. (Here are APA guidelines for how to cite a tweet). How far forward or back in someone’s tweet corpus must we look to be satisfied we have enough context? What are our responsibilities as readers? What are the boundaries of a Twitter storm? What is the flock that holds our sheep?

And so Jeet Heer has done something more than create a narrative when he numbers the tweets in his essays. He has found a way to mark an idea as being part of a larger structure, and — at the same time, in the larger essay — has also demarked the  contextual boundaries for the idea or argument (tweet1 to #theend).

This doesn’t help Salaita, and I for one will be extremely interested to see whether his present legal battles touch on this question of context. And I don’t think it really helps the rest of us who may be disinclined to created numbered series for everything we tweet as a matter of course. But it is another way in which Heer’s creative approach here brings additional richness to the medium.

(Originally published in a slightly different form for a class assignment.)

Intergenerational connections: why they matter and how books can help

giverLiterature is a powerful tool in providing youth with a realistic perspective of older adults and the aging process, complete with its triumph and despair, normative illnesses and extraordinary accomplishments. — Jarrott & McCann 306

Complex transitions

Hopkins & Pain report that young adults develop their identity—at least in part—through interactions with other generational groups. The extent to which these interactions are positive and cooperative has a “material [effect] on the experiences and quality of life” for young people in particular (289). In an era when the transition to adulthood is arguably more complex than ever before (Jeffrey & McDowell, 131), society must consider how to positively influence that transition. One way to do this is to foster relationships between young adults and older members of their communities.

Contact matters

Young_old-300x262In a 2013 paper called “Analysis of Intergenerational Relationships in Adolescent Fiction Using a Contact Theory Framework,” Jarrott & McCann state that contact with elders “is typically associated with positive effects on [young people’s] attitudes toward older adults,” and that “promoting young people’s positive attitudes towards older adults… may improve their overall quality of life” (293). Therefore, positive interactions between young adults and their elders—intergenerational relationships, in other words—benefit both parties in the relationship. By extension, older adults in general may suffer less from negative stereotyping as the attitudes of young people shift.

Such relationships make a difference to young adult views on mortality too. As long ago as 1948, psychologist Maria Nagy analyzed children’s views on death. She found that, starting at around age nine and continuing thereafter, children begin to understand and eventually accept that death is final, inevitable, and universal. She recommends that adults do not try to shield children of this age from the reality of mortality (3). Indeed, subsequent researchers posit that individuals with exposure to and positive attitudes towards aging and mortality are more likely to have better memories, health, and life expectancy (Nauert, Levy et al). As adolescents experience the death of loved ones—grandparents, for example—they may be ready for and curious about literature that explores this theme.

Logistical challenges

Although life expectancy is on the increase in most developed countries and young people are therefore more likely to have living grandparents throughout their entire childhood, they don’t necessarily have more contact with older adults than their counterparts did a generation or two ago. Why? Because generations are less likely to live together—Hagestad & Uhlenberg have rather depressingly called old age a “separate country” (345)—and because declining birth rates mean that young adults have fewer older relatives to spend time with (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton).

Understanding that positive interactions with older adults will have a positive effect on an individual’s quality of life, how best can we foster such relationships when it may be difficult logistically?

Media stereotypes

As exercise and a proper diet of healthy foods help one age well, the young person most likely to view elders and aging positively will likely have a healthy diet of media portraying elders and youth working together as vital members of society. (Jarrott & McCann, 306)

cruelleIt gets worse—it seems that the media is part of the problem. Young adults are the largest media consumers of all demographic segments (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts), and studies from 1977 (Blunk & Williams) and 1980 (Bulter) suggest that ageist stereotypes in the media have a pernicious and lasting effect on this audience. It is not just the stereotypes that are a problem—Jarrott & McCann cite several studies that demonstrate that older characters are enormously under-represented in the popular media (294).

And yet there are more older adults than ever. Jarrott and McCann say: “With their increasing proportional presence in the global population, we have the imperative to address the realism with which elders are portrayed in the domains in which children spend their time, which is increasingly the virtual world” (295).

The role of literature

Jarrott & McCann see young adult literature as having enormous potential to build bridges between the generations and counteract the negative stereotyping seen in other forms of media: “literature is a powerful tool in providing youth with a realistic perspective of older adults and the aging process, complete with its triumph and despair, normative illnesses and extraordinary accomplishments” (306). And they point out that the effects of such literature is strongest when the books are discussed.

