“It’s complicated”: A lesson in trying to summarize discussions in 140 characters…

… And then other people trying to summarize multiple 140-character tweets in a single tweet

Yesterday, I tweeted from a meeting session where some of the comments made in the room were too complex to summarize in a single 140-character tweet. When this happens, I use multiple tweets to summarize the comment, using “1/2”, “2/2” to show that a tweet is part of a series. But sometimes even then, it’s not possible to capture the exact words of someone in 140-character bursts that make any sense. When that happens, I try to find shorter alternative words, which invariably can slightly change the nuance of the person’s original comments. Often, I receive compliments from the speaker for summarizing in 140 characters what took them a much longer speech to explain. Sometimes I get it plain wrong. When that happens, I retweet corrections sent to me via Twitter, or tweet corrections that people make at the microphone.

As usual, people who aren’t in the meeting room follow my tweet stream to follow the room discussions. In yesterday’s case, a person summarized some of my tweeted summaries in a single tweet. A couple of others objected to the secondhand summary, resulting in the summarizer trying to direct quote from my original tweets to explain where the summarizer had got the information from. Unfortunately, in summarizing the summaries, the original text was edited, but without the edits being clearly identified. In 140 characters, this is hard to do, of course. Compounding the issue, and spurring me to write this short post, was the fact that the discussion moved from Twitter to email, where the summarizer included text from my original tweets in direct quotation marks, but again with edits made  but not noted (I assume the summarizer made the edits in an effort to make the content clearer in the context of the emails). If the original email exchange had remained the quick and dirty exchange between the debating parties, I wouldn’t be posting this. Unfortunately, the email exchange was then cross-posted to a few mailing lists, which has resulted in people, who had neither read my original tweets nor were in the actual meeting discussion, coming up to me and asking me what was going on.

As a freelancer who relies on a reputation of being a neutral source of information and analysis, for the record, I feel compelled to publish my original unedited tweets. The debate that resulted from the summary of my summary tweets is between the parties involved, and I have no wish to become involved in that discussion. Therefore, I am not naming the parties or mailing lists involved. It’s really not of any interest to the purpose of this post or to anyone outside the debate. I also take full responsibility for my original tweets. If I summarized in a way that misinterpreted the original comment, the error is mine alone.

Lessons learned

  1. Attempts to neutrally summarize what is going on can still be interpreted and used in very different ways. If possible, it might be useful that when people (including me) tweets their own conclusions based on content from someone else’s tweets, to also retweet the original tweets in their entirety. Alternatively, when summarizing or rephrasing the original tweets, be sure to use “[]” (often used in editing or academic circles) around any and all new text that may be added in an effort to provide clarity or further information not present in the original tweets.
  2. What can start off as a small discussion on email can easily be CCed to other mailing lists, archived forever, and have third parties wondering what on earth it’s all really about. So before dashing off a reply, thinking it’s only got a lifespan of minutes, think of it as living somewhere on teh Interwebs forever.
  3. Communication in any medium is subject to ambiguities and reuse. That’s life.

When I have time, I’ll update my Twitter guide based on what I’ve learned.