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.

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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

open science: open research

“[The] accumulation of reliable knowledge is an essentially social process” (David, “Understanding the Emergence”).

Open research means being transparent about methods. At the minimum, this means describing research methods in a published paper such that anyone with the requisite skills and resources can scrutinize and attempt to reproduce the results. Open research may also involve an open peer review process, whereby journals expand the circle of peer reviewers to include members of the public. K. Thomas Pickard, a healthcare advocate, describes the value of rethinking the peer review process for medical research, arguing that online social networks give the public new opportunities to engage in the scientific enterprise:

Critics argue that the peer review process is slow, stifles innovation, and lacks transparency (most reviewers remain anonymous). With social networks, alternatives to peer review are emerging. The most commonly employed model is based on comment crowdsourcing, similar to how buyers rate products and sellers on Amazon or eBay. Anonymous peer review is replaced with public reviews that can include the reviewer’s reputation (as determined by peers) to weight the review score. Weighting an author’s reputation can be achieved with concepts such as the author’s scholar factor, h-index, or other “altmetrics.”

In its most open form, open research may involve what is known as “open notebook” science: using the technologies of the internet to make available research details, early findings, and iterations well before, or even instead of, formal publication, and to encourage participation from others.

Advocates of open notebook science maintain that such transparency in the early stages of a scientific endeavor has a couple of important advantages. First, it allows for iterative adjustments in methodology that may improve the quality of the results. Second, publishing early findings allows researchers to establish primacy over their methods and results much more quickly than would be possible were they to wait the normal months-long cycle for their results to appear in a published journal article. In the words of Dorothea Salo, scholarly research services librarian and author of “Who Owns Our Work?”:

Adherents of Open Notebook Science open their entire research process on the web using wikis, Google Docs and similar online tools. Notably, Open Notebook Science allows its practitioners to establish visible, verifiable primacy over their processes and the results thereof, which potentially undercuts publishers both by reducing scientists’ pre-publication ‘scooping’ fears and by providing a substitute for the supposed primacy verification offered by formal publication.

It is important to note, however, that there is nothing in the definitions of “open” provided previously that requires any researcher to practice open notebook science; it is perfectly in line with the values of the Budapest Open Access Initiative and the OKF to conduct, publish, and disseminate open science without (say) engaging with the public on a blog every step of the way. Nonetheless, this is indeed what some people mean when they speak of open science.

We have already seen how open research might work. One of the best‐known recent examples is in the work of Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist from UBC. When scientists funded by NASA reported in 2010 that they had found arsenic‐based life forms on Earth, Redfield expressed concerns on her blog about the quality of the research. Her assessment spread rapidly over social media – through Twitter among other means – and in the press, casting immediate doubts on NASA’s findings (Zimmer).

Known as the #arseniclife affair, Redfield’s “is one of the first cases in which the scientific community openly vetted a high‐profile paper, and influenced how the public at large thought about it” (Zimmer). In 2011, Nature magazine included Redfield in its list of the top 10 “people who mattered” for the year (Hayden).

Read more:



Budapest Open Access Initiative, September 12, 2012. Web. Retrieved Jun. 16, 2013 from

David, Paul A. “Understanding the emergence of ‘open science’ institutions: functionalist economics in historical context.” Industrial and Corporate Change 13.4 (2004): 571-589. Web.

Hayden, E. C. “365 Days: Nature’s 10. Ten People Who Mattered this Year. Rosie Redfield, Critical Enquirer.” Nature 480 (22 Dec. 2011): 437–445. Web.

Open Knowledge Foundation. “Open definition.” Web. Retrieved June 13, 2013 from

Pickard, K. T. “Impact of open access and social media on scientific research.” J Participat Med 4 (2012): e15. Web.

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

Zimmer, C. “The Discovery of Arsenic‐Based Twitter: How #arseniclife Changed Science.” Slate 27 May 2011. Web.