Twitter 101: Account Types and Semipublic Spaces

As social media becomes more a norm of everyday life, it seems harder and harder to ignore the pressure to be on Twitter. I’ll say first and foremost that having a Twitter is not required to have a career in genre—tons of established and longtime writers don’t use it, and you can network extensively off Twitter.

If you do want to use Twitter, though, beware that it’s a weird space. That’s because it’s a platform with countless voices rather than any curated space like a Discord server or Facebook group. So there’s no universal code of Twitter conduct (much as we may wish there were), and there are no moderators around to clarify the nature and intent of a conversation.

Types of accounts on Twitter

The first thing to understand about Twitter is that there are four main kinds of accounts:

  • Personal – Individuals who primarily use Twitter like a journal and messaging platform, with occasional promotion of their work and/or other work that interests them. These are the majority of people you would be networking and interacting with.
  • Promotional – Businesses, publishers, and individuals using Twitter with the end goal to market a product or service. Even if publishers occasionally make non-promotional tweets, the purpose of the account is ultimately to act as a social media presence for a brand.
  • Reporting – News from various communities. Not just major networks like CNN and Al Jazeera, but also subculture- and industry-specific reporting, like Locus Online and Writer Beware. Reporting includes live coverage of events, often through a centralized hashtag (“livetweeting”).
  • Bots – Accounts that are almost entirely automated. Some bot creators may occasionally post to the bot’s account, but the purpose of the account is to share content regularly or take some other automated action, like retweeting anything that contains a certain phrase. Bots are not inherently malicious, though some are. Many people create Twitter bots as a form of artistic expression.

A lot of miscommunication comes from people thinking that an account belongs to one category, when it actually belongs to another. For example, if you’re a writer and you say “I don’t like epic fantasy” on your personal account, some people may think of you as a promotional account and construe your words as a stance rather than just an opinion. Personal accounts often get misconstrued as reporting accounts as well. Retweets take tweets away from their context, further amplifying misunderstandings.

When interacting with people on Twitter, then, look around on their profile and see if their Twitter is personal, promotional, for reporting, or a bot. Remember that personal Twitters represent only the perspective of the person tweeting, and not their employer or other groups they’re associated with. Promotional and reporting Twitters represent public figures more than individuals, but it’s best to reply with respect anyway, as you will still be interacting with a person running the social media account. Bots themselves do not have feelings to be hurt, but remember that the creator of the bot may see your interactions. It’s easy to forget, but there is a human on the other side of the screen.

Scopes of conversations on Twitter

The second quirk of Twitter that is rarely articulated is that it’s not an entirely public space, even though Twitter is publicly available on the internet. Instead, Twitter has a spectrum of how open or closed spaces are:

  • Public – Public figures and organizations, including their public-facing representatives. Think of this as walking into a park and encountering people handing out pamphlets, selling their goods, or campaigning for votes, among other examples.
  • Semipublic – The majority of individuals on Twitter are operating under the assumption that their conversations are actually semipublic, not entirely public. This is the equivalent of walking down the street and passing people dining outdoors and having conversations. Although they’re ostensibly in public, it would still be considered rude to drop in on their conversation, whereas striking up a conversation with someone campaigning for votes is the goal of that public interaction.
  • Private – Locked Twitter accounts are private spaces. Think of them as someone’s home—whatever is said there, stays there. It is considered extremely bad etiquette to take a screen capture of someone’s tweet on a locked account and repost it publicly, for example, as that would be a violation of the confidentiality that the user is requesting when they lock their account.

This is another area where misinterpretation of which category an account falls under causes huge problems. Semipublic spaces are the ones where you have to tread the most carefully. Buzzfeed, for example, is notorious for creating “articles” consisting entirely of embedded tweets. But the quoted tweets are typically from individuals, who have not been compensated for their content, and often haven’t even been contacted for permission to repost a tweet. While the share and embed features are native to Twitter, sharing semipublic content into a public space for profit is generally frowned upon. Even if the publication doesn’t charge to access the article, it usually has ad revenue derived from page views and clicks.

Misinterpretation

The last thing to remember about Twitter is that whatever you do or say can and will be misinterpreted, including maliciously, and fallaciously. Anyone can have a Twitter account, but it’s important to remember that just because someone has a lot of followers or influence doesn’t necessarily make them an expert.

What to do when a tweet gets blown out of proportion is a subject for an entire other series of posts, though. The most important point is that Twitter is not a platform designed for nuance and in-depth conversations, and many people on Twitter are combative or just plain bored. Do your best to not take it personally, and remember that it’s often better to disengage or walk away than to sink your time into defending yourself or refuting points when someone is already approaching you in bad faith.

Twitter is a weird and complicated space. Even the most seasoned veterans of the platform often find themselves perplexed and irritated by it—its nickname is “the hellsite” for a reason. But Twitter can also be fruitful for making connections and networking within genre. As you navigate various spaces, keep in mind whether the account you’re interacting with is personal, promotional, reporting, or a bot, and keep in mind whether the conversation itself is public, semipublic, or private. Twitter is not your friend, so err on the side of being more formal and respectful—a lot of misunderstanding comes from people being overly familiar.

I’m hoping to have a lot more posts on Twitter, including how to use Twitter to diversify your worldview and immerse yourself in the perspectives of people who are of different backgrounds than you. Feel free to leave suggestions for other topics!

Further reading:The #TwitterEthics Manifesto” by Dorothy Kim and Eunsong Kim

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