Category Archives: Twitter

A Lamb Without a Flock: Problems of Context on Twitter

sheepIn my previous post, I describe how Jeet Heer has redefined the limits of Twitter by numbering his tweets to make up larger, structured “Twitter essays.” Here, I argue that these numbers 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?

steven_saliataIn our class discussion forums a few weeks ago, I mentioned the case of Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor who had his an offer of a tenured position withdrawn over concerns about the content of some of his tweets.  The trouble here hinges, I think, on whether context must be considered when it comes to interpreting his words. 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 perhaps it’s understandable that Salaita’s critics are upset.

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 unmarked sheep?

Jeet Heer has done something more than create a narrative when he numbers the tweets in his Twitter 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 the 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.

“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. He says, “A Twitter essay isn’t really an argument; it’s the skeleton of an argument.”
  7. The essay is different from a Twitter storm (colourful example here) — which is merely a collection of tweets on the same subject. The essay has more form than this.
  8. The Twitter essay has strength!
  9. Followers can respond after the very first tweet, allowing the author to adjust direction and focus.
  10. Followers can retweet, generating interest and increasing the audience in real time.twitter logo
  11. Immediate conversations and collaboration on Twitter affords what Heer calls “digital intimacy” not seen in other media.
  12. Unlike other forms of (solitary) writing, Twitter essays are performances.
  13. Author can directly address individuals in tweets, engaging their attention for dialog or response (@HeerJeet).
  14. When the tweets in an essay are numbered, you can tell when a single one is plucked from its context. #contextmatters #staytuned #moreonthis
  15. 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.

There is more to say about Twitter and context. I explore this further in my next post.

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