Twitter and the lack of context


(kŏntĕkst) n.

  1. The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.
  2. The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting

For the longest time one of the reasons that I loved Twitter so much was the free flow exchange of thoughts,  ideas and opinions that occurred in a staccato like fashion.  Recently, this has come back to bite me in the ass and has me completely changing my tune. Why? Well for a number of reasons, not the least of which I now feel I have to watch what I say, when I say it, how I say it, and the “context” in which I say “anything” on Twitter.  Sure, we have to do that all the time anyway right? But in the Twitterverse, part of it’s charm is the fact that there are a lot of free flowing streams of consciousness that you can wade into. Problem is, the water goes from 3 feet to 12 feet really quick.

Before I had decided to write this post I already had a couple of really good examples of this simmering topic brought to my attention. Not the least of which was my own. My “trouble” started when I essentially was voicing my opinion on a topic with someone I admired very much and whose opinion and knowledge I valued. To sum it up, I was rebuked and my opinion was dismissed in a way where I had figuratively checked the mirror to see if my nose was bleeding. I took it personally.

So having thought that I perhaps did something wrong, I tried to “correct” the situation by asking if I had said or done something wrong and if I did, I did not mean it. I had apologized. I even went and looked back on my tweets, searching for the hidden meaning and “context” and wondering, where was context lost. In the meantime, No response. I tried to engage that person in another conversation or exchange on Twitter. Nothing. I apologized again. Nothing. I apologized one more time, for fear of losing this person’s virtual friendship and nothing. Wow..Twitter sucks. No it doesn’t. Lack of context does.

You see 2 things collided. I misinterpreted  some tweets, I assumed our perceived Twitter relationship allowed me to voice such an opinion and it obviously didn’t. That was mistake #1 and #2, was that person did not hear the tone, inflection and “the way” I was voicing my opinion. All lost in 140 characters. I said I was sorry and it obviously was not enough. That part was disconcerting to say the least.

Daria Steigman a communications strategist from DC wrote a fantastic post titled “Context and the Twitter echo chamber”, in which she pondered the following,”

Have you ever deleted a tweet because you were afraid it might be taken out of context? I did, and I’m not sure I made the right decision.

Wow, Daria has not been on Twitter that long, but she still feels the need already to self censor and question what she is about to tweet for fear of the context that it might be taken in. I know, you’re probably saying, “Well shouldn’t everyone”? Yes and no. We should definitely think before talking or tweeting, but we should also not censor what we think or feel strongly about for fear about what others might think or interpret or misconstrue in regards to its context.

Context is a fickle thing. Twitter notwithstanding, in the online world, it rears it’s ugly head regularly in chat, IM, or e-mail. We are not privy to tone, inflection, or circumstance, and on Twitter this is magnified as brightly as a self serving tweet from Guy Kawasaki.  Om Malik has written that to a certain degree, Twitter only enhanced an already chaotic scene in Mumbai.  He was having difficulty assigning  proper context to the vast amount of tweets and retweets, assumptions and speculation that were coming in from Twitter. It made the situation worse for him and he wondered, how does one make sense of the torrent of information?

I think you make sense by having direct communication with an individual, if possible, if there is a problem. I’m learning that I do have to watch what I say. The more people that follow you the more your thoughts and words can be misconstrued.  For awhile I thought, is it me? Am I the only one experiencing this? Maybe not.  I asked marketer Beth Harte, who frequently writes about the subtle nuances that are Twitter, what she thought about Twitter and context..

I have had tons of tweets misunderstood or misconstrued  Why? Because the tweets aren’t threaded. As well, when people join in the conversation, you can’t always see when or at what point they jumped in. And sometimes two people who were part of your conversation, start having their own, on their own- and you can’t see that always either. There’s a lot that is lost

Boom. There’s a lot lost. I was talking to community manager Sonny Gill that it’s sort of like going up to two people in a bar who are facing each other and obviously having a conversation and you step right in the middle and just comment on what the other person just said.


Sonny’s thoughts were interesting, he stated:

I think IF we watch what we say, we’re gonna end up taking a step back, individually and in the industry. Don’t believe we need to watch our step when we tweet.

So the question begs: Do we start to watch what we say or do we just let it fly? Rae Hoffman who has a very popular blog and and an even better Twit Stream, will fully admit as much that her tweets are not for the sqeamish and tweets “to follow if you dare”. Transparency.

