Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

(Sub)tweeting for Success

For readers like myself who do not Tweet, it is unsettling to learn that we are already well into the post-Twitter era, in which such things as Tweetstorms, Tweetups, retweets and subtweets are commonplace. But common they are, and Twitter (Inc.) seems to have anticipated that they would become so because three of those four words (exception: Tweetup) are trademarks  owned by Twitter.

While millions of people are tweeting and retweeting every day, a small fraction of them are also subtweeting, and if news stories are to be believed (see, for example, here and here), they are not doing so very successfully. These and other news stories alerted me to the idea of subtweeting and got me thinking about the conversational aspects of Tweets and their sub-cousins.

What's a subtweet? The exact idea is still evolving, but writers online have taken a crack at defining it. A subtweet is:

  • a post that refers to a particular user without directly mentioning them, typically as a form of furtive mockery or criticism

  • a tweet that references a Twitter member without using their actual username. Usually employed for negative or insulting tweets.

  • the internet equivalent of talking about someone behind their back

The whole world of Tweets—the Twitterverse, if you will—is a conversation; but a conversation very unlike one between you and your grandmother. The conversation of the Twitterverse is first of all a multiparty conversation, in which everyone talks at once, and in which most utterances (Tweets) are broadcast—literally so, of course, but also broadcast in the sense that they are not typically directed at an individual but at any listener who cares to tune in. This has led to patterns of Tweets being characterized as if coming from a single source or mind, in a way that I talked about in the Language Lounge last year.

Because the Twitterverse is a conversation, it is subject to the rules that govern conversation. Oh, there are rules? There are, despite their being largely unwritten. They were unpacked brilliantly by philosopher of language Paul Grice in his 1967 lectures at Harvard. I talked about the Gricean Maxims earlier this year in another Lounge article and they bear repeating here because of their importance in understanding what goes down on Twitter. Grice surmised that in conversation, we normally observe the following conventions:

  1. The maxim of quantity, where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.

  2. The maxim of quality, where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.

  3. The maxim of relation, where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion.

  4. The maxim of manner, when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity.

All together, the maxims constitute the "cooperative principle," the idea that listeners and speakers normally cooperate and accept that each will understand the other in the most predictable and conventional way.

Because Twitter is such a free-for-all, and because "liking" Tweets and retweeting exist, Twitter provides a kind of scoring facility for the maxims. In principle, a popular Tweet (one frequently liked and/or retweeted) would be one that scores high in observing the various maxims: surely the third and fourth ones (relevance and manner), and ideally the second one, although popular Tweets with little truth value are certainly not uncommon.

A constraint imposed by the limitations of Twitter goes a long way toward guaranteeing adherence to the first maxim: Tweeters must exert some effort to stay within the length limits of a Tweet (that is, unless they wish to engage in a Tweetstorm, or multi-tweet message). Twitter has evolved a number of ways to get users past the constraint of length by enabling them to pack large amounts of meaning into small spaces by the use of hashtags and the @ sign, both of which can be used to contextualize a Tweet and to limit or focus its domain of relevance.

Implicature, another idea developed by Paul Grice, can be understood in a nutshell as the expression of meaning in an utterance that is implicit rather than explicit, and that is determined by contextual factors. Because of the economy of expression that Tweets require, implicature plays a large role in Tweets, and perhaps a dominating role in subtweets—because those who subtweet are typically suggesting, implying, or expressing something that they don't say directly, and it's probably something that directly violates one or more maxims by being obscure, ambiguous, and most of all, uncooperative: using a medium of communication to deliver a (stinging) message quite indirectly rather than directly.

A recent Washington Post article reported the results of a survey that found "readers formed consistently bad impressions of people who subtweet: They're less likely to want to befriend them, less likely to think they're socially competent and less likely to think they shared any personal similarities." This follows logically from a Gricean analysis, since a subtweet by its nature is likely to violate anywhere from one to four of the maxims. Given this rather slim view of conversational success, you may wonder why people subtweet at all. That's not such a hard question to answer: they subtweet for the same reasons that they may make infelicitous choices in speech, which backfire on them in some way: an unskillful intention to inflict harm or make a joke at someone else's expense.

For those wishing to avoid the perils of subtweeting, the Buddhist idea of Right Speech offers a handy remedy. Right speech is abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter. Characteristics of right speech are:

  • It is spoken at the right time.

  • It is spoken in truth.

  • It is spoken affectionately.

  • It is spoken beneficially.

  • It is spoken with a mind of good will.

The world would surely be a much quieter place, and the Twitterverse a much less busy forum, if these guidelines were used consistently—but they would go a long way from keeping both Tweeters and Subtweeters out of trouble, in addition to bringing the Twitterverse into more consistent alignment with Grice's maxims.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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