Top tweeters find influence in aphorisms

With millions of followers, today’s best tweeters are increasingly powerful cultural figures. Much of their appeal lies in wit and cleverness – but is this really the best form of expression?

Since it was founded in 2006, Twitter has become one of the biggest media forces in the world. Over 500 million users generate thousands of tweets each second. Popular tweeters, with more readers than most newspapers, can be hugely powerful.

Now, one company is measuring that power. The finely-tuned ‘Klout’ ranking system gives Twitter users a numerical score, from one to 100. High-ranking tweeters, with thousands or millions of followers, get the top scores. They are enormously influential. Their voices can alter the shape of public debate, make or break the careers of new stars, or even open the door to a dream job.

On Twitter, normal people could have a slice of this kind of power. At any time of the day or night, millions are interacting on the social network. By using hashtags about important news and events, anyone can take part in a global conversation, with a huge audience. One person’s observations could be read by millions – if their tweets are good enough.

And on Twitter, one type of writing trumps all others: the aphorism.

These short, memorable nuggets of wit and wisdom have been around for centuries. Writers like Oscar Wilde and American journalist Dorothy Parker built their careers on such witty sayings. Both were fantastic at elegantly packing meaning into just a few clever words.

Towards the end of the 20th Century, the great age of the aphorism faded away. But today, thanks to the demands of Twitter’s strict 140 character limit for each tweet, the aphorism is back – and in a big way.

Clever pearls of wisdom get ‘retweeted’ (quoted) by users; those who use their limited words in especially funny and insightful ways attract followers, who read all their tweets. People like Caitlin Moran and Stephen Fry, who come up with clever aphorisms many times a day, have hundreds of thousands of followers.

Like the salons of 18th Century France, where the brightest minds gathered for quickfire debate, Twitter has become an arena for people to exhibit their verbal skill. And just like the intellectual hubs of centuries ago, the sharpest wits are often the most influential voices.

Soul of Twit

Some people think this is worrying. Twitter’s clever aphorisms, they say, are superficial and attention seeking: they might provoke a fleeting chuckle, but rarely express anything meaningful. The influence of tweeters is built on fluff and flourishes.

Others believe the power of aphorism is what makes Twitter so attractive. The banter between good tweeters is the best kind of conversation: funny, clever and a lot of fun. Now, anyone can take part in that repartee – and benefit from all the learning and entertainment of great wit.

You Decide

  1. Can you say anything true and useful in 140 characters?
  2. Has Twitter had a positive impact on public knowledge and debate?


  1. Try to write your own funny comment about the news in 140 characters or less.
  2. In small groups, discuss your favourite aphorisms – and why they are meaningful to you. Create an illustrated display of the best.

Some People Say...

“Tweeting is for twits.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So does Twitter discourages people from making informed decisions?
Some people think so. Scientist Susan Greenfield claims Twitter turns users into ‘small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights’. Many scientists have heavily criticised the fact that she has failed to show proper scientific evidence for her claims – but she continues to be an influential voice.
How does it affect me in other ways?
Neuroscientists are most concerned about the impact multitasking has on our brains. Platforms like Twitter add more distractions to daily life. Whether watching TV, reading the news or socialising, most people are connected to devices that provide an alternative source of entertainment. Scientists think that might have a negative effect on how well they perform tasks.

Word Watch

The # symbol is an integral part of how Twitter works. Initially, it was proposed as a way of identifying groups, but in time began pointing users to certain topics or discussions. Hashtags might refer to ongoing discussions on particular interests – #humanrights or #bieber – current events or TV shows, like #BBCqt or #Syria, or humorous challenges.
Klout collects data from social networks to measure the influence of different users. It calculates an individual’s ‘klout’ by gauging the number of followers of friends they have, the kind of content they produce and – importantly – how other people engage with that content. Someone with a score of one would have little influence, while a score of 100 is akin to Justin Bieber.
Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker was an American writer. She rose to prominence as a well-known wit when writing for magazines like New Yorker, and later became an established screenwriter.
In 17th and 18th Century France, salons were hubs of learning and debate. Conversation and education were central to their purpose, and they attracted leading intellectuals, who discussed ideas according to a strict code of etiquette.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.