In 2016, after killing blogs dead, Twitter considered massively expanding its character limit — or, more precisely, allowing users to attach long blocks of text the way they can attach pictures or videos. This never came to pass, and Twitter users kept shoehorning essays into self-reply threads called tweetstorms.
Photo by Jerry Worster
A good tweetstorm is more than an essay broken into sentences. It builds tweet by tweet, it communicates something simple, and each tweet works as an aphorism or a pull quote. Good tweetstorms are widely varied, while bad tweetstorms all look the same. Here’s how to write one without embarrassing yourself.
Write what you know
There are two ideal topics for a tweetstorm. The first is one where you have personal experience or years of education. For example, sexual assault counsellor Mala Muñoz recently wrote that prank and predatory calls make it harder for sexual assault hotlines to work with male victims:
#MenAreTrash aka men crank call sexual assault hotline OFTEN bc 99% of us counselors r women & they try jacking off while describing assault
— mala (@mala_munoz) June 8, 2017
Muñoz points out that while many straight cis men criticise society for overlooking male victims of sexual assault, they don’t show up to the hotline she works at; the actual work of helping victims (including straight cis men) is picked up by “women and femme folks”.
In another tweetstorm, pseudonymous writer and advocate Your Fat Friend analysed the dehumanising effect of headless B-roll footage and stock photos, usually taken without consent and used by the media as cautionary tales:
So, let’s talk about photos & B roll of fat people that are used in the news. (Thread.)
— your fat friend (@yrfatfriend) June 14, 2017
Twitter is great for spreading an emotion and communicating one simple idea and that’s what these threads do. They’re not following a detailed plot, so they don’t get bogged down or oversimplify. They’re not theorising, they’re sharing real lived experience. They’re starting a conversation, not trying to solve it. That’s the type of story that’s well-served by Twitter virality.
The other good threads are about something silly or obscure. The stakes are low, the tone is casual or slyly affected, and there’s nothing to get mad at. They’re great for telling funny stories, like when game maker Cabel Sasser discovered a badass McDonald’s with a Nintendo 64 and a custom mural:
But the grand finale — this PHENOMENAL, and HAND PAINTED MURAL. It's legitimately top-class artistry, folks. I can't believe it pic.twitter.com/N6FKBkn1Fi
— Cabel Sasser (@cabel) March 31, 2017
In a follow-up thread, Sasser showed off the extensive theme park work of mural artist Wes Cook. The tweetstorm format is perfect for the escalating insanity of the McDonald’s and the treasure trail of Cook’s designs. That feeling of “wait, it gets better” can’t be delivered so effectively in an article or a blog post.
Other good silly/specific tweetstorms include CNN’s Jake Tapper on how Superman shaves, tech exec Anil Dash on Prince’s song from the 1989 Batman movie, the Brady Bunch musical chairs war, Tina and the Gucci flip-flop, and “I’ll just floss tomorrow.”
Plan your story
The canonically worst tweetstorm is Eric Garland’s massive “game theory” thread, a post-election rant by a “professional futurist” about how Russia did Edward Snowden, John McCain will save us from Trump, and “cappuccino-coloured president” Obama secretly has everything under control.
Garland used lolspeak, lulzspeak, and AOL cybersex speak. His thread was so widely mocked that for a week, “time for some game theory” was the funniest way to start or end a tweet.
<THREAD> I’m now hearing this meme that says Obama, Clinton, et al. are doing nothing, just gave up.
Guys. It’s time for some game theory.
— Eric Garland (@ericgarland) December 11, 2016
Garland told NPR that he “had zero plan” when he started his tweetstorm. That’s (hopefully) why he quit his “actor analysis” pattern after two tweets, and why the 127-tweet thread includes no actual game theory.
Write your thread out in advance. Then check whether you delivered on the promise of your first tweets. Read it aloud; edit it thoroughly. Read it backwards. Trim it.
Talk like a person
While Garland’s dramatic introduction makes his thread even sillier, it’s not always a mistake. Plenty of the good threads above start with similar ado. Just consider whether you’re being ironically grand, or secretly sincere.
Two style notes that apply to any tweets, stormed or not: Avoid words you don’t use in daily speech; “y’all” and “yo” sound awkward from a northern straight white person in a suit. And avoid old-timey internet speak like “LOLZ” and “because [noun].”
Don’t talk about Russia
Pundits and journalists like HuffPost’s Seth Abramson and former UK MP Louise Mensch have turned Russia conspiracy-theory tweetstorms into a genre. While these threads sometimes bump into real facts, they more typically careen into nonsense and unsubstantiated rumours. They feed on the Twitter audience’s desperation for an explanation, for some sign that the Trump administration will soon be neatly removed.
They are the undeserving beneficiaries of Twitter virality, fake news in pill form. Don’t retweet them.
Numbering your tweets is optional. It feels a bit nerdy, but it’s helpful when Twitter inevitably breaks your thread with a design update. Don’t include your expected total tweet count. That’s corny, even as a joke.
Don’t just fill the character limit on each tweet and break off in the middle of a sentence. You’re already twisting Twitter’s format, don’t break it. Otherwise you’re just admitting that you can’t write within constraints.
…whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
And thread your replies. If the President learned to do it, so can you.
Take it to your blog
Blogging still exists! Consider publishing your essay on Tumblr, or on Medium, or in a small dark hole. Ask yourself if your words really belong on Twitter, or if you’re just so desperate for validation that you want every sentence to have its own like button. Repeat to yourself: “Never tweet”.