We’ve seen a number of twitter “scandals” over the last year or so, all beaten up by the old media by:

  1. Taking the tweet out of context;
  2. Reconstructing the 140 characters in whatever harshest light can be put on them;
  3. Pretending that it was broadcast to a wide audience when it’s the newspapers’ beatup that has had that effect.

Recent targets have included Catherine “hope Bindi Irwin gets laid” Deveny, Miranda “had enough of rogering gerbils” Devine, and Larissa “show where guy had sex with a horse less offensive than Bess Price” Behrendt.

The point I wanted to make is that a tweet’s context is essential. Tweets are essentially like an SMS conversation open to any interested parties. Many twitter apps in fact display these exchanges as conversations – with back and forth remarks amongst the parties clearly developing a thread as the conversation proceeds. Because there are only 140 characters available, ideas have to be contracted (sometimes losing – or, worse, gaining – something in the contraction) and it has to be assumed that the reader is familiar with what went before. There is no room to quote previous comments.

Like in any conversation, someone who comes in late needs to ask what came before to make any sense of the last thing they heard.

So journalists and newspapers that present the tweets solo, without any context, without any explanation, are doing their readers a disservice. They are misrepresenting their targets and what was actually said.

It’s equivalent to taking 140 characters out of a half hour speech. Just because it’s new technology doesn’t, sadly, reduce the potential for the result to be fundamentally inaccurate and misleading.

In all of the above cases, there was a context. Deveny was making an off-the-cuff joke about the way Bindi Irwin is being exploited by adults, not suggesting she should actually be the victim of rape. Devine wasn’t suggesting that gay people actually roger gerbils, she was simply assuming that they’re perverts who are into bestiality. (Ok, I’m not sure how context actually improves the Devine one.) Behrendt was contrasting the content of one very offensive (but historical) ABC television show with another (quite contemporary) one.

All of this is obvious by reading the conversations in which these people were participating. And yet it’s all opaque and mystifying if the journalist doesn’t bother to give that context.

Let’s hope that next time one of the old media organisations presents a single tweet in the most damning light it can simply for the shock value, its readers ask for more.