Hollow Men: All-White Mannequins in a Window

Context and the Twitter Echo Chamber

Have you ever deleted a tweet because you were afraid it might be taken out of context? I did, and I’m not sure I made the right decision. But I have seen enough mob mentality on Twitter recently that I didn’t want to make lots of people mad at me on January 2. Not without the context.

So here’s what happened. I was reading through blog posts and monitoring my Twitter feed on Friday afternoon when Gennefer Snowfield at Acclimedia tweeted something that caught my attention:

I think the words ‘authority’ and ‘influence’ are completely overused and no longer have any meaning or weight. That is all.


We tweaked back and forth a couple of times, and then I said:

I wish people would stop equating influence with numbers and look instead at actions and results.


Then we tweeted back and forth a couple more times, and I sent out the tweet that is no more. It said (appoximately):

Too many wannabe prom kings and queens. Works in the echo chamber. Outside, they’re hollow men. No substance.


Pretty shortly thereafter, I thought the tweet probably should have been sent as a DM and I deleted it. This prompted some additional (and private) back and forth about echo chambers and context. And since then I’ve been thinking about the whole topic a little bit.

No one who knows me personally will ever accuse me of being shy or holding back an opinion. But usually those opinions are in the context of a conversation–and context, along with tone and body language, help soften the offhand remark. Plus, I’ve already written about value vs. numbers on Twitter, and my position is pretty clear.

But Twitter, like e-mail, has a tendency to magnify things. The echo chamber makes it easy to pull things out of context. Look what Chris Brogan went through, and he’s well known and respected in this space. I’ve also seen the crowd turn on lots of less-known people for real or perceived differences of opinion.

And so I censored myself. It’s not that I thought my tweet was so relevant, or that lots of people are hanging on what I say. But it was on a hot topic, and you never know what gets picked up. I just didn’t want to deal with the possibility. Hopefully next time I won’t self-censor.

What do you think? Does Twitter magnify everything? Are you self-censoring your tweets?

Photo by wonderferret (Flickr).

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Comments ( 15 )

  • I think its not so much self-censoring as being conscious that communications on twitter directly affect peoples views of who you are and what you have to contribute. I find myself trying for a consistent tone and taking some more personal communications to DM.

    In the end its all about how you want to be represented online. I had a similar conversation with @dr1665 about whether or not to curse in your twitter feed, which led to this interesting post.

  • Do I self-censor tweets? Occasionally. Sometimes, I’ll tweet something and then go “Oops, I’m tweeting under our company name @MillerMosaicLLC, that’s probably not cool to say as company rep.”

    Of course, I’ve heard that tweets never really go away, if that’s true, I don’t know how good deleting it will do. Also, I’m not sure a deleted tweet drops off a third-party application’s stream.

    I found you and this post because @acclimedia just RTed this post.

  • I mostly only censor incomplete or half-baked thoughts before I even tweet them. Otherwise, its a fun challenge to try and fit a concept in 140 characters or explain it briefly. Every tweet is a kind of elevator pitch for a meme. Or a joke. Or a question, etc. Treat it like e-mail and pretend there is no Unsend.

    I think I’ve only deleted two or three tweets and the only reasons were because I wasn’t adding anything to the memesphere or because of a mistake (URL, etc.)

  • Twitter, like email, offers a mode of reasonably fast response. And, like email, the words can be taken out of context or misconstrued. Have I self-censored? Yes, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Through painful experience I’ve learned, especially when responding late at night, that it is sometimes better to let things sit and mull them over.

  • @ jeremy @ acrylicist — I agree, some self-censorship is useful. I think the question is whether you’re not saying something that you otherwise would in a public room because you don’t have the context to wrap around it.

    @ yael — I don’t generally distinguish between my business and personal profiles when I tweet, so you’ll find me talking about sports, running, and art exhibits on occasion. I don’t self-censor that way, because I already save the truly personal stuff for phone calls and face-to-face conversations. But I agree with you and @ acrylicist: once something’s in cyberspace, assume it lives on.

    @ matt — I agree. Sometimes a little “reflection” before hitting send is a good thing.

  • I’m so glad I found your post, and I did so b/c of a tweet. As the cosmos would have it, I was online and tweeting myself when I saw the original tweet from Gennefer on Friday. It made me think, but I didn’t comment.

    Learning how those ‘conversations’ unfolded for you strikes a chord with me. While I haven’t self-censored as a result of some internal barometer, I have been asked by one of my employers to delete tweets when someone cared to cull specific messages out and suggest what I said was inappropriate.

    While not debating the veracity of that allegation (ps, they were wrong), I learned firsthand what you prophesized–context IS everything with expression of ideas. Any type of second (or third!)-hand message exposure, whether written (Twitter, email, etc.) or verbal (“I heard from Joe that ….”) could potentially be misconstrued and misinterpreted.

    Is it wise to exercise decorum and good judgment when putting information in the Googlesphere? Sure. First impressions can be true or false, but they may be the only opportunity that someone has to get a glimpse of you. Just how far are you willing to carry that self-censorship? And for how long? Will you be hiding your light if you do?

  • I grew up in this business world in the legal world. For 22 years everything that leaves your lips first goes through a “think first” filter. This is an interesting post and I would be interested further to know how the rest of the twitter world responds to your question.

  • Gennefer Snowfield

    The fact that you wrote this post highlights one of the core reasons I continue to use Twitter — for the relationships, sharing, insights and exchanges that are sparked on a daily (sometimes, minute-to-minute!) basis.

