Lexicon Valley

1/ Everyone Is Composing Long, Numbered, Slash-y Threads on Twitter. 2/2 Here’s Why.

Toward a grand, unified theory of the tweetstorm.

Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

This summer, Twitter has been awash in a certain enumerated discourse. It goes like this:

1/ Many tweeters are using the medium to share ideas longer and more complex than any single tweet can contain. This is known as a tweetstorm.

2/ Now, some of these tweetstorms unfold as a numbered sequence: 1., 2., 3., n., …

3/ But increasingly common is the use of the slash: 1/, 2/, 3/, n/, …

4/ While emerging as a space-saving device, the slash is also starting to act like a discourse marker, or a verbal signpost that helps organize our communication.

5/5 Let’s call it the “soapbox slash.”

First, the mechanics of the slash. As the last item above makes plain, the slash stands for “out of”: This is the fifth out of five tweets in total. Tweeters tend to specify the total number throughout for a shorter series, e.g., 1/3, 2/3. Here, the impression is that they’ve simply run up against Twitter’s 140-character limit.

For a longer thread, though, it’s harder for tweeters to map out precisely how many tweets they will need. At first, they turned to a mathier shorthand, 1/x: This is one of an indefinite number of upcoming, interconnected tweets. Then, users vanished the x, squeezing out room for an extra character.

But the slash has become more than a matter of economy and a way to coordinate and concatenate thoughts—it’s also marking discourse. With 1/_, the tweeter takes the floor, adjusts the mic stand, clears her throat, and prefaces: I’ve got something I’d like to say.

Why Twitter? Why take to a platform defined by restriction to wax polemical? Why not whip up and link to a quick post on WordPress, Tumblr, Facebook, Medium, or other outlets where the real estate isn’t at a premium?

Very often, a 1/_ issues a timely, impassioned response to a sensitive and controversial phenomenon in the news: race, class, gender, politics, or terrorism. This response is too political for Facebook, too expository for the image-heavy likes of Tumblr, and too pressing and extemporaneous to consign to an article or blog post. Think of it as a hot take, but one that features exposition and argumentation, trying to connect the more nuanced and complicated dots of some bigger societal picture. It is a think piece. It is a hot take. It is a live-tweeted hot-take think piece.

And Twitter has become the ideal home for this nascent, discursive misfit. The platform is urgent and conversational and alive to what’s happening in the world. When the tweeter at last steps off the digital soapbox, she triumphantly fills in that ghosted divisor: 17/17, pumpf, the final number evoking a visual mic drop. Like Twitter’s other wildly successful symbol, the hashtag, one can even imagine “one-slash” creeping into speech as an ironic, meta-reference.

Blame it on Trump. Blame it on Brexit. Blame it on what you will, but:

1/ 2016 has already been palpably, gloomily, fatiguingly over-newsed.

2/ While tweeters have long been taking to Twitter with tweetstorms,

3/ perhaps this year’s salvos of unpredictable, unprecedented events has pushed people to try to order the chaos

4/4 figuratively and literally.