The World Bank’s blog posts have started carrying tags showing you what’s “tweetable”: a link on a specific sentence or pull quote within the post, which drops that sentence directly into a tweet alongside a link to the full post. (Here’s a recent post that uses it several times.)
It’s a small variation on the standard practice of tweeting a post title, but the aesthetics of “tweetable” are pretty terrible. On the World Bank site, it looks like you’re reading a used textbook, with a sentence highlighted by its previous owner and stamped with a twitter logo. Because the tag isn’t universal, RSS readers like Feedly and Newsblur don’t recognize it; the code just shows up as the text “[[tweetable]]” before and after the sentence that you’re actually trying to read.
But worse than the aesthetics—which surely will be fixed before long—I fear that this tag is a bad omen. I fear that this is the future of writing.
Tagging specific sentences for social media sharing will inevitably (even if unconsciously) influence writers’ choices. It has the potential to break down the cogency of a piece, with sentences crafted for their sharing potential rather than their relevance to the overall argument. While the best long articles take readers on a journey, tweetable summaries are like popping into the tourist spots and avoiding the rough terrain where real discovery happens.
Not that this is a completely radical departure from current practice. With rare exceptions, writers always have some concern for how widely their work will be shared. Novelists want good reviews, academics track citations, and most bloggers want more audience rather than less. Writers respond to market incentives of some kind.
However, what we’ve seen in the past decade is a hyper version of that. Buzzfeed and Upworthy are the trailblazers, taking us into the brave new world of clickbait headlines. Social media metrics for all publishers focus on views, shares, and comment volume—none of which indicate comprehension. Along the way, we’re losing the value of what’s being written. In theory, we read to learn, and we share to help others do the same. In reality, we often share as a demonstration of how well connected we are.
The arrival of the “tweetable” tag is one more step along the social-mediafication of writing. Seeing it appear first on the World Bank blog is especially worrisome. That iconic institution undoubtedly needs to make its research outputs and insights more accessible, but reducing them to fragments strips away their real value.
What can we do about this? Do writers have the probity to resist this trend? No. We are weak. We are not writers without readers, and so we will do whatever it takes to reach an audience. And if we don’t, then you will surely stop hearing from us, as other writers replace us in your social media feeds.
Therefore it rests on you, dear readers, to save us all. Resist clickbait. Make your own judgement when summarizing an article you share. And remove the “RT ≠ endorsement” disclaimer from your twitter profile, because retweeting is always an endorsement: even if you disagree with the author’s views, you are at least tacitly saying that this piece is worth reading.
Or if you want the social media version: No tweeting without reading.