Phil Archer

Beware: Twitter is comment without context

Several thoughts have come together today to prompt me to write a bit about the dangers of reading too much into Twitter.

First of all there was the case of the Martin Luther King quote. Following the death of Osama Bin Laden, Facebook user Jessica Dovey wrote:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. "Returning hate for hate multiples hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." MLK Jr.

It's clear from the punctuation that there are two authors: Jessica Dovey and Martin Luther King (note to children, see? punctuation really does matter!). But the whole thing is 332 characters long - way beyond Twitter's 140 character limit. So when Penn Jillette (of US comedy duo Penn and Teller) Tweeted this well written and thoughtful piece, he quoted Dovey's custom-written line, took out the actual quote but kept the accreditation. Hence, for a while, everyone thought that Martin Luther King had made a comment about the death of Bin Laden that was unnaturally prescient, even for him. The full story of this is told in, for example, Penn Jillette explains the fake Martin Luther King Jr.: "I made a mistake".

Another case where Twitter's 140 character limit meant that a comment was made without any context has been highlighted by Cardiff University's Anne Marie Cunningham. The original Tweet she saw was posted by Amit Singh and said:

37 y o lady presents w/ well defined swelling over leg >1 mo; mild pain. No trauma. No significant past hx. Please suggest work up in #1care

The reason Dr Cunningham found this particular Tweet was the #1care hashtag (primary care). What followed was a series of Tweets about the ethics of a doctor using Twitter to gain more information on which to base a diagnosis. Confidentiality is an unshakeable cornerstone of medical practice for good reason.

After Dr Cunningham pointed out the lack of context of the original Tweet, the conversation shifted to people being supportive of using Twitter in this way. Notice that no-one actually attempted to answer the original question.

In fact the question was raised in an attempt to begin a discussion. As Dr Cunningham said in a comment 'If Amit had tweeted "The next case is about a fictional case for discussion purposes. I'm just interested in your responses and all will be revealed in a blog soon" before his 'single tweet' then the discussion would have been much different.'

How true.

Interestingly, I found out about this through Storify. I've been looking at various Web curation services recently as part of i-sieve's work on the Paths Project. Anne Marie Cunningham's use of that service, and the way she embedded her Story in her blog are, for me, as interesting as the subject matter, albeit for different reasons.

Another big Twitter-related story this week concerns Billy Jones who, Tweeting as @InjunctionSuper made a series of supposed super injunction-busting statements. My immediate reaction was Oh yeah? Can you prove it?. There was no corroborating evidence for his Tweets and therefore, as far as I'm concerned, no reason to believe any of them. However, Jemima Khan's understandable public pronouncements that the allegations about her were entirely false made her the unwitting centre of the story which focussed entirely on whether social media makes super injunctions unenforceable.

Again, lack of context means that one can often interpret Tweets however you like.

How does this affect all those social media monitoring tools?


Since Twitter has no contextual information, any analysis of Tweets is going to be error prone. Yes, it can tell you whether the mood measured today is more or less positive than it was yesterday, and as first order approximation, that might be what you want - but please don't think that analysing Twitter is going to give you deep insight into public opinion.

The machine that can understand what you didn't have space to write has yet to make its appearance in the real world.