Much Ado About Tweeting

By Sree Sreenivasan on June 14, 2010 11:32am | Updated on June 14, 2010 11:31am

By Sree Sreenivasan

DNAinfo contributing editor

I just don't get it. Why in the world are journalists trying to come up with substitutes for the word "tweet"? 

When used to describe the act of posting something on Twitter, I think it's a perfectly valid, clear and simple word. "Roger Ebert tweeted his latest movie reviews" seems the correct way to describe the movie critic's actions on Twitter.

But for some folks, that word doesn't work. Last week, TheAwl.com's Choire Sicha ran an internal memo from New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett that made a fuss about tweeting:

Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.

Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections.

Of course, new technology terms sprout and spread faster than ever. And we don’t want to seem paleolithic. But we favor established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or buzzwords.

I completely understand favoring established usage over jargon or buzzwords, but this is not a buzzword. This is the term used in a communication medium that has more than 190 million users who generate 65 million tweets a day (and 135,000 new signups a day). If that is the term used by the service itself, it's good enough for me.  

Back on Jan. 1, 2010, in an otherwise brilliant, must-read essay in the New York Times Week in Review entitled "Why Twitter Will Endure," media columnist David Carr (whose Twitter feed, @Carr2N, is worth following) went after the terminology, too:

In the pantheon of digital nomenclature — brands within a sector of the economy that grew so fast that all the sensible names were quickly taken — it would be hard to come up with a noun more trite than Twitter. It impugns itself, promising something slight and inconsequential, yet another way to make hours disappear and have nothing to show for it. And just in case the noun is not sufficiently indicting, the verb, “to tweet” is even more embarrassing.

It isn't just the Times. Slate's Torie Bosch jumped on the anti-tweet bandwagon, asking readers for alternatives:

Many of us cringe when forced to use the cutesy word and its accompanying word-jam nomenclature: twitterverse, tweeple, tweeting, tweetup, retweet, twitterati, detweet, dweet. Perhaps it's the word's similarity to the irksome twee and its connotations that makes us loathe it so.

I agree it's irritating when people take ordinary words and add a "tw" in front of them to make a Twitter-related word. But the reason most people find aspects of Twitter — and, perhaps, even the concept itself - bothersome has nothing to do with the word "twee," as Bosch suggests. 

I think it's because most people who criticize Twitter aren't active users of the service and are yet to grasp fully what it can - and cannot - do as a mode of communication. Just as a young child might laugh at anything that seems vaguely scatological, some folks who aren't on Twitter break into fits of giggling when confronted with something they don't understand or use.

Twitter is far from perfect, but instead of trying to find alternate words, I'd rather try to get journalists to use the service in smarter ways. We can all learn from the previously mentioned Roger Ebert, who recently wrote - in a piece entitled "Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!" - about what he's learned on Twitter:

I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in. I said it was impossible to think of great writing in terms of 140 characters. I have been humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi. I said I feared I would become addicted. I was correct.

Whatever you call them, the billions of postings on Twitter - the serious, the banal, the oversharing, the ridiculous - are all going to be part of Americana. The Library of Congress, as you might have heard, is archiving all Twitter postings going back to the first ones from March 2006. Read about that effort here in a post called "How Tweet It Is! Library Acquires Entire Twitter Archive" (even that title will infuriate the purists, I am sure). 

My favorite alternative for all the distracting social media terms is Conan O'Brien's 2009 coinage, combining YouTube, Facebook and Twitter: "YouTwitFace." Somehow, that hasn't caught on yet.

What do you think about this fuss over a few words?  Let me know in the comments or via Twitter @sreenet.

Each Monday, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia Journalism School professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.

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