Twitter’s thin blue line: a velvet rope to connect the riff-raff to the elite

The latest update to the social network is simply a helpful little line to make it easier to follow a conversational thread. In reality, it will mean that the clubby little chats of the great and good will be even more difficult to avoid.

How Barack Obama got elected I’ll never know. With rhetoric centred around the repeated use of the word ‘change’ he somehow appealed to the Social Media generation. And if we know one thing about them it’s this; they don’t like change.

You only have to wander into Facebook after one of its thrice-monthly makeovers to know that’s true. The kind of wailing and rending of garments you’ll see after a minor alteration of the network’s news feed hasn’t been witnessed since Moses nearly missed his print deadline for The Book Of Job.

Now — setting aside for a moment the possibility that Syrian hackers have compromised the network in a peculiarly constructive way — Twitter has a social upheaval of its own.

The principal difference between the two leading social networks is that while Facebook is unapologetically a platform for closed friendship groups, Twitter aspires to be The National Conversation.

The latest update to the Twitter web client introduces a helpful little line to make it easier to follow a conversational thread. Hardly groundbreaking stuff.

The thinking behind the (by default) blue line is to promote conversation. To encourage people to butt in to the conversations they see going on around them. To promote tweets that are engendering conversations over random shouts in the darkness. .  In essence, Twitter wants some of Facebook’s action.

But of course the blue line is also a velvet rope. There’s an élite on Twitter as there is everywhere else. And, as they do everywhere else, they all know each other.

Unless you regularly consult Wikipedia you can often forget that an awful lot of politicians, actors and broadsheet columnists — no matter how egalitarian their standpoint, are either descended from someone famous, married to someone famous, or used to fag for someone famous at Eton.

On Twitter, it’s all too obvious that the cool kids all know each other. The national conversation is shot through with a skein of the great and the good chatting about meeting up later at one anothers’ book launches, or commiserating with one another about the hangovers they’re suffering after last night’s première.

Those conversations could be taking place via email, or in direct messages, rather than constituting a virtual Mean Girls lunch table to which the rest of us aren’t invited. But let’s be charitable. Maybe all those cool kids are just too hungover to send emails. There are an awful lot of book launches every week.

Twitter happily tells us that  “great conversations happen on Twitter every day” and that “they’re now easier to find and enjoy.” What they have become, in fact, is harder to avoid. The great school cafeteria of Twitter has been arranged to that we’re all in earshot of the cool kids table, all the time.

There is scope, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, to exploit Twitter’s new conversation lines. For commercial interests to link tweets to give them more conversational ‘weight’ and float them to the top of more timelines.

So, in summation. Ordinary people don’t like the blue lines because they don’t like change of any kind. The cool kids won’t notice the blue lines because they’ve always used Twitter as a conversational medium anyway. And unless Twitter are getting a kickback from the commercial operators that will swoop in to exploit the new opportunity, they won’t derive much benefit from it.

If we were rational about social networking, the blue line would soon become so ubiquitous as to become effectively invisible.

As we’re not, I doubt if it’ll last until the end of the Obama administration.

A still from Twitter's video introducing the update to its web client.

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

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Why are online jokes funnier without punctuation and capital letters?

Academics and social media users weigh in on Twitter’s most unexplained phenomenon. 

The first person to notice it did so in 2010. “Sometimes I think a twitter joke is funnier if you omit punctuation,” tweeted @zacharylittle on 2 April. He was a pioneer. It took two years for anyone else to express the same thought, but they did so in droves. “I like not using punctuation like commas on twitter because its somehow funnier lol,” said @chxrliesheen, sans apostrophe. “I never use punctuation on twitter and tumblr I just think its funnier ok,” exclaimed @julieamarch. From then until now, people have been constantly questioning the phenomenon, but there are still no answers.

Why exactly are Twitter jokes funnier when they have grammatical errors, discard punctuation, lack capital letters, or are misspelled?

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, tells me over email – in which she demonstrates some of this playfulness herself. “writing wihtout caps, proper punctation, and leaving misspellings uncorrected also feels like private communication, like whispered kjokes, and therefore has the same potential thrill.”

Dr Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, warns me that most of his knowledge on the subject comes from “spending too much time on Twitter, rather than any obvious academic work”. It is true that research into the area is lacking – books about “internet language” get outdated quickly, and seem to focus on email and chatrooms, rather than more modern social media. “The misspellings [on Twitter] are often beautifully calibrated, like a very subtle malapropism, and the grammar errors are designed to make familiar material feel out of kilter,” he says.

Sometimes humour is found when grandiose sentiments are contrasted with train-wreck grammar, he argues, whereas other times the language can be exclusionary and people share it to prove they “get” the joke.

Perhaps the most famous Twitter user who has mastered the technique of the misspelled tweet is Jonathan Sun. Sun has gained 168,000 followers posing as an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge”, and is part of what is known as “weird Twitter”, a subset of the site where humour is surreal and often bolstered by misspellings, a lack of punctuation, and grammatical errors. But while “weird Twitter” takes it to the extreme, many other arguably “normal” Twitter users will uncap the start of their Tweets or the word “I”.

“i’m not really sure why but i’ve been going out of my way to un-cap for ages,” one anonymous Twitter user told me via a direct message on the site. “i recognise that it is a stupid waste of time, ive had partners mock me for it.” Possibly, they theorise, they do this because they used to edit copy as part of their job. “it could be a reaction to that, to be completely armchair psychology about it.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World reinforces this point. She argues that language users are always looking for ways to distinguish their voices and express emotion. “A bevy of authors – from the poet e.e. cummings to social media scholar danah boyd – have further personalised their identity by eschewing the normal capitalisations in their names,” she says. “When it comes to social networking sites such as Twitter, lack of capital letters lends a tone of informality that makes the messages feel more speech-like.”

It’s hard to admit that you’re deliberately making mistakes in order to look offhand, as you are essentially revealing you try-very-hard-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying-at-all. But Rebecca Reid, a 25-year-old journalist, admits this is why she used to uncap her tweets. “Honestly I literally thought it made me look cooler,” she says. “I saw my sister doing it, and she's a couple of years younger and very trendy, so I thought it was just what we were doing. So I copied her. This is so tragic from me. And after a while I realised that it wasn't making me seem edgy, it was making it seem like the shift button on my key board was broken.”

It is true that informality is important in written messages, as a 2015 study revealed that ending text messages with a full stop was perceived to be insincere, most likely because it is seen as a sign of aggression. Twitter jokes that are written similarly formally – with full stops and capital letters – might also seem insincere, or be less inviting or inclusive than those with deliberate mistakes, run-on sentences, or five-too-many exclamation marks.

“There's also a phenomenon that linguists have only started discussing in the last decade, called ‘Eggcorns’,” says Rabagliati. “Here the speaker has learned a misanalysed locution. The phenomenon is named from the case of a woman who had, all her life, misheard the word acorn as ‘eggcorn’. ‘To all intensive purposes’ is a similar error. These mistakes play on our fear that our knowledge of language might not be as robust as we want to believe – think about all those words that you've read, but never heard aloud. Plus, the errors are fun because they demand some backwards reasoning to reconstruct.” 

More academic research is needed for a final answer on the phenomenon, but one thing is certain. If uncapitalising things on Twitter is cool, writing an 800-word article about it certainly isn't. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.