Librarians can, therefore, play a key role. Not only can they provide youth with access to relevant literature, but they can offer forums for discussion and the opportunity for direct intergenerational contact through targeted services.



Bengtson, V. L., Rosenthal, C., & Burton, L. “Families and aging: Diversity and heterogeneity.” In R. H. Binstock & L. K. George (Eds.) Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences 3 (1990): 263–287. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Web. 4 Aug. 2013

Butler, R. “Ageism: A foreword.” Journal of Social Issues 36.2 (1980): 8–11. Web. 4 Aug. 2013

Hagestad, G. O. & Uhlenberg, P. “The social separation of old and young:
A root of ageism.” Journal of Social Issues 61 (2005): 343–360. Web. 4 Aug. 2013

Hopkins, P. and Pain, R. “Geographies of age: thinking relationally.” Area 39 (2007): 287–294. Web. 4 Aug. 2013.

Jeffrey, C. and McDowell, L. “Youth in a comparative perspective: global change, local lives.”Youth and Society 36 (2004): 131-142. Web. 4 Aug. 2013.

Jarrott, Shannon E. & McCann, Brandy R. “Analysis of Intergenerational Relationships in Adolescent Fiction Using a Contact Theory Framework.” Gerontology & Geriatrics Education 34.3 (2013): 292-308. Print.

Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. “Increased longevity by positive self-perceptions of aging.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 261–270.

Nagy, Maria. “The Child’s View of Death.” In Herman Feifel ed., The Meaning of Death. New York: McGraw Hill, 1959.

Nauert, R. “Mortality Awareness Can Lead to Living a Better Life.” Psych Central. 2012. Web. 31Jul. 2013.

Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. “Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year olds.” N.p., 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2013.

Image credits

the audience

So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight – watching over nothing.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

At the time, Davey was nothing more to me than a cute kid — one of several blond siblings from a farming family, one of many children who took swimming lessons from my brother and me in the summer of 1988. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have faded from my memory over the years as the other children have done.

But, as time passed, Davey took up more and more space in my mind. At first, I thought of him rarely, when I happened to see his older cousin Will in the city. Later, whenever I saw a suntanned child of a certain age and posture. Eventually, not day passed that I didn’t think of him. It’s true that I failed that afternoon, even if I am the only one who knows it. But I also changed, fundamentally. Perhaps that is why Davey took up residence in my head, becoming, over time, a constant spectator. I was no longer alone — he was always there too: taking in my world, measuring my choices, regarding my successes, witnessing my failures.

My family and I left our lakeside town that September for the city. As I became an adult and went about my life, so far from my hometown, I wondered what Davey — the real Davey — knew of me, knew of us. Because Davey in my head wasn’t enough, of course. I wanted to know the Davey in the world, the Davey I imagined must be (how could he not be?) as fixated on me as I was on him. I was reluctant, however, to seek him out. I couldn’t bear to discover that he knew how I had hesitated that day.


I remember that afternoon pretty well, even nearly 25 years on. When the last swimming lesson was over and the children returned to their parents, my younger brother Andrew and I, co-instructors that summer for the first and last time, headed for the dock to enjoy the last of the sun. We sat for awhile. We chatted to the kids while they — Davey and his sister included — horsed around and jumped off the dock over and over again.

Andrew was the reason the lessons were successful. During the previous summer, without him, I had trouble stretching the lessons to the full half hour. Once, I led the kids up the beach after only 15 minutes. People had complained about that. But Andrew was diligent and reliable; such lapses never happened when he was there.

Davey was a sturdy 5-year-old, impossibly blond and suntanned, with a round baby tummy, dark brown eyes, and freckles on his nose. He was happy and fearless. I have only a faint memory of him that particular afternoon, before the event. But I imagine him whooping and jumping and splashing with the rest of the kids who stayed after the lessons were over.

After a half an hour or so, I decided it was time to go home. The afternoon was getting chilly; the sun had gone. Edging past Andrew on the narrow dock, I was starting back when my eye was caught by something in the water to my left.

Floating just under the surface was a small form, face down. I saw immediately that it was Davey. I saw his yellow bathing suit. I saw his little body, pale now against the darkness, swaying slightly with the motion of the water. It was very shallow. Many other kids were playing close to him, within arm’s reach. I remember this.

I knew I must jump in and lift his face clear of the water. But I did not move. Instead, I measured, calculated. How long had he been floating there? Seconds? Minutes? How many minutes? Was it too late? I feared that any attempts I made to save him would fail and that his death would become my fault. Still I did not move. But at least, at last, I remembered my voice.


