Scholarship, Twitter, and the MLA

The Modern Language Association, known to college students throughout the land for its MLA Handbook, has a style guide for citing a tweet. I saw this article about it at The Atlantic over the weekend and promptly forgot about it until today, when Ricky Mondello (@rmondello) retweeted a link to a similar story by NPR.

The recommended citation style is described as follows:

Begin the entry in the works-cited list with the author’s real name and, in parentheses, user name, if both are known and they differ. If only the user name is known, give it alone.

Next provide the entire text of the tweet in quotation marks, without changing the capitalization. Conclude the entry with the date and time of the message and the medium of publication (Tweet). For example:

Athar, Sohaib (ReallyVirtual). “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” 1 May 2011, 3:58 p.m. Tweet.

The date and time of a message on Twitter reflect the reader’s time zone. Readers in different time zones see different times and, possibly, dates on the same tweet. The date and time that were in effect for the writer of the tweet when it was transmitted are normally not known. Thus, the date and time displayed on Twitter are only approximate guides to the timing of a tweet. However, they allow a researcher to precisely compare the timing of tweets as long as the tweets are all read in a single time zone.

Two things are apparent from this advice:

  1. The MLA doesn’t understand Twitter.
  2. The MLA doesn’t understand time zones.

Let’s start with the second one. I don’t really believe the MLA doesn’t understand time zones, but you’d be hard pressed to prove it from this. They clearly recognize the ambiguity inherent in providing the tweet’s time in the time zone of the citer—a time zone unknown to most people who read the citation—but don’t provide either of the obvious solutions: use UTC in the citation or include the time zone along with the time.

Because the example is a pretty famous tweet, we know its time and date: 0:58 PKT on May 2, 2011 (PKT is the local time in Abbottabad, Pakistan), or 19:58 UTC on May 1, 2011.

Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
  — Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) Sun May 1 2011

It’s true that Twitter displays the time and date in the viewer’s time zone without explicitly noting the time zone (as you can see for yourself), but the citer isn’t forced to follow that format. If the time is important enough to include, it’s important enough to include unambiguously.

The first problem, though, is the more important one. The purpose of citation is to show the antecedents of your work.1 And not just to show them—they must be shown in a way that allows others to look them up and check whether you’re quoting or using the references properly. The information in an MLA tweet citation doesn’t provide enough information for a researcher to find the tweet being cited.

This is at least as much Twitter’s fault as it is the MLA’s. In an ideal world, one would be able to search for tweets on the basis of user and time. But Twitter’s search doesn’t work that way, and even if it did Twitter doesn’t return search results older than a few days.

With Twitter built the way it is, the only sure way to allow others to find the tweet you’re quoting is to provide the tweet’s ID number. This is a unique number for every tweet ever posted. Combining it and the handle of the tweeter2 in a URL like this

will take you directly to the tweet in question.

My suggestion, then, is to modify the MLA recommendation to this:

Athar, Sohaib (@ReallyVirtual). “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” 1 May 2011, 19:58 UTC. Twitter 64780730286358528.

In addition to the time zone and tweet ID, I’ve included the @ symbol in the username. I know the @ isn’t part of the username, but it’s so commonly used that it says “Twitter” to most people. Readers will know this is a cited tweet well before they get to the word near the end. This is a citation a researcher can use.

Update 3/6/12
Carl’s comment below got me thinking about the word “Tweet” in the MLA style, and I’ve decided “Twitter” is better. My reasoning is given in my response to Carl.

  1. Unless you’re Ann Coulter, in which case the purpose of citation is to get your credulous admirers to think you’re some sort of scholar. If that’s the case, having readers unable to look up your references is feature, not a bug. 

  2. If you’re willing to use the Twitter API’s statuses/show call, you don’t need the user’s handle.