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In Defense of the Twitter Essay

Some find it obnoxious, but threading tweets is a unique writing form that creates vibrant, democratic conversations.

I was singled out this month in not one, but two rants against the Twitter essay, both by writers at the company formerly known as Gawker Media. In “Fuck Tweetstorms,” Deadspin’s Drew Magary accused me of “composing diarrheal tweetstorms virtually every day.” Pointing to my Twitter essay on Fidel Castro and Jaws, he asked, “Who the fuck is this for? How could anyone delude themselves into thinking anyone else could give a shit about reading this?” Alana Hope Levinson of Gizmodo, meanwhile, rechristened the Twitter essay as “manthreading”:

They are typically “intellectual” dribblings from men who love Explaining Things To Me (essentially a subtype of Online Mansplaining). These are people who want their ideas to take up the absolute most space possible. Like Manspreading, but of digital space....

Manthreading is when Jeet Heer, a senior editor at The New Republic, thinks people fucking vegetables warrants 21 points:

I was not randomly targeted. While I didn’t invent the Twitter essay, I helped to popularize it, and now this curious form is so tied to my name that I’m afraid my gravestone will bear the marking “Jeet Heer, Twitter Essayist.”

There are worse epitaphs, though I suspect Magary and Levinson would disagree. They believe the Twitter essay is a futile, gratuitous, and narcissistic bid for attention—an assault, even, on the Twitter community. This characterization misunderstands not only this particular writing form, but the entire platform in question. Twitter is best used as a medium not for getting attention, but starting conversations.

I came late to Twitter, creating my account @heerjeet in 2012, long after the cool kids had become veterans. Twitter is a hands-on social media; it takes time to discern its rules of etiquette, and to learn the most effective way to make your point in 140 characters or fewer.

Within a few months, I found that Twitter worked best for me as a way of organizing my thoughts around events that were obsessing me. On May 16, 2013, Gawker revealed that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had been videotaped smoking crack—but the tape itself wasn’t made public. Toronto was paralyzed by the mayor’s continued denial as well as his continued cycle of substance abuse combined with outbursts of racism, misogyny and homophobia. As I tried to figure out what this scandal said about the city, and about Canada, Twitter proved an invaluable way to air ideas and engage in conversations with people who were similarly perplexed. Influenced by the example of the conservative writer David Frum, I started to string my thoughts on Ford into numbered tweets—and eventually got advice from a follower on how to thread them so they could be read in sequence.

The first Twitter essay I wrote (alas, rudimentary and unthreaded) was about racism and American conservatism. But I kept returning to Ford because making sense of his antics required a form that was provisional, allowed for quick feedback from readers, and could respond quickly to fast-moving news. I was writing about Ford not from a position of particular authority—other than being a part-time resident of Toronto—but of curiosity, just someone thinking out loud. I got a lot of responses from people engaged in the same task. Some were reporters and writers (Jonathan Goldsbie, Ivor Tossell, Septembre Anderson), some were activists (Jude Macdonald, who was very effective in crafting legal challenges to Ford’s lawless regime), but most were ordinary citizens who were as captivated by Ford as I was.

All of these new voices formed a sort of pop-up online community, one striking feature of which was its diversity: It included a much higher percentage of women and people of color than can be found in Canadian media. These Twitter users immeasurably sharpened my understanding of Ford. Thanks to Desmond Cole and others, I learned that Ford’s populist appeal extended even to non-white immigrant communities he had denigrated. Other conversations surfaced the hidden persistence of homophobia in Toronto, as well as the sexism that made it possible for the media and police to downplay Ford’s history of domestic violence.

As a result of this online education, I now saw Ford less as a freak show than as a symptom of much deeper problems in Toronto and Canada, a realization that informed articles I would write about him for Toronto Life and the New Republic. Which is why Magary is just plain wrong when he writes:

So if you wanna write something, write something. Put it together and put it somewhere where people can see it. Knock yourself out. Get yourself off when someone other than a bot makes a comment. And if you wanna tweet something, tweet it. But don’t try to mash the two forms together into some kind of mutant, asshole form of writing that pleases you and only you.

