It’s election day again in Mississippi, where the nation’s most interesting midterm race heads for a runoff. The contest between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel matches a 41-year Capitol Hill veteran who brings home pork for the poorest state in the union against a 41-year-old Tea Party conservative riding the wave of anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-Obama sentiment.
National political reporters have had their eye on Mississippi for a few weeks now, producing some interesting reads. I enjoyed BuzzFeed’s investigative reporting in the digital age, connecting dots between McDaniel’s campaign, a blogger who broke into Cochran’s wife’s nursing home, and Wikipedia edits. The Washington Post explored the popularity of Tea Party fiscal conservatives in states that benefit most from liberal federal spending. The Upshot, essentially the New York Times’ Nate Silver-less FiveThirtyEight, used Mississippi as a case study for what extremely partisan electorates do to the election process.
This blog post is not about any of that, really. It’s more of an aside from the primary three weeks ago, and it has to do with language. More specifically, language in the Twitter age.
Thousands of words have been written about the benefits of 140 characters for writing. Across many disciplines, fewer words = clearer expression = better writing. This is not to say that everything can be summarized in a Tweet. Complex issues demand careful explication. But even then, the principle of word economy can still hold value.
So, on election night, I observed, and actively participated in, an exercise of Twitter word economy. Here’s the original tweet, from AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus:
It’s an odd story of the slow pace of the South meeting a national political frenzy. True to this Senate race, it was a mere vote-counting footnote, which is what happens when supporters of one candidate wind up locked inside a courthouse with ballots from the state’s most populous county.
But it was a fun chance for snark. And what is Twitter, if not snarky?
And so, it became necessary to engage the MT, or “modified tweet,” preserving the original context while freeing up enough characters to be pithy, and admittedly, a bit obnoxious. Here’s a non-scientific sample of attempts I noticed.
Josh Kraushaar, political editor at National Journal:
Brett LoGiurato, political reporter and regular Twitter wisecrack for Business Insider:
Molly Ball, politics writer for the Atlantic, who was in Mississippi covering the election:
Molly’s went one level further, as it was retweeted by Donovan Slack, a Washington Bureau reporter for USA Today:
Dustin Barnes, a reporter at the Jackson-based Clarion Ledger:
Patrick Magee, a sports reporter for the (Biloxi) Sun Herald:
And finally, me, some guy on Twitter:
Let’s break it down:
Original: “Zero precincts reporting from Covington County.”
Thank goodness AP style doesn’t carry over to Twitter, because editors would go ape over using the numerical “0,” but it buys us 3 characters. Almost everyone maintained “precincts reporting from.” Magee switched “reporting” for “in,” buying him 7 characters. I chose to eliminate “precincts” by using the common election night parlance of percentage reporting. In this case, the two zeros represented the same thing.
Everyone abbreviated “county” as “Co.”, with the exception of LoGiurato, who removed it altogether (though “Covington” by itself is confusing, especially to national readers. Is it a county, town, part of a town?).
Original: “An election commissioner just told me she’s home in bed & can’t give us numbers.”
All but one of us quickly hacked off “An,” but it’s the first decision that comes at the expense of accuracy. Covington Co. doesn’t have one election commissioner, it has five. A few us of also trimmed down the title. Slack and Barnes went with “elex commish.” I try to avoid less mainstream shorthand to reduce confusion, so I went with “election commish.”
The remainder of editing decisions came down to the degree of personal experience each of us wanted to maintain in Pettus’ original tweet. I thought the way she phrased it painted a scene that added to the silliness of the entire situation. Pettus, working on a dead-heat race that flips with each new batch of votes, tries to figure out what’s happening in a county not reporting anything. She dials up an obvious source and winds up talking to a woman who has gone to bed. I want that in my tweet, so I only remove the word “just” and the period at the end of the sentence (only Ball and Kraushaar kept the final period, which was no doubt appreciated by those who practice proper mechanics).
Others made their big cuts in this section, narrowing it down to the facts. “The commissioner is in bed and can’t give numbers,” or something similar. Kraushaar and Ball removed personal aspects at the front of the sentence, but maintained “us” at the end, which made the pronoun seem odd and out of place.
One could argue that removing the “told me” part muddies attribution, and makes it less clear that this is Pettus’ direct experience, rather than a secondhand report. I think the use of her handle and a standard form of Twitter “quoting” does the job, but I might be wrong.
Finally, there was the styling.
The original tweet ended with the #MSSen hashtag, used to group tweets on the topic for easy searching. Only LoGiurato and I managed to have space to maintain the hashtag, though it didn’t seem to help the reach of our tweets. The small sample did well with citation. All but one used the proper “MT” abbreviation, to signify that the tweet had been edited for space, but that the idea was preserved. Barnes left out the colon after Pettus’ handle, but since there weren’t multiple handles in the text, this doesn’t really cause confusion. Only Magee inaccurately used “RT,” signifying a direct re-tweet of the original message. Of course, much of this etiquette originates from early Twitter, when there wasn’t a re-tweet button. Users may now expect a manual RT to include some small editing.
In the end, the difference in our tweets may not be glaring, but our decisions do say something about what we wanted to express and emphasize. It also exemplifies the process of editing down – of finding different, shorter ways to express an idea, while maintaining clarity, accuracy, and proper attribution. All so we could add our empty two-cents. As LoGiurato emoted, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What do you think? Was there one tweet in particular that worked better than the others? Or, in the Twitter tradition of negativity, was there one we need to hate on with condescending memes? You can share in the comments, or send me a tweet, subject to future RT’ing, MT’ing, or passive aggressive subtweeting.