    But with those discussions comes the ‘140-character conundrum’ where tone and affect need to be condensed within a limited framework. And with that condensation, context is often lost or misrepresented as we struggle to get as much ‘meat’ as possible into our posts.

    It’s even more difficult when those conversations aren’t threaded and a random, drive-by tweet enters someone’s stream entirely out of context, from which they may become offended. Or misconstrue/misunderstand/misinterpret — especially with re-tweeting and the viral proliferation that the medium stimulates. Soon, a simple exchange becomes a full-blown issue in the Twitterverse where your point of view is not accurately represented.

    Having been directly involved in more than one debate that ended up being simply a matter of semantics and miscommunication, I do take pause before posting comments at times. Overall, it’s more a matter of re-phrasing than censoring, and over time, as the people within my community get to know me, it is my hope that I will be viewed by the sum total of my perspectives vs. one-off comments, and that I will demonstrate a consistent voice that through which people will find value and insights.

    Unfortunately, the nature of Twitter also makes it such that you’re only the sum of your last tweet, so I completely understand why users would censor — especially those posting under brand names et al. It is after all, a public forum, and even if you delete a tweet on Twitter, it is still indexed by Google and aggregated in third party applications to live on in perpetuity — attached to your name.

    The real question becomes if an emotional response to a post on Twitter is something you want to be associated with your name forever. The dynamic, real time elements make it easy — and all too tempting — to fire off a reply, or make a comment in frustration, so a motto that I’ve adopted which has served me well is: Think. Breathe. Tweet.

    At the end of the day, the most important part of the equation is to be real, be true to yourself and honor and respect those in your community. If you believe you are doing all of those things after crafting your post, go ahead and tweet with pride. You’d be surprised at how many will actually appreciate it — and be positively impacted — by your words, even if you cringe after clicking submit.

  • Mike (@wrytir) Burns

    I, too, agree with Acrylicist and most others. I’ve only deleted a couple of Tweets because of bad URLs. I know that the Internet is permanent, so I do my best to self-censor before I hit Update.

    Further, while I don’t currently represent my company on Twitter and try never to discuss or mention it, a few friends from work do follow me. I’m in a position of authority, so I exercise restraint.

    Finally, having worked in corporate America for a long while and having had a good long “life” using email, I am well aware of how the printed word can so easily be misinterpreted or misconstrued. If others unaware of your propensity for sarcasm for example, any attempt at it in writing will be lost them, leading to potentially embarrassing or combative results.

    So, in short, yes. I censor myself all the time online (not that I don’t make mistakes – we all do now and again). My personal thoughts are expressed in person to trusted friends or in my old fashioned, hand-written journal.

  • Charity Hisle

    I completely understand where you are coming from, both with the topic of this post (self-censoring) and with the topic that initiated your post (echo chamber and lack of substance).

    I have self-censored simply because some of my customers follow me on Twitter. There are other times that I didn’t and wish I had. Context is a matter of perspective, and depending on an individuals mood their perspective can change.

    I think the biggest typical concern is simply: what goes in writing can live forever regardless of the medium used. Good, Bad, or Ugly we are defined by how we are perceived. Frankly, the potential backlash of angry Twitter users can be intimidating.

    We, as humans, generally stay within the pack. The self-censorship is indicitive of our human nature. There are more followers than leaders; and with leadership comes responsibility.

    I think that if a “Tweep” stays true to their own personality then they won’t feel so inclined to self-censor. My philosophy: Follow me, or don’t follow me… but don’t ask me to change who I am.

  • Thanks to all of you for your wonderful comments. Clearly this question of context and self-censorship has hit a chord, and I hope we can continue the conversation. I suspect that part of the reason we’re sometimes hyper-careful on Twitter is that we are, in some ways, broadcasting to the universe in 140-character sound bites.

    While clearly some self-censorship makes sense (in all venues), I think we need to make sure we aren’t hesitating to speak out of fear of the reaction. That’s the possibility that troubles me. @heather, I agree with you: could we, as your said, be “hiding our light”? @mike, like you, I keep the truly personal conversations off-line. But that still leaves a lot of territory to cover.

    @gennefer, thank you for lighting the match on this conversation. I love your “Think. Breathe. Tweet.” rule. @charity, I do subscribe to your philosophy “follow me, or don’t follow me… but don’t ask me to change who I am.” I need to remember that the next time I’m contemplating the delete button.

  • Well that’s why its important to remember that the audience for what you’re saying is full of people with varying amounts of connection to you. Some know you personally, some are people you’ve engaged with, some are strangers.

    On the other hand, I dont think you should put TOO much thought into each individual post (i refuse to say ‘tweet’), since the nature of the medium is to be relatively casual.

    I guess a good rule of thumb should be to try to connect in a way that seems consistent with how you interact with people you know in a public room in real life.

  • Interesting since I’ve been struggling with context in twitter over the past week or so, thus it’s very timely. Here’s my take-Twitter eliminates inflection, tonality, comedic timing, sardonic humor, flippancy,anger, and emotion, and then reduces it to 140 characters of trying to get passion and meaning and understanding across. 🙂 this does not work. jk does not work. LOL, LMAO, IDK, IMHO, FWIW, do not work.

    Twitter may be a water cooler but as I’ve said before the cups at the cooler are only of the 4 ounce variety, and thus these staccato like bursts of quick conversations are not substitute for meaningful discussions. They are merely the opening statements. From that standpoint all we are doing is Tweeting opening statements to each other. Great post Daria.

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