There is a convention for citing a tweet in an academic paper?

I guess there is now.

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.

Setting aside the whole issue of why you would want to cite a tweet, this is not a well thought-out format. It assumes way too much: it ignores other potential microblogging media, like Mastodon, and assumes that there is only one such service, Twitter, and that the username is sufficient to identify the source. As the article I lined to mentions, there ought to at least be a URL associated with the citation — otherwise, you have to go to the service and search to find that specific set of words. And Twitter search is terrible.

Oh, well, there’s an easy way around this limitation: don’t dignify Twitter with formal citations.


  1. ali says

    Is it only 2012? I am so relieved. You have no idea what a nightmare I had. I was stuck in a timeline where in 2018 Trump was President and lots of other crazy stuff was happening.

    (I guess you missed the date of the article.)

  2. cartomancer says

    It might be possible to ignore the medium if you’re a scientist, but, sadly, political scientists, social analysts and very modern historians will no doubt have to refer to online postings in their assessments of the current world situation. I can well imagine that an historian of the ongoing US Middle East invasion would find tweets like that one in the example to be a valuable source of information with which to interrogate and contextualise official documents and pronouncements. I am put in mind of the utility which ancient historians find in inscriptions and graffiti.

    I’m skeptical of the utility of any kind of citation system for such ephemeral, online-only material though, particularly given that it might not be there at all in 20 years’ time. As such, I propose that any tweets or postings of note be recorded for posterity, with screen captures and details of the find spot, much as Latin, Greek and other ancient inscriptions (the tweets of the pre-digital age) are already recorded in volumes such as the corpus inscriptionum latinarum, corpus inscriptionum medii aevi, etc.

  3. Matrim says

    I can think of plenty of reasons why you would want to cite a Tweet, particularly in fields like political science or law. But I agree, they should make the format more generalized to work with other platforms.

  4. says

    Definitely, historians will be citing tweets. However, I don’t know that they will be cited in bibliographies or need a formal style. I would think it would just be described in the text, with whatever information the reader needs to understand the context and significance.

  5. Andrew Hollandbeck says

    In many ways, the convention is really only there to impose consistency on citations. As the others have said, quoting social media posts can’t be avoided in some disciplines, and academic rigor requires citing the source of your quotes and data. But the MLA apparently hasn’t given this enough thought or fleshed it out completely.

    If you can get away with it, forget MLA’s style for this and switch to the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. Section 14.209 covers the full citation, and 15.52 covers author-date in-text citations. It agrees with PZ Myers, too, and includes real name, screen name, and a URL.

  6. stwriley says

    I don’t have a problem with people citing tweets, given that they do have applicability to many fields as other have already pointed out. How those tweets are being cited in this example, though, is another question. It’s a silly format, especially given that we already have fairly standard ways of citing electronic materials like web pages that could be easily applied. As PZ points out, the critical part of any citation of electronic material is the URL, which leads directly to the material cited. Repeating the entire tweet is just silly and substituting this for the URL makes the whole thing much less useful. Quoting the text of the tweet is what you’re supposed to be doing in the work, not the citations. The caveat about the time and date is also silly. We already use both creation date and access date for citing a web page and the same should logically apply to a tweet (and if you go to the tweeter’s page you most definitely can find the correct time and date that they posted the tweet.) Finally, there’s the idiocy of tagging “Tweet” onto the end of the citation. What should appear there is the name of the host of the particular post, i.e. Twitter. You’re simply using it the same as you would the name of the publisher of a print or electronic publication, since that’s roughly the same relationship involved. This means that you can cite similar kinds of posts (i.e., Mastodon) the same way. It’s a case of applying the rules we already have (and had in 2012) rather than making up a new citation format when it isn’t really needed.

  7. Dunc says

    the critical part of any citation of electronic material is the URL, which leads directly to the material cited

    Lol. Yeah, sure it does… URLs never change. It’s definitely not that case that the internet is a giant mass of rotting, broken links to things that no longer exist at their original URLs. Absolutely. I certainly haven’t spent days trying to track down long-lost blog postings or technical documentation that supposedly tells me how to resolve whatever issue I’m currently struggling with, only to eventually conclude that they’ve been lost forever in the mists of ancient history – by which I mean a whole couple of years ago.

    I’m with cartomancer here: if you want to reference ephemeral materials (which includes absolutely everything on the internet), then you need to preserve them somewhere first. And I don’t mean

  8. jamiejag says

    I think the part in the convention about

    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 (TweetTwitter).

    covers most of the concerns posted so far. It’s a simple matter to refer to Mastadon or any other service as the medium of production and broken URLs are less worrisome if the entire text of the tweet (or toot) is also captured in the citation.

