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Longer than a tweet, shorter than an in-depth, investigative magnum opus

Posted on 2 November 2014

Twitter essays, tweet storms, blog posts, and middling thoughts


Over this past week I’ve noticed a new trend really catching on: the Twitter essay.

Twitter essays (or “tweet storms”) have been around for quite a while, enough so that in May we had Buzzfeed rallying against the practice and Fred Wilson pontificating on what it accomplished. But it was the must-read takes on this week’s big Canadian story from Jeet Heer (example) that I think made the Twitter essay take off in my own network. Now I’m seeing the Twitter essay everywhere, and I’m not alone:

I go on twitter and see that everyone is doing numbered essays. I then realize I’m history’s greatest monster. That’s going to happen soon

— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) November 2, 2014

I do think there is a certain appeal to the Twitter essay, many of which were captured by Wilson in his own experiment. To me, these are the key things that make a Twitter essay better than a blog post:

1. It is more visible. All someone needs to do is see one of the tweets from your thread in order for them to be drawn into the whole thing. If they miss numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 but capture 5 and are interested in it, they’ll easily be able to see the rest.

2. It is more shareable. A number of website have been playing with ways to make individual sentences easier to Tweet- some even have suggested tweets as pullquotes. But if every single portion of your writing is a Tweet, it’s already broken into its component, shareable parts.

3. It is happening in real time. This is something Wilson captured that I would not have thought of on my own. If you manage to catch a tweet storm in progress it is more exciting because you don’t know what is going to come next. You stick around. It’s actually closer to listening to live radio than anything I’ve seen on the internet.

Add those three things to the low stakes of only having to write 140 characters at a time and the low access to entry, and the Twitter essay’s appeal is clear.

So I was thinking about this throughout the week, and then yesterday I noticed a whole other trend: the middling blog post. The whole discussion apparently started with Andy Baio who suggested that between Twitter for short thoughts and Medium for long ones, the middling-length thought is being squeezed out. He was joined by Gina Trapani, Jason Snell, and Marco Arment, among others, who, generally speaking, thought something was being lost in this process.

Summarizing their thoughts and my own, there’s a permanence that the blog post has that the Twitter essay doesn’t have, and there’s value in capturing those middle-length thoughts in the same way that longer ones are. I should point out the difficulty I had finding the beginning of Jeet Heer’s essays that are less than a week old, so I can only imagine how tough it will be a year from now. By contrast, finding links to all those blog posts took almost no time at all.

Which isn’t to say any one way is right or wrong, they are just different with their own strengths or weaknesses. I think what I’m going to be doing is writing where it feels natural but then thinking about whether I want that preserved. I already did that twice this week, when a Twitter essay and a Facebook post were turned into blogs after I realized they meant more to me than something that would be lost to some other social network. If you are a prolific writer in other platforms I would encourage you to do the same.

Addendum: Interestingly, as I tweeted this out, Heer Jeet was in the process of yet another Twitter essay, one that started with him explaining why he chooses the format.

“2b My twitter essays are essays in the original French meaning of the term: attempts, exercises in thinking out loud, provisional thoughts” #

“2c I’ve more than once changed my mind or the direction of my thought mid-stream in a twitter essay based on someone’s comments.” #

“2d It’s precisely because I respond to peoples comments while thinking out loud I use twitter essay format & not blogging or something else” #

So there we are.

Filed under: blogging, social media, writing

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