An ode to the Twitter thread

You are in your office/school/college, amidst friends.

You joke about the ruling party.

Someone in the group gets offended and offers the inevitable, ‘But what about X?’.

You clumsily say, ‘But I have joked about X too!’.

You get, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’ in return.

Twitter threads are the anti-thesis of the scenario above in that they obliterate face-value; in the above example, it was the face-value of your last joke. And the context from the jokes before it that add a new dimension to your sense of humor and sense of political affiliation!

So, what you get is a LOT more than what you see.

Photo credit: Tatiana Isabel Cordova Cavanerio

It started with the name ‘tweetstorm’ and even had some tools to help you tweetstorm easily. People added “1/” or “1/10”, “1/n” to help audiences decipher the nature of threads, but now, after Twitter’s helpful grey lines connecting tweets replied to each other, those appendages seem less useful.

It’s a fascinating form unlike any other in the history of human communication. If that sounded bombastic, here are some reasons.

Spoken words go up in the air unless one bothers to record everything and makes them available in an easy-to-search database. Written words don’t go up in the air, of course, but there’s an active effort needed to find them (Google, for instance).

A Twitter thread is entirely unique because it contains all the thoughts written in a linear format! It is literally, ‘I said this. I also said this. And hey, I also said that. And that one too!’

Layering historical context
This historical context layered (literally) on top of the last uttered thought is a form that has never been available to us unless you look at a blog post with comments below (a threaded comment). But even with that comparison, Twitter does better than a threaded comment in that it does all this in the vehicle where the person has his/her most dedicated readership – you can’t be holding on to a web page (where the threaded comments reside) day after day in the hope that something new will be added.

But on Twitter, you simply add your thought on top of a tweet that is even 100 days old and you offer it logical consistency even after so many days! So, you don’t need to subscribe to multiple web pages to get an update; you simply stay where you are (on the Twitter platform) and regardless of the time gap between two thoughts (from a person), you can still get the new one, along with the earlier ones right above it!

Demands active engagement from readers
The other fascinating aspect of a Twitter thread is that it asks the reader to be actively engaged with the content! However minor it may seem, you, as a reader, still need to scroll up or down to see the context of the thread. It’s all right there and the effort is negligible (in that it doesn’t take you out of the Twitter experience; unlike adding a sentence with a link that demands you click it, move out of the Twitter experience). The simplicity is elegant and an assortment of thought blurbs connected by grey lines is such a clever conceit for ‘connecting the dots’!

Evolution of a thought over a period of time
Even beyond mere connecting the dots, the way people are using the Twitter thread offers a fascinating glimpse of human thought process. Many threads offer a view into the evolution of a person’s thought process over a period of time. It is almost like a daily diary entry where each tweet is a page worth of thought and you go back in time by scrolling up!

Build on your thoughts, from time to time, or all at once
Another aspect to consider – you can either tweet a thread all at one go (a long thread of thoughts that you had at that point in time), or you can build on it from time to time, everytime searching for the last tweet in the thread and replying to that one. The effort is a lot more in the case of the latter – you need to search your own thread and build on it every time you want to say something within that context, but from the readers’ point of view, it adds to the fantastic UX. You as the author of that stream of thoughts are doing a disservice to your own continuing set of thoughts if you do not thread them together.

Twitter threads as a collaborative conversation online
All this while I have been referring to a Twitter thread from the perspective of just one user, but the possibilities open up massively when you consider the fact that anybody can participate and build the thread, collaboratively!

Imagine yourself standing at a party and making a claim (any claim; just an example). There are about 100 other people near you. One of them listens to you and says something loudly in response (can be heard by all present). Someone else listens to both your and the response claim and says something. Another person says something to your claim. A 5th person says something in response to the 3rd person and so on. Now, all these are not captured in the minds of all the 100 present there because they are words uttered in the air.

Twitter threads clinically record and connect all these back to the source – that is, your original claim, so all the words uttered by all involved remain on record and are connected and interlinked!

Multiple threaded branches
Twitter threads allow anyone on Twitter to respond to a tweet and a thread begins to take shape with multiple contributors. Even more fascinating is the possibility that each response can branch out into a separate thread, from the same source (original tweet). It is not very different from a multi-threaded comments stream (like the one that is very popular on Reddit), but for the fact that Twitter threads offer a lot more flexibility in branching out in so many directions, considering every single tweet or response can be ‘liked’ or responded to further, or even quoted for another person to add context of his/her own!

More than all this, two absolutely fascinating facets make Twitter threads so very different from any other – immediacy and permanence!

Immediacy and permanence of a continuing evolution of thoughts
Immediacy, because Twitter is a real-time social media channel. In many threads, you literally see the responses being appended to one tweet in real-time – they materialize in front of your eyes!

Permanence, because Twitter still doesn’t have an edit button. If you delete the source tweet, the thread vanishes!

And since Twitter allows one to add video and images in each tweet, threads become enormously more useful! In fact, if each page of a book is scanned and tweeted one page at a time, that thread becomes the book! An e-book unlike any other – a tweet-book, if you may!

I really cannot think of any other human communication format that is as unique as a Twitter thread. The platform, its immediacy, its collaborative mechanism and its possibilities seem bewildering wide and open to me! And I’m glad they are being used in so many different ways!

If you have had a limited experience of Twitter threads, here are some to start with. I’m sure there are a lot more – do add them in the comments for others (and myself) to discover and enjoy!

(Click on each tweet’s date/time to allow it to open in the Twitter web version—or in-app version if you click it through a mobile phone—to see the thread)