Twitter is a service that accepts, stores, and broadcasts very small messages, 140 characters, a number that probably comes from text-messaging constraints. Twitter messages are called tweets, and they can be piped into one’s Facebook status updates, blog posts, and a variety of other social networking forums.

When you write your tweet, you don’t start your update with “I” or “Joyce” because one’s name is always part of the service, as in this tweet, which was written “turns on electric….”

Joyce turns on electric wire on our back fence, as horses were moved to that pasture, and grass is always greener…easy way to destroy a fence

Tweeters don’t like to use “is” as the first word of the tweet because it’s so wasteful and so undescriptive. I prefer to us some kind of active verb (tense unimportant) to get the ball rolling, then finish up the tweet with appositives, phrases, or clauses until I get very close to 140 characters. Ending punctuation is not necessary, as Facebook adds it (Twitter does not) — I don’t use it unless I need a question mark or exclamation point. Literate twitters don’t like to spell “you” as “U,” or “later” as “L8R,” but there is a certain efficiency that comes from fast typing on little keyboards in a tight context that makes such shortcuts appealing. It is a question of style mostly, until the shortcuts become so cryptic as to interfere with one’s ability to interpret the message. I don’t see how you can advocate changing “colour” to “color,” or “dialogue” to “dialog,” or “eight” to “8,” but then suddenly become all traditionalist by deciding that a certain shorthand is no longer in the spirit of language and wordsmiths of all abilities and socio-economical-educational backgrounds. I myself prefer to write in conventional English words, probably because I am a professor and these postmodern shorthands feel too casual for my persona (besides, I’m hopelessly indoctrinated, and could no more type “L8R” for “later” than I could avoid typing two spaces after my period, a rule beaten into me by Mrs. Hite, my high school typing teacher).

If, after writing my tweet, I realize I’m 10 characters too long (and text messages and Twitter let you know precisely how many characters you’ve typed), I revise, looking for ways of tightening without losing my meaning. This morning, I wrote a phrase that started like this “,after seeing the horses,” but realized that “after” was probably unnecessary, and deleted it, leaving me with a present participle, which is perfectly adequate to illustrate action, even though the preposition “after” does establish a timeline.

Rhetoric works at the intersection of audience, purpose, and context, so I think it’s reasonable to examine tweets from these perspectives. Audience is relatively easy — friends and followers (and, perhaps a bit frightening, stalkers, so you need to be careful who you allow to see your tweets) who find what you’re doing somewhat interesting. Purpose is harder, and this is where my academic friends get stuck on Twitter updates, asking “Why on earth would anyone want to know that I’m going shopping right now, or if I’m cooking hamburger helper?”

Fair questions, and they speak to purpose. On the sender’s side, the purpose of tweets is multiple: to express a feeling, to inform others of a situation you find yourself in, to respond to other tweets in a TwitterDialog. If we look at a triangle of rhetorical aims (such as theorized by James Kinneavy), I think tweets work out pretty nicely for Expressive, Informative, Poetic, and perhaps Persuasive aims of discourse. I’m not sure about persuasive tweets, at least insofar as we’re talking about fully developed arguments, but I don’t have any problem seeing individual tweets as particles of arguments, comprising claims, rebuttals, bits of evidence, critical questions, and so on.

On the receiver’s end, what is the purpose of reading the tweet updates of your friends? In some cases, the tweets inform you of something (party, poetry reading, political event) that you didn’t know about, and acts like a semaphor or smoke signal or loudspeaker message: short and to the point. (One if by land and two if by sea, and that sort of thing.) But what do you do with an expressive tweet, one that says something like “Joyce feels like a sunshine daydream”? I think you do with it the same thing you do with any expression, whether a happy shout of children on the playground or a sob of grief over the death of a grandparent or a poem about feeling alienated: you relate to it, empathize with it, critique it, ignore it.

It has been argued that Web2.0 technologies that enable social networking act almost like a living creature and that the synapses and cells and processes of that living thing are the tweets and cellphone pictures and blog entries. If so, then in addition to a primary purpose of tweets (i.e. inform, delight, persuade, and so on), there must be a secondary purpose: to nurture the life processes that characterize social networking. It doesn’t really matter if I tweet that I’m about to go shopping or that my lawnmower is broken, but it does matter if everyone quits networking, and thus my individual tweets contribute to the bigger creature, just as an individual bee’s deeds don’t matter except in the totality of the hive.

Is the purpose of twittering, then, to pulse one voice into the din of the network? Is that the only purpose? Is that voice supposed to mirror the community’s values, or can it contribute to the diversity of opinion and expression and thus make the community stronger? If social networking (and twittering is part of that process) is a big discourse, then I think it must be good — as long as you’re twittering as a participant in the larger discourse, you aren’t hitting someone over the head with a hammer, and all modern theorists of social argumentation agree (and it’s fairly amazing they agree on anything, from concepts of rationality and reason to what “common ground” means) that for societies that wish to avoid totalitarianism and the force that accompanies totalitarianism, keeping the discussion going is paramount. I don’t know if twittering rises to the level of communicative action a la Habermas, but it does contribute to the dialog-multiplied-a-million-fold, or the polylog/multilog/panalog.

Context is related to purpose, as tweets are composed on computers, cell phones, and mobile devices of all sorts, and they are also read and responded to in highly distributed ways. Tweets are everywhere, always on the move, little flashes of activity in an enormous field of human activity. If tweets are individual squawks from airplanes, then you can see the aggregate twitters (multiple tweets from the same airplane multiplied by all the airplanes in the air multiplied by a time-sequence showing aggregate activity, as you can get on FlightAware (static or movie or separate air carrier).

Do the constraints (140 characters) of Twittering mean that it is insuffient as a communication medium? I don’t think so — all media and all situations are constrained in some way. Physical production is constrained by material and economic and practical issues like ink, weight, shipping, and so on. Electronic production, along with all other sorts of production, are constrained by the amount of time a person or a team of designers have to give to a project, by the bandwidth speeds and processor speeds and the limits of screen or audio resolution. And even if we had world enough and time to produce messages (which we don’t), then the limits of our readers’ attention would constrain our messages, a point Richard Lanham has made in The Economics of Attention.

Twittering, then, is a valid form of communication that may provide writers a means of arriving at all the aims of rhetoric, may provide readers food for thought or timely information, and may act as a Habermasian social glue that promotes pluralism and dialog. I’m not saying Twitter must achieve these things because the tools/techniques of communication (whether tweets, novels, or movies) are also free to generate rubbish and dogma. In other words, the actions of the communicators imbue the tools and techniques with their ends, and speaking as a rhetor, that’s the way it should be.