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A small defense of the Twitter thread

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A Twitter thread is like a poem

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

It’s easy to hate on the Twitter thread, that weird form where somebody tweets, then replies to their own tweet, and so on ad infinitum until it finally ends.

The Twitter thread is a mainstay of mansplaining (or, as Gizmodo cleverly called it, Manthreading). It fills your timeline with half-contextualized tweets, sometimes poorly connected so you can’t figure out where they start and where they stop. Most of all, you will say, it’s ridiculously easy to find a blogging platform and just write out your “longform” there instead of inflicting your thoughts on your followers in 140 character chunks.

I do not want to argue that any of those points are wrong — nor could I, honestly, because I agree with all of them. But I would also be sad if the Twitter thread went away completely, because it’s a new and evocative narrative form. Some Twitter threads are genuinely funny, heartbreaking, or thought-provoking.

So in the grand tradition of Twitter itself, I’m going to say something that will raise your ire: the Twitter thread is a poem.

When you see such a manifestly annoying thing compared to a beautiful thing, you want to reject the metaphor like a bad transplant. But put the comparison in more technical terms and maybe it won’t sound as bad.

A poem is a piece of writing that makes specific and intentional use of the tools and forms of language to create meaning that’s more evocative than simple prose.

A Twitter thread is a piece of writing that makes specific and intentional use of the tools and forms of an app to create meaning that’s more evocative than simple prose.

Having made this comparison, I’m going to immediately back down and say that, like all metaphors, it breaks down if you push it too far. A poem intentionally creates meaning through strictures of linguistic form: rhyme, meter, rhythm, verse, sound, and more. These tools allow words to mean more than they would if they were simply written out in a paragraph.

A Twitter thread is not quite so intentional in creating meaning that rises above the direct prose of the text. You could argue that there is nothing lost by taking each tweet in succession and writing them out in a single blog post. But that’s not true.

Twitter threads offer a powerful sense of caesura, the pregnant pause between words or phrases. With threads, it’s both a literal pause between tweets and the visual break between them when you’re reading them.

Here’s a terrible piece of evidence showing that caesura in Twitter threads can be powerful. When the president announced his transgender military ban, the pause between his first tweet and the actual announcement raised fears in the Pentagon that he was about to start a war.

Trump aside (please), the experience of reading a Twitter thread is an exercise of constant caesura, where you fill in the gaps between tweets with your own thoughts and reactions as you read. The best threads don’t simply take one tweet and lead to the next like prose, instead each one is close to a complete thought and those thoughts are then chained together with those little gray lines.

And that’s in the best of times. Finding a thread is also a unique experience, something new in the history of reading. Somebody will tweet “Thread” and point you to the first tweet. The powerful (and sometimes annoying) thing is that every individual piece of a Twitter thread isn’t just tied to the narrative from whence it came.

With prose, somebody can pull out a quote and present it out of context, but there’s always a sense that it’s a smaller part of a whole. With a thread, the tools to present each Tweet on its own, out of context, is literally built into the tweet itself in the form of buttons underneath it.

Anyway, at some point you will click in and hope / pray the person writing it managed to chain them together properly with the reply button. Perhaps they did, or perhaps they didn’t.

So you click around, look at the main Twitter profile, and keep clicking and scrolling through the chain of tweets and their replies and eventually it peters out. It’s an incredibly active act of reading: you must craft some portion of the narrative yourself, filling in the caesura. You examine the author and some of the replies. Most of all, you interact with the app, trying to make the technology that is showing you these words do a better job of helping you make sense of them.

Whereas, with a paper book or a blog post the technology is simply displaying prose, a Twitter thread demands your interaction. And whether you think that’s good or bad, you can’t deny that it’s a more active way of reading.

Twitter threads are usually the work of a single author, but other voices inevitably find their way into the experience. Sometimes it's a stack of replies at the bottom of the thread, sometimes it's because you clicked into a tweet mid-thread, so you see both the author's replies and everybody else's. When people in the early ‘90s got excited about the possibilities of linked hypertext upending the tyranny of linear narrative, I can't help but think they were imagining something like this.

All that activity doesn’t even take into account that Twitter is basically a real-time platform, so sometimes you can watch the thread roll in live. And even if you don’t, there really is something to the cliché that Twitter feels more immediate than other blogging platforms. Without pre-planning (which I doubt many people do), there is no editing, no chance to look over your entire story and feel out its narrative before hitting that terrifying publish button.

And a Twitter thread’s relationship to time is also fascinating in its own right. The tweets can come out in a rush or appear over the course of months and even years. Other narrative forms are complete when they're complete, but a Twitter thread can just keep going for as long as the author wants (or as long as Twitter, you know, survives).

If Twitter were any kind of smart, it would update its product to make threads a better experience. Hell, go ahead and make it easier to turn them into monetizable moments if you must, Twitter. (While we’re here, editable tweets, too, please.)