Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the difference between thin and thick tweets

this semester, i introduced my students to twitter and offered them my definitions for thin and thick tweets:

thin tweets are posts that convey one layer of information. thick tweets convey two or more, often with help from a hyperlink.

twitterers post thin tweets all the time. for example:

i'm grumpy today

oh snap, it's raining again

need more coffee

am about to leave for the post office

i luv cottage cheese

i encourage my students to use and experiment with twitter in any and all ways they see fit and this can of course include thin tweets. but when using twitter to fulfill one of my assignments, i require my students to post thick tweets.

thick tweets convey two or more layers of information. they often, but not always, include a hyperlink that takes readers from twitter to another source of information - a newspaper article, a blog post, a flickr set, a video. i encourage my students to use 140 characters or less to compose a thick tweet that is so compelling that no reader in his or her right mind can avoid clicking the link.

here's a few examples of thick tweets written by students in my digital media production and eating san francisco classes:

in this post, stephanienow gives a shout out to ESF, announces that her north beach project is ready for viewing, tempts us with recipes, informs us that she has a new blog, and supplies a link for us to visit. awesome: a thick tweet comprised of at least five layers of information.

here, smhz tells us about a trip to costa rica he took last month and encourages us to visit the pictures he recently posted. but i'd suggest a third layer. too often, twitterers tweet the present - sam suggests that past material (a past trip to costa rica) makes for a perfectly suitable present project (a flickr set). three layers of information.

in this thick tweet, teresacgarcia sends a shout out to ESF, tells us that she just viewed the film like water for chocolate, informs us that gleeson library has the film (borrow it for free!), and notifies us when it will be available for others. terrific: four layers of information.

in my final example, melstrikesback tells us that she'll be attending an academy awards gala, links to the event so that interested readers can learn more, and thanks the foghorn (USF's student newspaper, where melstrikesback works as scene editor) for the complimentary tix. three layers of information.

as i wrote above, i encourage my students to use twitter in any way they see fit. but my bias is evident. by requiring them to post thick tweets and by encouraging them to pack multiple layers of information within 140 characters or less, i'm trying to teach my students how to craft creative, meaty, and to-the-point messages that attract other people's attention.

plus, i'm politely suggesting that they may wish to think twice about tweeting their luv of cottage cheese.


Unknown said...

Thank you very much for the clarification on thick and thin tweets. But I am a little bit confused about what is actually being assessed. Our all students tweets now part of their course?

It seems a little bit invasive to me. If they want to tweet about liking cottage cheese why can't they? If people find it boring then they will act with their feet and stop following them.

What are the boundaries between using the twitter account for education and routine social interaction?

Thanks again,
Anne Marie

Anonymous said...

"oh snap, it's raining again"

haha, good work professor.

here is a chart that might also help for the future:

Anonymous said...

You can find USF's Gleeson Library on Twitter as well @gleesonlibrary (

Anonymous said...

hello Anne Marie - no, not all tweets are part of the class. in my blog post, i actually explain this:

"i encourage my students to use and experiment with twitter in any and all ways they see fit and this can of course include thin tweets. but when using twitter to fulfill one of my assignments, i require my students to post thick tweets."

they certainly can tweet about cottage cheese, but when they tweet as part of an assignment, i ask them to post thick tweets.

Christina - thanks! what a perfect graphic. hee hee.

Shawn - nice.

momo said...

First, what an awesome class and what elegantly crafted assignments! Consider me one of your students, and thank you for your generosity in making this available!
I have been considering whether or not to incorporate Twitter into a future class; I've had to explain it now to several interested students, and this concise example about the layers of information has helped me see ways in which I can make its use meaningful.

Anonymous said...

Aren't what you're calling "thin" tweets merely poorly-written--or poor in information.

Your "thick" tweets combine a comment and what is commented on. So you're making a formal distinction.

But is it really justifiable to contrast a single piece of information--"it's raining now"--with two--"this site is"?

Isn't your thin tweet kind of a rhetorical straw man?

--Edward R. O'Neill

Anonymous said...

momo - thanks for the comment and the kind words! i'm glad that the assignments are useful. i'll be eager to hear how your students take to twitter.

Edward R. O'Neill - maybe it's an unfair comparison but it sure makes sense to me and my students!

Anonymous said...

