Twitter Speech

I really don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, or worse–someone who just doesn’t get what’s so great about Twitter. I get that there’s a lot great about it. Journalists use it to find and break stories. Organizers use it to coordinate actions. Election 2008 debate viewers used it  to shape national coverage. As reported by Chana Joffey-Walt in a playful story for Marketplace back when Twitter was new, we all use it to feed our bottomless appetites for feeling and being a certain kind of “in touch” with friends and other followees. 

But scanning lists and lists of tweets (mostly by reading over the shoulders of physically present friends), I can’t help but notice something–a thing about language. There’s this sociocultural theorist named Lev Vygotsky who comes to mind. His big idea–totally counter-intuitive in his day–was that a person’s individual psychology is always profoundly social. We don’t learn to connect interpersonally. We start out that way, as babies, and only eventually do we internalize concepts that we learn through social interaction so that we don’t have to do and say everything out loud. In other words, we develop a capacity for what Vygotsky calls “inner speech.” That’s the stream of communication that runs silently inside our heads. Vygotsky says it’s a key cognitive achievement, this shift from outer to inner speech.

I feel like at least some of what gets communicated through Twitter reads to me like inner speech. The mechanism of Twitter seems to draw what might otherwise have stayed inner back into the uttered world. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe that’s part of the fascination–to feel like we’ve got a line into the running thoughts, observations, commentaries, and discoveries of an eclectic crowd, fragments of discourse that might otherwise never crystalize in language. But I also wonder if there’s anything lost with this urge to push it out as soon as a thought springs to mind. In his 1934 book, Vygotsky defines thought as “a cloud shedding a shower of words.” Does it make a difference for that thought–its quality, nuance, depth–if it’s immediately let go?



2 Responses to Twitter Speech

  1. Steve Wright says:

    There is nothing in your post that I disagree with, but, as a Twitterer, I would like to provide a link:

    This link actually has nothing to do with Twitter. It is a website that scans all the blogs in the world (so, probably not all) and looks specifically for statements of emotion. It then aggregates that data and creates visualizations showing how we “feel”. It doesn’t aggregate Twitter, bust blogs, but it really should because Twitter is over-run with individual utterances of irrelevant declarations of feeling. Very few data points are interesting by themselves except in that they are one of many, me and us.

  2. Chas Edwards says:

    I agree that lots of the not-very-useful Tweets read like “inner speech,” or uncomfortable narcissism. Those are the Twitters to unfollow! But many of my favorite bloggers — Jeremiah Owyang, Mike Arrington, Steve Rubel, Guy Kawasaki, and others — use Twitter as a short-attention-span version of their blogs. Since their blogs are online industry trade magazines (not personal diaries), their Twitter feeds operate like filtered newswire services, and there’s value in that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: