Twitter and Facebook: It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is

In the realm of software services we can pretty much connect everything to everything because, as Sam Ruby’s tagline says, it’s just data. But subtle wrinkles emerge when you join things together. Case in point: the Twitter application for Facebook, which synchronizes the blurbs you post to Twitter with the status updates you post to Facebook. That’s what it’s supposed to do, anyway, I’m not sure it’s working properly, but never mind, the point is that the contexts are subtly different.

On Twitter, for example, the subtitle of this entry comes out looking like this:

That sort of one-liner is fine on Twitter. But on Facebook, it comes out looking like this:

Not so good. Facebook’s ‘is’ wants to be followed by a present participle (‘thinking’) or an adjective (‘happy’). So to write this blurb in a service-independent way, it should probably be:

Thinking about how it all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

That makes for a better Facebook update, but a worse Twitter tweet. And what about initial capitalization? Good for Twitter, bad for Facebook.

So what’s a post-modern epigrammatist to do? Write epigrams that play well in both venues? Optimize for one over the other? Convene a standards group to hammer out agreements about capitalization and the use of participles?

Sillier things have happened. But there’s a serious lesson here for technologists who, like me, love to stitch services together. Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Facebook’s ‘is’ invites a mode of discourse that is importantly different from Twitter’s. I’m not sure I’ll invest heavily in either of those modes but, to the extent I do explore them, I’m going to use each in its own way.

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20 thoughts on “Twitter and Facebook: It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is

  1. Now that I’m using Facebook, I do find myself updating my GMail chat status using an ‘is’ more and more.

  2. I saw some of the more amusing Facebook status messages, e.g. xyz is, and decided that for my purposes, they two were best kept independent

  3. IMHO, it’s a bug in facebook. they should replace ‘is’ by ‘says’ (maybe adding double quotes also) and it will always be readable no matter what you “say”.

  4. Jon –

    This ‘is’ the first thing I learned to hate about Facebook. Because of it I tried to reverse the flow and export my FB status to Twitter, but that is even worse, giving you the full “Damon is” in the Twit.

    So – now I am back to Twitter feeding FB – but I simply phrase my twits to allow for it. I have been doing this for a month or two – and they are not that bad gramatically speaking.

    It is minor and constant irritant and is just another example of FB not really being as ‘open’ as they would like us to think they are. They should know better, but apparently their business model is more important than their customer service.


  5. I think there’s another aspect to this. If you author tweets directly in Twitter (which a lot of people aren’t doing these days, opting instead for some third-party tool that sits in a browser panel or is a desktop client), you’ll see you’re actually answering the question “What are you doing?” If you answered that correctly, you actually *would* say “Thinking about how it all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” But, most Twitter users don’t seem to pay attention to that question anymore (if they ever did), even those of us who do tweet mainly from the the Twitter Web interface.

    In part, that seems to be because when Twitter feeds tweets back to you, it doesn’t contextualize them that way. My page listing recent comments from all of my friends doesn’t preface each one with “Jon is” or “Martha is.” In the consumption of that content, the question becomes invisible and irrelevant.

    There’s a way in which the Facebook app is taking Twitter’s instructions more seriously than Twitter is. It’s assuming that users are actually answering that question, in which case the “is” would make sense.

    Which, would seem to suggest that the creators of the app are in a Twitter network where the users do respond to the actual question or they don’t fully understand how Twitter is being used.

    Which is, of course, also interesting.

  6. Simple solution. Configuration file so you can choose your word for stitching together non standard stuff. (for those who have too much time on their hands ;-) Perhaps Jon can use ‘evangelizes’.

  7. To do anything truly worth doing, I must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in with gusto and scramble through as well as I can.

  8. what is good for one social network may be not so good for the other.
    twitter and facebook do have different functions.
    and by the way i update my GMail chat status using an ‘is’ too

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