Highbrow Threading

The following ad appeared in my Facebook feed the other day:


It put me in mind of my favorite episode of my favorite segment on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “Share a Little Tea with Goldie.” In “Share a Little Tea” (as I wrote in this space last year),

a wide-eyed hippie, played by Leigh French, found various things to say “Oh, wow” about. I have been thinking about one particular episode in which Goldie excitedly demonstrated to viewers an invention she’d come up with. She took out her contact lenses, then wrapped wire around them in such a way that the wire curled around her ears and the lenses were in front of her eyes. She had, in other words, “invented” eyeglasses.

This has been on my mind because of a move Amazon took last month. The giant online retailer acquired some real estate in Seattle, filling the space with several thousand of the books it offers on its website, some knowledgeable clerks, and a few cash registers. Far out, man. Amazon “invented” the bookstore.

Now, Goldie-like, HD360X seems to be “inventing” the zoom-lens camera.

Another Goldievention — as I have taken to calling these digital-to-analog bits of reverse engineering — has also been on my mind. I became aware of it when I noticed people griping that Donald Trump didn’t “thread” his tweets properly. Their use of thread originates from a meaning dating from no later than 1984 and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary this way: “A linked sequence of posts or messages relating to the same subject on a newsgroup or (now more usually) an Internet forum.” The new variation of thread (both noun and verb–and sometimes referred to as tweetstorm) denotes a series of posts or messages composed by the same person.

The following paragraph is slightly technical, so feel free to skip it.

The complaint was that Trump habitually sends out a series of tweets on a particular subject — sometimes linking with them with ellipses before and after, sometimes not linking them at all. Other users like to number related tweets — 1/5, 2/5, etc. — also apparently not considered best practice. The problem is that between, say, 2/5 and 3/5, other tweets by other people go out and populate readers’ feeds, interrupting Trump’s (or whoever’s) train of thought, if you will excuse the expression.

The proper method, experts agree, is to write the first tweet, then reply to it as many times as it takes to say your piece. That way, followers are able to see the whole thing in a line. So, for example, on December 13, the science-fiction writer Max Gladstone sent out this tweet:

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Then Gladstone followed it up with five consecutive replies, forming a thread:

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You are beginning to sense the Goldievention. Gladstone is using Twitter, marked by its 140-character limit, to compose a longer document. The kind of thing we used to call an essay.

True, the Gladstone thread is still quite short for a New York Review of Books takeout, or even an op-ed piece. But that’s not true of the most talked-about thread of the last week. A professional trend-studier named Eric Garland commenced it at 3:28 p.m. on December 11 by typing (as has become accepted practice) the word of warning “THREAD.”

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All told, Garland replied to his original tweet 129 times before he was finally finished, at 5:17 p.m. Someone has taken the trouble to put the entire thread up as a Google Doc, which you can read here. If you do so, you will see that, over 2,846 words, the thread presents and backs up an argument — essentially, that Russian meddling in the 2016 election had deep roots and that both the interference and the result of the election, while not easily countered and opposed, can, should, and will be. It is also more or less grammatical and spelled correctly. In other words, it is an essay.

Now, it’s still not the kind of essay you would find in The New York Review of Books or Foreign Affairs. It’s got a lot of CAPITAL LETTERS and Tom Wolfean exclamation points! Plus profanity, internet speak (“h/t @Mr. Jefferson”), and lots of short paragraphs (not always represented in the Google Doc). Most important, it’s interactive. You can see from the screenshot above that the first tweet in the thread alone was responded to 790 times, retweeted some 5,400 times, and “liked” 11,000 times. Arguably, unlike Goldie’s glasses, Amazon’s bookstore, or the phone with a zoom lens attached, it represents an improvement on — or at least an interesting variation of — the original version.

The Twitter thread is the most Goldieventional form the essay is taking these days, but it is also popping up in another unlikely place, Facebook. I say “unlikely” because Mark Zuckerberg’s platform is known for fake news, echo-chamber venting, and videos of inter-species friendship. Yet among the things I enjoy there are the well-crafted reflections of some excellent writers I follow, well-known figures like Garrison Keillor, Dan Rather, Lance Morrow, Laura Hillenbrand, and Mikal Gilmore, and lesser-known ones like Gene Seymour, Kim Morgan, and David Pomerantz. I tend to think Montaigne and Samuel Johnson would approve — or at least click “like.”







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