  9. says

    Tweets as well as other micro blogging formats are ephemeral sources, but anything you find on the internet today can be gone tomorrow. It can also get edited, without leaving any trace of the original text (unless you rely on the Wayback Machine). And URLs do change. (Did you know all of the URLs in the emailed updates from Freethought Blogs are broken? They didn’t use to be.)

    For a while a bit I wrote got cited, and when that website moved to a new site the old links no longer worked, but the piece was still getting cited, and then the new site went dark and they started citing various shadow sites that had scraped the original site (“our business model is to steal content and sell ads”), but the newer citations never got updated either, of course. All that over the space of less than two decades.

  10. says

    Setting aside the whole issue of why you would want to cite a tweet, this is not a well thought-out format.

    PZ, have you considered that people aren’t quoting tweets because they’re well thought-out formats, but because maybe they#re studying social media or are using tweets as examples of a particular kind of behaviour or discourse?
    I once wrote a paper on biases against different varieties of English as shown on Twitter.
    This had some advantages, like having easily accessible sources and having a very broad data base.

  11. says

    Giliell @#10

    Setting aside the whole issue of why you would want to cite a tweet, this is not a well thought-out format.

    PZ, have you considered that people aren’t quoting tweets because they’re well thought-out formats…

    Pretty sure he was referring to the citation format there, not Twitter itself.

  12. alanuk says

    This does show up the stupid US time zone system. It has no reference point, such as the Greenwich Meridian. Thus this comment shows NOW as ‘August 8, 2018 at 6:37 pm’ but where? NOW is the same instant everywhere on the globe, so why not just use UTC on the Internet?

  13. Dunc says

    why not just use UTC on the Internet?

    Or the perfectly good ISO 8601 date / time format with timezone information…

  14. blf says

    On UTC and ISO-format: This is a reoccurring annoyance. Two fairly recent examples, both from my last job.

    The company had servers worldwide, albeit as a user, I wasn’t always too sure just where the server was located. So when there would be an announcement like “service X will be down for maintenance from 9:30am to 12 noon tomorrow”, that was next-to-useless without knowing the timezone(or similar). I complained repeatedly about that, suggesting that whilst it’s Ok to use the local time (for obvious reasons), you should also always provide the UTC equivalent — because there are users outside the States, “most” of whom know how to convert UTC to their own local time, and thus could then “translate” the very useful notices into something appropriate. My complaints were sometimes taken on board, but not uniformly, and as far as I could tell, there was no department / division / company policy.

    In the other case, there was a company policy: Manuals shall use the States date format MM/DD/YY. That’s sort-of OK, except very few manuals indicated that was the format being used (leading to potential ambiguity), and then even if you knew that but are not accustomed to the format, mistakes still happen (with the two-digit year not helping in the slightest). I suggested — using a formal process — the ISO YYYY-MM-DD format, pointing out the company liked to claim compliance with International standards. I got a reply (a feature of the formal process) saying that whilst a good idea and it would have sensible to do that, there were now so many existing manuals it would be prohibitively time-consuming and costly to change them. Which annoyed the feck out of me, since what I suggested was that all new manuals, and existing manuals as-and-when they are revised, use ISO-format; nothing about going through the existing material and changing it without any other reason.

  15. blf says

    As an aside, for reference, this comment says it is at about 6:48am, implying Eastern time (New York time) is being shown by FtB.

  16. snuffcurry says

    Giliell @13

    While you#re right about the well thought out, PZ does question why anybody would want to cite a tweet in general.

    Which, as you say, is ridiculously blinkered. I understand a very brief fogey-ish knee-jerk against the platform, but lard almighty, PZ, twitter can be a force for good (see Black Twitter, quality informative threads and noodling that don’t start with “time for some game theory,” #MeToo, flash mob organization, documenting state violence, et al) and when it’s not, it’s still of value for the sake of research and record, which is why screen-capping goons before they delete their ill-advised tweets remains a hobby and (figuratively) a full-time job for many. And, yeah, it’s also good for a goof, a great way to meet people from around the globe, like all social media, good for aggregating news items, and it hosts a lot of kick-ass fictional and non-fictional writing from marginalized people who’d otherwise get lost in the aether. Leisure time also has value, dude.

    Is your memory so hazy that you don’t remember similar scorn heaped on the medium we’re occupying at present? Don’t “dignify” that? How about don’t dismiss what you don’t fully understand or personally value.