Liz Strauss, whose opinions and thoughts I respect as much as anyone in the space, and who truly has the ability to bring thinking, clarity, insight, and understanding to almost any topic, adds this:

People don’t yet understand the “social” in social media means that they are dealing with real relationships with real people and real business relationships at the same time. This crossover of business and personal is revolutionary and more “small town” than corporate. It requires individual maturity — an ability to be personally invested with out taking things personally.

She goes on to say that:

Threaded conversation could very well make it worse. … because they will make the issues / slights /  social miscues harder to walk away from and easier for the larger group to see

Liz couldn’t be more accurate. A lot of us, myself included, have blurred the lines of what we truly use Twitter for. Is it a tool, is it personal, is it for business? Is it all of the above? Maybe, just maybe that’s where the loss of context can occur? We have so many conversations going on in so many streams, or we insert ourselves into so many streams, that we lose the context of each one, because each is different, but we charge forward anyway, blindly into the conversational abyss of someones tweets.  So what to do about it?

Paul Chaney, Director of Internet Marketing for Bizzuka who writes a killer blog and knows  15 do’s and don’ts about Twitter has this thought:

It’s difficult, if not nigh impossible, to convey context via a text-only medium, particularly one that only allows 140 characters.
Thats another reason video will become more of a standard form of interpersonal online communication. You can see and hear the person’s actual intent, tonal inflections, facial expression.

I think that once a conversation begins to get out of hand it’s time to take it to email for further explanation, or even a phone call to smooth ruffled feathers.   Saying “I’m sorry” always goes a long way too

Paul always has a way to bring levity and sage wisdom to a situation or a conversation.  Perhaps what is truly needed in conversations where context is lost, is an effort on both parties to clear up the misunderstanding through perhaps a more effective means of communication that does not involve 140 characters.

In the end,  there will be more and more instances of context lost as Twitter continues to scale. Most will shrug it off, some will take it personal and some will it work it out but as Liz Strauss adds,

At the moment I take heart in the fact that tweets die quickly … they are, however, discoverable in court.

Lastly, It’s only a matter of time for something like what Liz has mentioned to happen and to that point a chiropractor is suing a Yelp user over negative reviews. Context anyone?

So I ask you esteemed readers,  Do we need to watch  what you say? Do we need to start policing our own tweets? Have your tweets ever been taken out of context? If so, what did you do or not do about the situation?

7 thoughts on “Twitter and the lack of context

  1. Good post, and very true. The good thing is that when it happens to you, (being misunderstood), it does make you assess the “bloody nose in the mirror” and be more careful not just of what you say, but how you say it, and the many ways it can be taken out of context.

  2. Hi Marc,

    Good food for thought. I’m so glad you’re continuing this discussion about Twitter and context and that moment where we realize someone just didn’t get what we were saying. Some of this is inevitable, and that’s okay. Because the alternative is either tweet paralysis or a lot of people composing stilted missives devoid of any personality.

    What I really struggle with is how we should respond when the crowd decides to interject itself and essentially starts screaming online, either with stridency, sheer volume, or both. I’m not so worried about one person taking something out of context; we can always move the conversation off line and clarify or apologize. It’s when that person decides to make it personal and public that the real problem starts.

    By the way, if someone doesn’t accept your clarification or apology, it’s their loss, not yours. What counts is that you tried.


  3. This is going to sound like a really simplistic viewpoint, but think back to all of the conversations we had about context and e-mails. Remember when you’d be completely upset with a person sitting three cubicles down or on another floor because you found their email totally out of line and offensive? You may have thought you were on the brink of being fired because your boss sent a one-liner via e-mail that stated: “We need to talk.” You impart your own tone into that then you work yourself up about the fact that he or she didn’t even say good morning when they saw you earlier in the day. Couple that with their body language in a meeting three weeks ago and the way they looked at you in the hall and you’re already packing up your desk! My thought is this: Just re-read it before you hit update. Just like you reread an e-mail, start doing it with your tweets. If it doesn’t sit well, erase those 140 characters and start over. We cannot eliminate context, but we can go back to what we know, and this was a big deal with email and it really isn’t anymore. We’ve refined our methods, or we simply pick up the phone when we know the email just won’t work.

  4. Great write-up on an intriguing topic on Twitter. In the end, it’s a very fine line that we have to cross and will only get easier as this industry grows. There’s going to be hiccups along the way and things we, as a community, have to deal with to get it there.

    It was great chatting with you yesterday, Marc and look forward to more great stuff from you!

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  6. @Daria, thanks for the inspiration, though it was in my head, your thoughts got it going again.
    @Angela going back to a simplistic form of communicating may be the answer, I agree.
    @Sonny Hiccups in every industry indeed Sonny, thanks for bringing perspective and reason to the convo.

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