Let’s talk about Twitter threads

Art by Analyn Camantigue

On June 2017, when The Atlantic published “My Family’s Slave” by Alex Tizon, the volume of reaction was immense. People within and outside of the Philippines were itching to engage the issue on social media, but one could say the digital voices that stood out the most in the cacophony were utilizing a particular discursive form known to anyone with a Twitter account: the thread. And there were many threads. So, so, so, so many threads.

And it’s not like the thread-as-a-form has been employed for this issue alone. There have been threads which talk about life under Martial Law. There are numerous threads which talk about normalized misogyny. If for some reason you were unable to watch this year’s disappointing SONA, you could keep up through report threads, woven with quotes. For some, threads are the best narrative vehicles for funny stories. There are threads that aren’t received well, which can be met with counterargument threads. There are threads of threads. Avril Lavigne is dead: a conspiracy thread. Or, whether she’s dead or not, she doesn’t have the range.

It’s hard to tell when it started becoming a thing, but there’s no denying that the thread is one of the most ubiquitous ways we engage in discourse. And while at times it can seem redundant or circular to talk about how we talk about things (I mean, Jesus Christ this is a thoughtpiece about threads), it might prove useful, especially in a time when the importance free speech and the effects of language are emphasized to the ends of the earth, to unspool the pros and cons of the thread form.

It’s hard to tell when it started becoming a thing, but there’s no denying that the thread is one of the most ubiquitous ways we engage in discourse.

One can owe the popularity of threads to their ability to make the complex easier to understand. Accounts such as TheLitCritGuy are known to dedicate whole threads to critical theory. We’ve seen whole threads discussing personal experiences with misogyny (which means unpacking the complex ways the patriarchy oppresses) and even our weird Baybayin fixation (which can be addressed using postcolonial theory). Thorough, nuanced criticism on the ails of society may find their place in a piece of longform or a textbook, but Twitter makes such takes accessible in a way these forms can’t, even if it means simplifying these things a little.

“Even if it’s a thread, every entry has to fit 140 characters, so you really can’t beat around the bush,” says Lakan Umali, who himself has cultivated a reputation online for his thread-making. You could say that threads might be a counter-intuitive approach to Twitter’s 140 character limit, but if you string a bunch of tweets together, a piece that might bore some readers as dense blocks of text might find a wider audience when presented in bits, like a listicle. For Lakan, threads are “easier to consume” and “more bite-sized.”

Matt Ortile, an editor for Buzzfeed Philippines, points out that logistically, threads work in such a way that they can easily draw more attention to themselves. “When you reply to your own tweet, you bump up the tweet in your newsfeed. Like if you tweeted something an hour ago and you reply to it again, it will float back up to the top,” he says. “Speaking as a social media editor, that’s just a good way to get more visibility.” It works that way even when other people reply to or retweet the thread. The thread becomes larger and (with any luck) intellectually deeper the more engagement it gets. Imagine something like a virus, which spreads faster the more it eats.

While we’re on the subject of retweets, one can’t discuss threads with confronting its inexplicable connection to performativity. There is a kind of pressure to perform social and political awareness, a preoccupation The New York Times calls “earning the ‘woke’ badge.Retweeting a thread is the modern “What he said!” (sometimes shortened to the more succinct “this” or “same”) and creating one can be reasonably seen as a rite of passage in proving yourself as a full-fledged ~millennial digital citizen~.

The account feministph makes a case though for those saddled with the burden of appearing politically with it. “To be fair, there are also people who choose to only share information because they’re not sure yet about what they think of those issues, or do not think it’s their place to talk about issues because they’d be speaking over other voices that need to be heard more than theirs.”

That last part, of withdrawing your voice to allow others the space to be heard, seems a rare measure, though that might be because humble people don’t make a habit of announcing their humility. I can’t help but feel that the attitude that dominates is otherwise the obsequious RT, of riding somebody else’s carefully thought-out commentary with a casual “THIS,” all to preserve the impression that one is truly enacting change. As if to say, “I didn’t say it, but he or she did, and I agree, and that’s just as good.” The obvious antidote to this is for one to remember why one actually bothers participating in discourse in the first place — not to treat wokeness as an accessory, but to make society better. (There is also the occasional toxicity of call-out culture, but that’s another article — or thread? — for another day.)

Retweeting a thread is the modern “What he said!” (sometimes shortened to the more succinct “this” or “same”) and creating one can be reasonably seen as a rite of passage in proving yourself as a full-fledged ~millennial digital citizen~.

The one thing that makes the thread such a paradigm-shifting force, however, is its ability to outspeed mainstream news publications. For example: whenever Erwan Heussaff says something upsetting, there will most likely be a thousand hot takes on the issue of health and wellness flooding the digital sphere before your favorite magazine can move an inch. The editors have to meet, choose a writer, give a deadline, the writer has to submit, the article has to go through some edits, until it finally gets thrown into the coliseum of social media to prove its worth in a contest of who has the best opinion.

And that’s perfectly fine people have been sharing opinions since the dawn of time, and it’s personally refreshing for me when an individual gets at the heart of an issue better than the machinery of a whole organization. But maybe it’s a big deal for me, as an editor, when the democratization of who gets to say what challenges magazines’ and newspapers’ supposed (and at this point, dare I say tenuous) status as cultural authorities. Add to that how social media has fuelled our hunger for hot takes,  for immediate reaction and engagement as opposed to, say, letting a thought or feeling marinate and develop with time.

At least, that’s the case when it comes to matters of opinion. But in the realm of fact, it’s actual news sources that continue to dominate. According to Matt, he describes the way Buzzfeed News acts, and by the extension the duty of other news sources, as the responsibility “sacrifice speed for the sake of quality and objective truth and trustworthiness.” All well and good. But still, there is the realm of opinion, and it’s both exciting and a little scary to imaginethe commissioned essay and the loose cannon thread butting heads for dominance.

*

For all of this problematization, make no mistake, threads are important. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say, that in the thick of such politically tumultuous times, our generation has found, mastered, and popularized a way of learning from each other and speaking truth to power. “I would say that Twitter threads, and social media in general, are a significant part of how we talk about sociopolitical issues nowadays,” says Millennial of Manila. “Speaking from personal experience, I would say that the level of sociopolitical awareness I have now mostly stems from social media.”

And yet feministph, Millennial of Manila, Lakan, Matt, and anybody who’s ever retweeted a thread in their life will tell you that at the end of the day, you have to go straight to the source. How we define the source, then, is perhaps where we go from here. For every reaction, there is the responsibility to return to the first fallen domino the main article, text, theory or fact that guides the spirit of the reaction. But more than that, in the interest of repeating the tired point that armchair activism shouldn’t be where it ends, concrete changes must be made. To move policy, to call your congressman, to be the body on the street in your next rally, to ally yourself with an organization making the changes you otherwise can’t make on your own. Otherwise, we’re back in the same discursive feedback loop, and all this talk about talking goes to waste. Which is to say, feel free to make a thread about this article, but don’t let it stop there.

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#culture #technology

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