It Takes Two to Tweet: Interpretation as a Shared Responsibility

Remember back in the 90s when people were figuring out email etiquette?  (I know, some people are still working on this.) I remember lots of advice to take care in writing emails because emails don’t convey things like tone of voice or body language. Without such communication aids, the argument went, emails are easy to misinterpret. There’s only so much that emoticons and careful word choice can do to convey one’s affect, so some messages are better delivered in person or over the phone.

The more I think about this advice, the more it bothers me. It places the entire responsibility for avoiding miscommunication on the sender of the email, not the receiver. I get that if you’re the one sending an email, you should do what you can to make sure your message is received as it is intended. However, isn’t it reasonable to place some responsibility on the receiver to realize that his or her interpretation of an email might be incorrect? And to give the sender a little grace when reading an email?

Why am I mulling over email etiquette advice from the 90s? Because I think this issue of misinterpretation is even more relevant to Twitter than it is to email. If you thought communicating via email was challenging, try saying something with nuance and tact in 140 characters or less. You have all the constraints of email, with far less space to work around them. It’s incumbent for Twitter users to compose tweets that communicate effectively and minimize misinterpretations. And as with email, sometimes a particular message is best delivered using some other medium.

That said, I also think it’s important for those who read tweets to realize that tweets are necessarily elliptical and, yes, to give Twitter users a little grace. A tweet consists of the 140 characters that compose it, as well as a context and background that’s not explicit in those 140 characters. A tweet can be visible to the entire Web, but it might be written for an intended audience that brings a certain set of understandings and assumptions about the subject of the tweet and an existing relationship with the author of the tweet. Moreover, a tweet may look like a free-standing piece of writing, but to the author of the tweet, it’s part of an ongoing narrative she or he is constructing over time through dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of tweets.

A wise consumer of tweets knows all this and acknowledges that his or her interpretation of a given tweet might suffer for lack of context.

Here are a couple of tweets of mine that, according to one student who filled out my course evaluations, “completely insult and degrade the intelligence” of my students:

"You must complete this project in teams of three." So far, "three" has been interpreted as two, four, and even one.
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff
So many of my students have botched their APA formatting, I'm now starting to doubt my knowledge of those guidelines.
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

If you read these two tweets with a sneer in your voice and ignore evidence from prior tweets that I love teaching and rave about my students, then, yes, these two tweets can be interpreted to imply I think my students are dumb. But they weren’t intended that way, and if you read them that way, you’re not exercising sound Twitter literacy.

I’m not abdicating my responsibility for crafting my tweets with care here. Those two tweets are perhaps snarkier than most of my tweets. The former was tweeted after I realized that I would have a good bit more work to do on my students’ application projects because they didn’t follow directions and form teams of three. The latter was written after a long grading sessions looking at project proposals and seeing almost no students following APA guidelines. In both cases I was frustrated and, as I said, perhaps snarkier than I needed to be. But to judge my character on these 200-something characters without looking at them in the context of my other tweets and online writing? That’s unfair.

The anonymous student who disliked those two tweets really took issue with this series of tweets, all concerning a set of “Why Choose Vanderbilt” blog posts by students writing for the admissions office:

Why choose Vanderbilt? Location, food, athletics, Wifi, exercise, according to http://t.co/s20Nmgn1. #wheresthelearning
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff
Or perhaps the campus, co-curricular opportunities, or financial aid? http://t.co/W3JeKyUQ #gettingcloser #nothingaboutcourses
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff
Financial aid, research & internship opportunities, and location? http://t.co/6VhjOkEB #closerstill #nothingaboutcourses
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff
Or perhaps "well-known, engaging, published professors with fascinating life stories"? http://t.co/q0cQYqAR #coursesatlast #waytogoprofs
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff
"the perfect combination of southern culture and rigorous academics" - http://t.co/Yoe04hPy - #closeenough #golearninggo
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff
(The last five tweets drew on VU's admission blog, http://t.co/tbWvByKh, which is an interesting window into the student experience.)
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

Here’s what my student said about these tweets:

“Dr. Bruff completely tears apart several Vanderbilt undergraduate student blogs about the reasons they chose Vanderbilt. Bruff focuses on the fact that students did not mention academics in their blogs, which should be obvious to any prospective student that is looking at Vanderbilt anyway and wants to know what distinguishes a wonderful academic institution like Vanderbilt from another wonderful academic institution like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. He publicly humiliated these individual, non-anonymous students in front of his entire Twitter audience.”

Perhaps this student took Vanderbilt’s sterling academics as a given during his or her college search, but is that necessarily true of all prospective students? Might the relatively scarce mentions of academics in these blog posts send a message to some prospective students? Or to others who read these blog posts? I’m often struck by how graduating seniors at my university and elsewhere rave about how much they learned “outside the classroom” while in school. I’m not opposed to learning outside the classroom, but do these kinds of comments do a disservice to the learning that occurs in college classrooms? Is the value of classroom-based learning taken as a given by graduating students? Or do they highlight their out-of-class experiences because their in-class learning experiences were lacking? If academics are key to the mission of a university, why don’t graduating seniors rave about their courses? Why don’t admissions bloggers point to their coursework as reasons to select a college?

These are questions that are worth asking. They are questions that I implied, but did not state, in my series of tweets about those admissions blog posts. Sure, it’s hard to infer these questions from my tweets if you read my tweets as coming from someone with disdain for students. But if you read them in the context of my other tweets, this series of tweets becomes an expression of how much I value students and student learning. In that context, my hashtag-laden tweets surface, I think, some of these important questions about the centrality of the learning to the undergraduate experience.

My student critic goes on to write:

“This is something that is completely uncalled for from any professor, and it is absolutely not Dr. Bruff’s place to do this. He not only disgraces himself as a Vanderbilt professor, but he disgraces himself as the Director of the Center for Learning, an institution that is supposed to be dedicated to producing strong, positive teaching role models. Dr. Bruff and his attitude are simply anything but.”

(It’s the Center for Teaching, not the Center for Learning, but that’s a common mistake.)

This is one interpretation of my tweets. Another is that I used a bit of humor and the storytelling capacity of Twitter to point out a troubling inconsistency: That our rhetoric praises the value of teaching and learning, but when a group of students are asked by the admissions office to identify reasons prospective students should consider the university, relatively few of them elect to mention academics. I’m not savaging individual student bloggers, I’m wondering what conditions led these students to mentions things other than academic. I’m holding up a pattern that worries me and inviting others to consider this worrisome pattern with me. It is, I think, my place to do such things.

Yes, it’s critical that we watch what we tweet. But it takes two to communicate. It’s equally as critical that we read others’ tweets with care, paying attention to context and extending to each other a bit of goodwill.

What do you think? Is it time to modify that 90s email etiquette advice to ask those who read email (and tweets and blog posts and whatnot) to take some responsibility for successful communication?

Image: “It Was Him,” by me, Flickr (CC)

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