Never mind that my Twitter essays are where I usually see the most engagement from my followers, in the form of likes and retweets; clearly I am not the only one pleased by them. I write actual essays nearly every day for the New Republic, and most of them don’t originate from Twitter essays. When I have a subject that requires sustained expository prose, I write an article. When I want to think through an issue or riff on some whimsical notion, I spin out a Twitter essay. The two forms might enrich each other but they only partly overlap.

But writing is a lonely, solitary activity that can breed self-absorption and myopia, especially if your job is to compose strongly defended arguments. While I do hash out my ideas with my editor, this too is an echo chamber of sorts. The Twitter essay is a way of making writing more communal, of bringing more brains into the process and hearing unexpected insights. That real-time feedback informs my evolving thoughts on an issue, making for a more interesting Twitter essay. Sometimes, the result is interesting enough that I turn it into a bona fide essay, which is distributed to a wider audience than my 72,000 followers.

In that sense, Levinson is right when she argues, The thing about Manthreaders ... is that they want their little nuggets to spread as widely as possible.” But how strange to criticize an essayist of wanting his ideas “to spread as widely as possible,” since starting a conversation or shaping an ongoing debate is precisely the point. You can’t accomplish that if no one pays attention to your “nuggets.”

My critics consider the Twitter essay superfluous. “The best thing about Manthreading is how unnecessary it is,” Levinson wrote. “There are other tools—blogs—you can use if your have more than a few tweets worth of content to spew onto the internet.”

But blogs are much like essays—conceived alone, with all of the attendant intellectual traps. The only real difference is that they don’t usually have the professional imprimatur or mass audience of a media organization. And in any case blogs, like comment sections, are a dying form. They cannot compete with the fount of ideas provided by Twitter—a conversation that, yes, sometimes requires more than 140 characters.

Levinson’s use of the word “digital space” is telling. Cyberspace is, of course, limitless. If you wanted to, you could write a blog post or Twitter essay much longer than War and Peace or À la recherche du temps perdu. That’s rarely if ever done because the real unit everyone is competing for online is not space but attention. Twitter essays do get attention; I’ve found my profile as a writer has grown thanks to the form, and almost every Twitter essay draws more followers. But the fact that the form gets attention in the crowded marketplace of the web is surely an argument for its success, not its limits.

For me, far from being a hectoring form used to explain things to others, the Twitter essay is a democratic form. In this way, Twitter allows us to return to the very roots of the essay as a form. Essay comes from the French essai, meaning a try or an attempt. An essay is not supposed to be a dissertation or a treatise, a definitive statement that sums up a subject for all time. Rather, an essay is a light sketch, a first attempt to think about something, a provisional excursion that makes no claims to finality. In a Twitter essay, the provisional nature of the essay form is enriched by the conversations created by social media.

In September 2014, for instance, I wrote a Twitter essay objecting to an article A.O. Scott wrote for The New York Times on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Many readers, including Scott himself, made points that helped me qualify and deepen my arguments. Many of these responses made points that were much stronger and more interesting than what I wrote. The entire experience felt like a good dinner party, with a topic bouncing from person to person, each bringing their own experience and knowledge to bear, creating something richer than one person musing on a subject.

In 2015, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, I started a Twitter essay that imagined the podcaster Marc Maron interviewing the characters in the film:

Very soon, other people started to weigh in with their own play on this idea:

The end result was much more fascinating than what I myself could have created. The icing on the cake was Maron’s appreciation of the riff:

Done in this way, the Twitter essay becomes something much different than seizing a soap box and forcing everyone to listen to you. It’s a way of generating productive engagement and real dialogue. The Twitter essay is not a fragmented blog. It’s not even really an essay. It’s a form with its own special properties, ones that, for me at least, immeasurably improve the act of writing. And the beauty of Twitter is that you can opt out whenever you want. Unfollow me, or just wait a few seconds for my thoughts—which I don’t claim have any superiority—to drop out of view. They’ll soon be lost in a sea of thousands of other thoughts, each one a conversation in its own right. Isn’t that why we’re on Twitter in the first place?