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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