I’m a big fan of using proper grammar. But I’m also a big proponent of keeping up with trends, both technological and vernacular. Thus, when I read about the New York Times banning the use of “tweet” by their journalists, I viewed their decision as yet another way they’ve fallen behind the times and are sticking their heads in the sand.
First let me get this out of the way: I understand the need to adhere to a standard set of grammatical rules. And I respect the tough choices that Phil Corbett, Standards Editor at the Times, has to make.
However, the Times is already under attack for not getting technology. They weren’t quick to capitalize on and adapt to the web. They’re still stuck on an online subscription-based profit model. And they aren’t playing nice with Google.
So, when I read that the Times made a conscious choice to stick to outdated vocabulary when discussing present-day technology, I shook my head in disbelief. The Times should strive to use vocabulary that is relevant and up to date, while still understandable to the general readership. Perhaps they should take it even further and try to advance the public’s knowledge of new words. One of Corbett’s arguments is that not enough of the public knows what Twitter is, much less what “tweet” means. Perhaps the Times should help illuminate and educate instead of shrinking away from uncomfortable language.
“Tweet” isn’t an incredibly difficult word to grok. “Twitter” and “tweet” are both real verbs that mean to make noise, like a bird. It’s not a huge stretch to add a highly related, nuanced meaning to the definition of tweet: To make noise by posting commentary on Twitter.com.
Twitter’s knowledge of branding is very impressive in that they use a separate, intuitive verb to describe the use of their service. Google didn’t have such a verb and has been fighting an uphill struggle for a decade, trying to prevent people from using “google” or “googling” as a verb. Their argument (the same argument Xerox has been making for several decades) is that the verb-ification of a brand name makes a trademark or brand generic. When people begin to refer to xeroxing something on a Cannon copier, or googling something on Yahoo! or Bing, the battle is lost and the brand can no longer protect its trademark. (Of course, Xerox spent lots of time and effort convincing people to use the verb “copy” and Google seems to be content with “to google” as long as it only ever refers to the use of Google.)
Twitter does not have this problem. Their brand is Twitter, and the use of their brand is referred to as “tweeting” or “to tweet.” Thus, no danger of “Twitter” becoming generic by people saying “I twittered that” or “let me twitter that” to refer to posting short messages, which could then come to refer to “twittering” on some other short message site in the future.
This is the best case scenario. It’s almost as if they thought about this ahead of time. (I have no idea if it was a lucky coincidence, but I’d like to believe that the founders had this in mind when they named Twitter.com.) A competitive site that didn’t seem to have the same luck or forethought was Facebook. Not having a verb for posting on, commenting on, or communicating with someone on Facebook, is a weak link in their verbal branding. Instead, people tend to say, “I Facebook’d that,” for posting something to Facebook, or “Let me Facebook her” to mean communicating with or looking someone up on the site. Again, Twitter has the clear leg up in this regard.
What’s funny is that I wasn’t surprised in the least that the Times would reinforce their firm footing in the past. It’s what we tech types have come to expect from the monolithic news agency. And their approved alternatives for “tweet” sound like suggestions from Ma and Pa Kent from Smallville:
“…use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update. Or, once you’ve established that Twitter is the medium, simply use ‘say’ or ‘write.'”
Riiiight! So instead of “he tweeted it” a journalist should instead write, “he used Twitter to write a Twitter message and say to his followers that The New York Times is totally hip and groovy.” Mmmm hmmm, yep, that’s so much better! New York Times major FAIL.
(Note: “fail” is yet another Twitter verbal meme that the Times will certainly ban for their inability to stay current with modern language use.)