How to parse a tweet

Tuesday, 20 November, 2012

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” said Gertrude Stein, but a tweet is much more than a text-based message of up to 140 characters. This is what a lot of Brits are about to learn now that Lord McAlpine’s team of technical and legal experts has set to work. Background: The former Tory Party treasurer was wrongly accused on Twitter of being a child molester, and he is expected to sue at least 10,000 people over the malicious claims that appeared in the wake of a BBC Newsnight investigation into a paedophile ring at care homes in North Wales.

In what could be very troubling news for the comrades, Guido Fawkes revealed yesterday that “The Guardian website published George Monboit’s deleted Tweets revealing Lord McAlpine,” and McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid, sent chills through cyberspace when he told the Daily Mirror: “We have been watching people who have been taking down what they put on Twitter. We already have all the information. We have found a couple of firms of experts who have produced pretweets, post-tweets, the effect of the tweets and the retweets.”

Clearly there’s more to tweeting than meets the eye and last Friday Dalton Caldwell provided a brilliant example of how to parse one. It’s by Peter Chernin, who was named to the Twitter board of directors on Thursday. Here’s the tweet:

In “Twitter is pivoting,” Dalton Caldwell notes:

His announcement was formatted as a direct reply to the official Twitter account. This means the announcement would only be seen by his followers that also follow the official Twitter account. I don’t get the feeling he did this on purpose. An experienced Twitter user would know to add a “.” at the beginning of his message so that his followers would see it.

Based on his analysis of this single tweet, Caldwell draws a bigger picture and concludes that the appointment of Peter Chernin might see Twitter “completely redefine what the core user experience is.”

That’ll be of little comfort to the 10,000 Brits who might soon be hearing from m’learned friends of Lord McAlpine, but it does prove that there’s more to the 140-character message than we thought. Yes, a tweet is a tweet is a tweet, but unlike a rose it is not a symbol of love and beauty.

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