By Chris Wilson and Olivier Knox
Like a mouthy sidekick echoing his boss's one-liners from over his shoulder, the White House Twitter feed frequently tweets lines from President Obama's speeches as he delivers them. During a 59-minute speech the president delivered two weeks ago at National Defense University, the account posted 22 individual sentences. Most people tweet from their laptops or smartphones. Barack Obama tweets directly from his mouth.
To be a human Twitter account, one must speak in phrases of 140 characters or fewer. In his speech two weeks ago, on the sobering subject of drone warfare and targeted assassinations, 71 percent of the president's sentences clocked in under this marker. The president's 2013 State of the Union address weighed in at 72 percent tweetable. In his commencement address to Morehouse College in mid-May, that figure was 82 percent.
Brevity was not invented in an underground lab at Twitter, Inc. (That lab is actually above ground.) But the explosive impact of Twitter—a story that coincides almost exactly with Obama's presidency—has tended to reward styles of communication that fit neatly into the space limit. After noticing how aggressively the main White House account was retweeting the president's drone speech, we got curious as to whether the president's speechwriters were actually crafting his speeches to fit in Twitter-friendly increments.
The following interactive measures the "tweetability" of several dozen of the president's biggest speeches since assuming office. Since most social media experts (loathsome creatures that they are) advise that one keep tweets under 120 characters or so for maximum retweetability, this interactive allows users to adjust the cutoff point for when a sentence is considered tweetable.
(You can also measure the "tweetability" of your own text by clicking "My Text" at the bottom of the widget and pasting anything you like into the text box. Yahoo does not record what you enter.)
Even when the White House does not tweet a sentence, there is ample evidence that those following the speech are willing to live tweet their favorite lines—providing there's enough space. When Obama stated that "we must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us," it did not appear on the @WhiteHouse account. But it does show up about 20 times on a Twitter search.
It is not clear that the president's speeches are intentionally being crafted for Twitter, since one needn't make every single line tweetable in order to have an impact. It is unquestionably true that the high "tweetability" of Obama's public statements and speeches contribute directly to his influence on Twitter. Of the 50 major speeches Yahoo news analyzed, in every case at least half of the lines were under 120 characters.
Curiously, however—and this undermines the case for Twitter's influence—the second inaugural address scored lowest with 53 percent tweetability.
But there is a clear precedent for this sort of adaptation. A 1990 study from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy mournfully noted that the average sound bite from presidential candidates on the evening news had fallen from 42.3 seconds in 1968 and to 9.8 seconds in 1988. "What becomes of democracy when political discourse is reduced to sound-bites, one-liners, and potent visuals?" author Kiku Adatto asked, flexing her finger-wagging muscles.
What tweets lacks in wavelength, however, they make up in frequency. One can easily follow a major presidential speech just by following Twitter, and reconstruct the essential points quite easily. At least all the short ones.
Questions about methodology? firstname.lastname@example.org.