Andrew saw. He jumped in and scooped the Davey out of the water and carried him to the beach. It wasn’t far — only four or five large strides. Davey’s body was limp and his lips were blue.

Someone should call an ambulance. I would do that. I left the beach and ran through the parking lot towards the pay phone. I ran even though I knew my errand was pointless; by the time help arrived, Davey’s fate would be decided. But I wanted a reason to be absent. I thought of those seconds in which I had done nothing. I dodged to avoid a car that was driving too fast; my bare feet skidded on the gravel. A rock cut my foot, but I did not notice it until afterward.

By the time I returned, Davey was sitting up in Andrew’s arms and coughing. Davey’s mother was crying, hugging Davey, hugging Andrew. Others crowded around.

“I called the ambulance,” I said.

No one turned.


Not long after summer ended, Davey’s cousin Will and I both went to university in the city. I didn’t see too much of him. But some years later, when planning a rare trip back to town, I looked him up to ask if he wanted to carpool. I think he was surprised to hear from me.

Will picked me up on a Friday afternoon. For most of the six-hour drive, we didn’t say too much. We gossiped a little. He told me how he’d lost 30 pounds: “I don’t eat anything white,” I remember him saying. That was the first time I heard of low-carb. Davey glowed in the car with us, but I was reluctant to mention him. Did I guess what Will would tell me? Finally, as dusk fell, I asked how Davey was. Will was quiet for a minute. He didn’t look at me.

“You didn’t hear?”

I knew then what he was going to say.

“Davey died.”

I turned to look out the side window, watched the trees going by.

Will told me that Davey was hit by a car on his way to catch the school bus. It happened five years after the day he nearly drowned. The driver was a woman.

I wanted to know more. Had she seen him? Had she miscalculated distance, speed, time? When it was all over, did she stop? What she brave enough to look? But I didn’t ask. I kept my face turned, eyes on the window. It had become very dark. I saw nothing except my own reflection.


The shock is both less and more than you might expect. Less because Davey had already become unreal to me; he left me as a sturdy, warm physical being that day on the beach when I was 17. And more because my life — past and future — is different now; I have to regard it with my eyes alone. The audience I imagined is simply not there. And, what’s more, it never has been.

He no longer lives in my head, but I still think of Davey sometimes. I don’t try to think of him as an older child, as I had done, or as an adult, as I might have done. I think of him as a strong five-year-old in a bathing suit. I remember his smile and his eyes and the white sand stuck to his brown skin.

I think of his mother sometimes too. I remember her tearstained face from 1988. As a mother now myself, I wonder how she copes even all these years later. And, sometimes, I think of the driver — the unnamed woman who accidently killed a little boy with her car in 1993. I know nothing about her, nothing at all, other than that Davey is in her head too.

open science and information professionals

“Service opportunities have been revealed for supporting the research process, sustaining and capturing the non-published conversations of science, and curating the resulting data” (Ogburn).

The changes brought by open science have important implications for information professionals, who must now rethink what it means to collect and provide access to scientific findings. Already well underway are efforts to curate the masses of data entering the public domain thanks to the open data movement. Because preserving data in an accessible format requires proper planning and funding, data archivists must be involved, proactively, at the beginning of the research cycle – before funding decisions are made and software platforms selected (Ghosh). This early participation helps ensure that the data formats are appropriate and non-proprietary, data management schemes are sensible and clearly communicated, and that the funding is sufficient.

The knowledge and resources required to properly collect and preserve such data given its particular characteristics – compliance or not with (competing) standards, (possible) dependency on proprietary software, its intrinsically technical quality, and so forth – require new competencies from information professionals. Such a shift is already affecting the curricula of library schools.

Another factor is that, when we consider the varied artifacts of open research, the journal article is no longer the unit to be collected, preserved, and distributed. How do information professionals – and should they – attempt to curate living content, whether that be merely early versions and post-publication revisions of the published article, or artifacts as ephemeral as wiki pages, blog posts, discussion boards, and even tweets? Dorothea Salo states:

While a few scientific publishers are beginning to accept and even require supplementary data deposition, and a few research libraries are evaluating data curation as a potential professional specialization, even these have no useful response as yet to the ‘Open Notebook Science’ movement.

The answers to these questions are not yet clear, but the information professional may need to take a leadership role in convincing researchers that what they produce along the way to a published paper is worth preserving.

