Is there a place for the Twitter essay?

The Twitter essay, an oxymoron surely. But, it seems apparently not.

Although the concept has been around for a while, it’s only since stumbling upon one of the technique’s more enthusiastic proponents that it has appeared on my radar as a social media writing style.

The New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer is a self-confessed Twitter essayist. For him it is a writing form that ‘creates vibrant, democratic conversations.’

For his critics, it as an assault on the Twitter community. It goes against everything the platform was designed to do short sharp, concise prose to inform, entertain or educate with links elsewhere for readers who wanted to find out more.

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But how can you write an essay in 140 characters? Well, you can’t. Essentially it is a way of using Twitter to tell a longer story that people can easily tap in and out of without losing the flow and without breaking the 140 character rule.

It is an alternative to writing up in word and posting a screen shot on Twitter of a lengthy piece of prose. This looks messy, is hard to read and frankly is not in the spirit of or indeed is the purpose of the medium.

In a Twitter essay the writer can post instalments at any time. The reader can click on and be taken to the extended timeline. Meaning they can tap into the story if something is being said that interests them and pick up the full essay.

So what’s the mechanics of a Twitter essay?

Well authors start off with a normal Tweet, number it 1. followed by the text and post. The author then replies to their original Tweet but deletes their Twitter name at the start of the message and inserts 2. followed by the body of their second Tweet and posts.

For the third instalment of the story, they reply to their second tweet, again deleting their Twitter handle replacing it with 3. They then insert the text of the third part of their story and so on until the full story is told in 140 character instalments.

For example:

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As the reader clicks on an individual Tweet that appears in their timeline they are taken to the full thread of the story.

It is a writing technique not without some skill, as each Tweet must at once be an interesting and captivating Tweet in itself, appealing enough for the reader to open to find out more, while at the same time be an instalment in an ongoing story.

It is certainly a story telling medium that invites and encourages interactions which, is one of the key reasons people use Twitter.

Before I posted this little experiment for client the Scottish Huntington’s Association, the only charity in Scotland supporting families living with the degenerative neurological condition Huntington’s disease, I was a little skeptical about the technique. Surely for blogs posted on websites or other platforms such as through LinkedIn articles, there was ample opportunity to promote through social media?  Anyone interested could simply click through to the full article.

However, on analysing how this little mini essay was received it generated a total of 28 retweets. The most of any post from the charity this month.

By no means a scientific study to its effectiveness as a story telling technique, but maybe proof enough for a more detailed exploration of what might be possible.

With 90k Twitter followers, Jeet Heer’s rationale for the worth of the Twitter essay may well warrant a closer look. Here’s a good example of the medium on the subject of, well, Twitter essays, by the man himself to save you trawling through his timeline for examples.

Just don’t share with Donald Trump, it may give him ideas.