So making sense to you and your students is the criterion you use to judge a concept's validity?

That seems rather inexplicit.

What's then learned from making or using the distinction?

--E. R. O'Neill

Anonymous said...

Edward - i'm afraid i don't understand your original question and i'm not that interested in the direction the thread is going. so: could you rephrase your question so that i can get a better sense of what you're asking?

Anonymous said...

I think with the examples for thin and thick tweets that Professor Silver provided in this entry, it's easy to assume that by "thin" he means "poorly written" as you said, or boring, pointless, etc.

His intention for creating the distinction of thin vs thick isn't to create some sort of "hierarchy of tweets", with thick reigning over thin, the distinction is regarding the amount of information provided in the post, not which is “better.” There are plenty of thin tweets that are hilarious or thoughtful, and there are plenty of thick tweets that are dull and poorly written.

If David told the class “I want you to tweet about the USF film festival this week, and I want it to be GOOD!”, obviously there is going to be some discrepancy about what a good tweet it. When the class is told to “write a thick tweet about your flickr set”, we know what the criteria for the assignment is. Some will still be “boring” compared to others, but no one is going to be marked down for not being witty.

Anonymous said...

Christina--your comments helped clarify the way the class understands the assignment.

David--my curiosity is about how students understand what they're trying to accomplish or achieve with the assignment. How can someone doing it know "I'm doing a good job"? And how does the instructor share with the students the criteria being used for evaluation--if a grade is attached?

Or is it more of a preliminary task that generates visual material that is then analyzed?

Having taught media studies for ten years and now doing instructional design for distance learning and in other contexts, I see the ideas of instructional objectives and communicating expectations to students as very important.

--E. R. O'Neill

Unknown said...

Hi David
Thank you for answering our questions. As you are not asking the students to use tags when tweeting for assignments, how do you know which tweets are for the assignment and which aren't?
I am sorry to labout this point but I think it is pretty key to understanding how twitter can work in a course.
Anne Marie

Anonymous said...

quick set of comments before i board a plane that's heading to seattle ...

Christina - thank you for taking the time to comment on the blog and to provide a student's perspective. it is difficult to express how rewarding it is for me for students to take part in this kind of dialogue. plus, i love the phrase "hierarchy of tweets."

Edward - thanks for taking the time to clarify your question. so far i have blogged all of my assignments for digital media production - facebook, twitter, flickr, and blog - and none of them mention anything about criteria. instead of offering a criteria for students to follow to get a good grade, i am asking them to experiment with the platform to make creative and compelling media.

how do i/we judge what is creative and compelling media? on thursdays, we have demo day, an hour and 45 minutes of demoing our work. each student receives feedback - positive and negative, what works, what needs more work - from their peers and from me. it is too early to be certain whether or not it works but i do know this: each week, each student's work is getting better, more interesting, and more nuanced. for me, that's a good sign.

Anne Marie - if you click on the four graphics above, you will be taken to the twitter accounts for four different students. if you browse through their tweets, you will notice easily and almost immediately which tweets are about my class and which are not. because i deliberately do not follow too many people (currently 99), i do not have a problem wading through my students' tweets to find their class-related posts.

Anonymous said...


Thanks, that clarifies things a lot.

In a sense, they are creative assignments. The criteria are emerging and emerge from the group discussion and analysis.

This is something that happens in my online screenwriting course: I give minimal criteria for certain assignments, but one explicit purpose structured into a series of discussions and assignments is: for each student to reflect on her evolving sense of what "good" work in that area is.

With screenwriting--and perhaps multimedia production is the same way--I have found that I have my own qualitative criteria, but these never match those of the students. I like "Nights of Cabiria" where the students like "Juno." I can't ask students to write something "good" in the sense that "...Cabiria" is good--because they don't share that sense!

Then the important thing is for the students to be able to articulate what about the aesthetic objects they like can serve as a model for their own work and to judge for themselves how they live up to those ideals.

Students produce and live up to their own ideals, rather than trying to understand and live up to mine.

The criteria then become how well students can articulate their goals and fulfill these self-designed goals. And their self-evaluation of how well they have done becomes a part of the work.

Edward R. O'Neill

paul baker said...

this is quite helpful, and I'll pass it along
Paul Baker
AERA Communications & Outreach Committee

david silver said...

thanks Paul - i'm glad you found it helpful.

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