One of the most essential roles for the information professional in the age of open science (and, more generally, of open access) is that of advocacy. For instance, the members of the ALA who opposed the Research Works Act may rightly feel some satisfaction that perhaps their strong position had an effect on the act’s defeat. In addition, information professionals can help find a place for the “grey literature” that has historically been ignored by traditional publishers. And finally, as interest in open data grows, information professionals can expound the virtues of the Panton Principles, helping researchers design projects that will yield preservable data suitable for the public domain.



Flood, Alison. “Scientists sign petition to boycott academic publisher Elsevier.” Guardian. 2 Feb. 2012. Web.

Ghosh, Maitrayee. “Information professionals in the Open Access Era: the competencies, challenges and new roles.” Information Development 25.1 (2009): 33-42. Web.

Ogburn, Joyce L. “The imperative for data curation.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10.2 (2010): 241-246. Web.

Panton Principles. “Principles for open data in science. ” Web. Retrieved June 1, 2013 from

Salo, Dorothea. “Who owns our work?.” Serials: The Journal for the Serials Community 23.3 (2010): 191-195. Web.

open science: the future?

One possible future for open science is the broadening and democratizing of the peer review process. Certainly, more web-based tools are coming available that enable greater public participation in establishing the “truth” of web content – and not just scientific findings. Their arrival is of great interest not only to information professionals but also, indeed, to any consumer of content on the internet. One such tool is, open‐source software that allows users to annotate anything found online without fear that the content owner can revise or remove the comment (Giles 46). inventor Dan Whaley calls it “the Internet, peer reviewed” (qtd. in Giles 46).

Another possible future is that high-impact journals may become involved primarily after the peer review process is complete, collecting what are deemed by the peer reviewers (which may be the public) to be the most valuable articles. Publishing them formally at such a point in the cycle might retain the notion of an impact factor, still important to many authors, while also meeting some of the demands of open science, namely transparency and open collaboration.



Giles, J. “Truth Goggles.” New Scientist 15 Sept. 2012: 44‐47. Print.

open science, closed science: a continuum

The following chart shows where traditional science and scientific publishing as well as the newer open movements fall along the continuum that lies between closed and open science. This chart is derived from a similar picture presented by JC Bradley of Drexel University at the 2007 American Chemical Society Symposium on Communicating Chemistry. Bradley’s version of this chart did not include “open research” or “open resources”; I added these at what I think are appropriate positions. My reasoning is described below.


open science, closed science: a continuum

The traditional unpublished lab book is the epitome of closed science (Bradley). Not only are methods and data hidden from view, but also the results themselves are private. One step up from that is to make those results (and methods, too, if things are done properly) available in a traditional journal. Still, however, we do not have access to the data and we may have to pay to access the results. Enter the open access journal or repository, where we can freely access the findings regardless of our affiliations. Open data, another step along, allows us to scrutinize and reuse the data that underlie the findings. And finally, in open research, which includes open peer review and open notebook science, we do not have to wait for the published article, but can see what the researcher is working on before the work is complete and the results are published. And we can participate in the process if we so choose.

I place the notion of “open resources” outside of the continuum because while this approach is important for the practice of science, and while it represents similar values to the other open movements described here, it is not as essential for access to, or evaluation and reuse of, scientific results by the community at large.

Read more:



Bradley, J. C. (2007). Open notebook science using blogs and wikis. Nature Precedings for the American Chemical Society Symposium on Communicating Chemistry. Web.


open science: open platform

Processing extremely large datasets soon exhausts the resources of most data centres owned and administered by a single institution. Not wanting, or not being able to afford, an expensive and proprietary supercomputer, many institutions opt instead for clusters of servers cabled together to create a distributed pool of computing resources, on which parallel programs run rather effectively. These servers typically run Linux and other open-source software: the Open Grid Engine job scheduler, for instance, accepts a program, schedules it, and allocates resources such as CPUs, disks, and software licences, all while hiding the complexity of the system from the user. A computing cluster like this need not be maintained by a single institution only; indeed, some of the largest and most successful “home-grown” supercomputers are those shared by several institutions. An example is the Open Science Grid project, “a multi-disciplinary partnership to federate local, regional, community and national cyberinfrastructures to meet the needs of research and academic communities at all scales.”

Not only do such partnerships save on costs, bringing the power of supercomputing to those who may not have been able to afford it on their own (and thereby democratizing the practice of science), but their common platform and toolsets help ensure that the various parties involved can more easily share data with each other.

Read more:



Open Science Grid. “Open Science Grid.” Web. Retrieved June 15, 2013 from