The Disadvantages of Twitter

The Disadvantages of Twitter

My feelings on Twitter’s usefulness are similar to the ones put forth by Mallary Tenore in her piece, “6 ways Twitter has made me a better writer,” but I disagree with her in a few key areas.

I should say ahead of time that I’m not trying to nitpick or be negative for the sake of being negative. I actually agree with Tenore’s points for the most part. But I feel like Twitter’s benefits need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Twitter teaches you how to be succinct, but it also incentivizes tabloidy writing.

Like Tenore, I also have a tendency to be wordy. (My freshman English teacher would probably tell you the same thing.) And though, like Tenore, I’ve started writing more succinctly to fit Twitter’s character limit, I’ve also found myself writing as if I am crafting headlines for a tabloid.

There’s only so much information you can convey in 140 characters. Suppose the average English word is six characters, including the space. Then subtract the 20 or so characters for your average shortlink (they look like this: and that leaves you with space for about 20 words — in other words, enough for a shorter-than-average summary lede.

Actually, not even. Good tweeters rarely pack 140 characters into a tweet — on a Twitter feed, an 140-character tweet will look like block text, which discourages Twitter users from reading and clicking — so you really only have a space of 8-12 words to both capture the attention of your followers and to get your message across.

This creates a strong incentive for tweeters to emphasize the former — capturing attention — over the latter. When I go through my feed, instead of fulfilling my daily news diet, I’ll get tweets like these instead — “These celebrities claim they don’t diet or exercise” and “Here are 26 innocent things that will make you feel filthy” — from outlets like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, respectively,

This style of tweet is also known as “clickbait” — working off the idea that Kim Kardashian tweets get more clicks than ones sharing intellectual content — and granted, I’ve chosen two extreme examples of it. Most news outlets, I’ve found, strike a more even balance between capturing attention and proliferating news and content. One of my favorite financial news sources, Quartz, does a really good job of using its content to grab attention:

This tweet is an accurate representation of the article itself — the first eight words correspond with the first half of the article and the second four with the rest. It takes a subject matter that isn’t necessarily interesting, Greek bureaucracy and economic instability, and puts it in a context that would appeal to a wide range of readers. (Hey, I think it’s cool that I could conceivably afford an island in Greece.) And it does it without resorting to questionable appeals used by HuffPo and Buzzfeed.

Some of my favorite tweeters:

I’ve found that the best way to get better at Tweeting is to follow the best tweeters. Personally, I think outlets like Quartz, the Daily Beast, and the Washington Post are very social media-savvy, as are bloggers and writers such as Politico’s Ben White, WashPo’s Max Fisher, and the New York Times’ (and Penn State alum) Daniel Victor.

It’s also worth noting that the best news media tweeters aren’t necessary journalists. I’m a foreign policy and economics nerd, and two of my favorite feeds to follow are those of Daniel Drezner, a professor, and Justin Wolfers, an economist. They often share articles that they find interesting — and they’re not always foreign policy and economics-related articles. (Drezner, for instance, is a die-hard Red Sox fan so I had to endure his tweets during their run in the World Series.) They also contribute their own expertise to the Twitter-sphere — on the last U.S. GDP report, for instance, I was getting first-person commentary from an expert, Wolfers, instead of second-hand accounts from a news media outlet.

Also important: all five of the people I’ve mentioned — White, Fisher, Victor, Drezner, and Wolfers — all include a degree of levity to their feeds. In other words, they have a good personality on Twitter. Sure, I want news and information from them, but Twitter is still a social media site and I want to be able to laugh from time to time when checking their tweets. And I’m more likely to read something written by someone that I like.

Alright, this post is getting pretty wordy, so I’ll just leave it here.


6 thoughts on “The Disadvantages of Twitter

  1. Hi Bobby!
    First of all, thanks for recommending all those great tweeters. I’m totally green on this and I’m dying to know some cool tweeters.
    I agree with you that the best news media tweeters don’t have to be journalists. I found that some reviewers on twitter have more interesting insights on some issues. And for me, they are much cooler than some of the official news media tweeters. For me personally, whether the feeds are funny or not matters a lot.
    I wish I could have something to recommend but maybe in the future when I become an expert.
    Great job there!

  2. Bobby,

    I agree with most of Mallary’s points as well. I like that you point out a lot of the articles that get the most clicks/attention are usually not “news” articles. I am definitely guilty of contributing to the clicks on BuzzFeed articles, but I actually enjoy seeing them come up on my feed so I don’t necessarily mind that they’re there. They are entertaining.


    • Hey, not trying to hate on Buzzfeed and the like. My favorite Twitter account is Cute Emergency (don’t get to see enough puppies in State College).

  3. Cute Emergency is genius. I’ll leave it at that. I don’t even need to follow it; the people I follow always RT the very best ones.

    This is a really interesting discussion. So do you all think that it’s the format of 140 characters that leads to the tabloid-type info, or is there something else at play here? What are some of the “something elses” that it could be?

    Also on writing short: Did you ever hear about the six-word short story contest? Inspired by Hemingway supposedly writing a story in six words — it’s unclear whether that’s true, according to Snopes. But here’s the story, and it’s powerful, IMO: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.


    • I think the 140-character format reinforces existing audience demand for tabloid-type info. This is just an assumption based on personal observation, but I think the crazier a headline is, the more a Twitter user will want to click on it. And since you don’t have many characters to work with, you’re going to truncate the less-interesting words out a title or tweet, even though doing so might create room for misinterpretation.

      Then again, I don’t think this is a new problem, because traditional print newspapers have always faced a physical character limit. So I think that this is a fundamental feature of today’s news industry — your “something else.”

      I also think that, because of the sheer volume of identical news out there (i.e. you can get the same story, essentially, from any number of sources, from the NYT to Huffpo to Gawker to Buzzfeed to the Daily Mail, etc.), a lot of nationally oriented news outlets that haven’t carved out niches — as the New York Times has — are forced to differentiate themselves by being more tabloidy. For instance: the CNN front-page story on Miley Cyrus that we discussed in class.

      Also, the six-story contest is very cool. That’s definitely something I’d like to try out.

      • Hey Bobby,

        I’m right there with you on the tabloid type headlines dominating Twitter. I’m totally guilty of supporting it. I follow CNN and I really only look at the posts if a giant “BREAKING” is in front of them. The bigger headlines get my attention. I rarely click on a post from The New York Times because I normally don’t find their lead into the story from their Tweet very interesting. If there is a lead saying “adorable puppy #omg #adorable #gonnadiefromcuteness” then I’m going to click.

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