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With 280 characters, here are the Twitter tropes that may bite the dust

A new form of language and communication has evolved on Twitter over the last 11 years. How will it be affected now tweets have doubled in length?

It’s official – Twitter has now rolled out 280-character tweets for the majority of its users, doubling the letter limit it has imposed for the last decade. Longer tweets are now flooding the social network, with many using the opportunity to crack jokes, share their opinions, and make nuanced points (just kidding on that last one).

Although 280-character tweets might be a sign of fine and mighty progress, plenty is being left behind. Over the last 11 years, new forms of language and communication have evolved on Twitter – many of which will now be redundant.

“I assume it will take a little time for Twitter to adapt, but I believe the kind of writing that became standard on Twitter – clipped, succinct, only one point per tweet – will fade out, replaced by fuller sentences and more points per tweet,” says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Tannen ponders whether the style of one of 2017’s most prolific tweeters will change. “Will Donald Trump’s habit of truncating sentences and reducing thoughts to single emotional expressions –‘Sad!’, ‘A disaster!’ – remain unchanged or will he, perhaps, add more of the same?”

Trump’s Twitter tactics aren’t the only things that might change – here are some of the now-vulnerable language and communication tropes that have developed thanks to Twitter’s 140 character limit.

The iPhone Notes drama

A succinct symbol of “shit has happened”, a screenshot of an iPhone Note has been a Twitter staple for years. When someone – usually a celebrity – has more to say than 140 characters will allow, they write a Note, screenshot it, and upload it to Twitter. It’s undeniable that this caused problems when it came to searching or copy-and-pasting celebrity statements, but as a form of communication it seemed personable and very human – far from the usual PR script.

Twitter ghost stories

Over recent months, creatives have been taking to Twitter to tell staccato, suspenseful ghost stories on the site. One of the most famous of these threads was created by illustrator Manuel Bartual, who told the story of meeting his eerie double, the “other Manuel”, while on holiday. Despite the fact his story was crafted around the suspenseful power of 140 characters, Bartual tells me he isn’t worried about the new 280.

“I think the 280 character Twitter version brings a lot of new possibilities,” he says. “The trick is to think about it as an option, not as an obligation… 280 characters brings you the possibility to write with other rhythms.”

Folk/Fuck

My colleague Stephen Bush points out that many unfashionable words have come back into favour due to the need to be succinct on Twitter. Instead of “people”, for example, he has taken to writing “folk” – and has seen others on the site do the same. Research in 2014 also found that “fuck” is the most commonly used swear word on the site, presumably because of its short and sweet four letters.  

The versatile em dash

A full stop and a space takes up two whole characters on Twitter, making many users reluctant to start and end new sentences. Instead, a cheeky “–” without spaces allowed a user to string two sentences together, using one character instead of two.

Ironic hashtags

Freelance journalist Kate Pasola wrote her undergraduate linguistics dissertation on the use of hashtags on Twitter. She found that thanks to 140 characters, hashtags were often necessary for context – but this later evolved, with hashtags being used in non-limited character environments like Facebook and real life. Why? In Pasola’s words, because “we’re all sarcastic bastards”. She found people used hashtags ironically and satirically to create humour even when they weren’t necessary.

“Hashtags went from wanting to group data and make it searchable to being a small space to add lols to stuff and seem irreverent” she says.

Misspellings and a lack of punctuation

As I wrote last October, a new form of humour has developed on Twitter, where the omission of punctuation and capital letters psychologically makes a tweet appear funnier. It’s hard to see how this stylistic choice wasn’t born out of a need for brevity, although now it’s been established, this type of humour may well carry on.

Breaking news

While studying journalism at De Montfort university, writer Alice Gibbs was taught how to construct 140 character tweets that would deliver news effectively and accurately. “That took real practice and skill and actually, I believe that only some of the best journalists can do it effectively,” she says.

“Twitter’s move to 280 negates the need for a skill that is so important in the news world – being able to self-edit to be clear and concise... I hope from a journalistic point of view, we can try and stick to 140 for important stories and quick fire news.”

Script jokes

Traditionally, there was no room on Twitter to properly relay a conversation or exchange, meaning people started to do so in a script format. This created a whole new genre of humour. My colleague Anna Leszkiewicz gives the example of the classic “a man walks into a doctors” joke. Instead of relaying it in full (“a man walks into a doctors and says I feel like a pair of curtains, the doctor says bla bla bla”) you’d get something like:

Me: I feel like a pair of curtains

Doctor: Pull urself together man

THREAD

The most famous of all Twitter tropes is the old “THREAD”, born of our recent decline into A World Of Chaos. Twitter users who want or need to share developed, nuanced opinions on the issues (the many, many issues) in today’s world would thread together 5, 10, or 20 tweets to make a larger point. Optimists might note that the introduction of 280 characters will mean shorter Twitter threads, but no. Because people – they are bad. 

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

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.