Tuned In

Go Ahead, Quote My Tweet

A movie studio was wrong to silently edit a reviewer's tweet for an ad. But quoting writers' Twitter work is fair game.

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Movie critics are used to being blurbed in ads, but not like this. New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott opened the newspaper he writes for Saturday to find a full-page ad for the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, almost all white space except for a tweet Scott wrote. Or, rather, part of the tweet. Here’s the original:

The ad left out the first sentence mentioning competing films. Apparently this was not a complete surprise to Scott, who told the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan that CBS Films contacted him for permission to truncate and use the tweet. He said no; they did it anyway.

Did CBS Films do something wrong here? Yes. And no.

Yes, because the studio formatted the ad to make it appear like it was reprinting Scott’s complete tweet, unedited. It appeared exactly as a full tweet would on Twitter. Obviously reviews get excerpted all the time for ads, but this isn’t like pulling a sentence from a review. It’s more like taking a full review, removing the paragraphs that don’t serve your business purposes, and formatting it to look like a complete, unedited newspaper clip. (On Twitter, when you edit a quoted Tweet for space, etiquette says to use “MT,” for “modified tweet.”)

Now this wasn’t exactly like changing “If you’ve swallowed poison and need to induce vomiting, this is the perfect movie” to “THIS IS THE PERFECT MOVIE!” Scott wrote what he wrote, and is on record putting Llewyn Davis atop his best-of-2013 list. But the edit changes the tweet’s context, tone, and meaning. The original says that listening to the soundtrack beats listening to an endless argument over movies; the edit sounds like an unbidden gush of love for the soundtrack. (It appears the studio wanted to cut the opening sentence because of rules against slagging awards competitors. Too bad; that doesn’t excuse editing it invisibly.) There have been more deceptive review-ad edits, but this is a lousy precedent to set.

(Not to mention, why ask someone for permission to do anything if you’re going to ignore them? Etiquette aside, as Matthew Ingram pointed out, reprinting a tweet for advertising purposes without consent of the tweeter may violate Twitter’s Terms of Service.)

But Scott also told CBS Films, in an e-mail he shared with Sullivan, “I’d prefer though that my tweets not be used in advertisements. That seems like a slippery slope and contrary to the ad hoc and informal nature of the medium.”

That’s where I disagree. It feels weird, yeah, as new things often do. But we’re well past the point where we can consider public, unprotected tweets–especially those by professional writers–to be protected from wider sharing. Tweets can be news; hell, Anthony Weiner lost his Congressional seat over one, and it was meant to be private. Quoting public tweets–from public figures and private individuals–is an accepted part of journalism now. (Not always great journalism–see, e.g., “Celebrities React to World Icon’s Death on Twitter” stories–but journalism nonetheless.)

I empathize with Scott. As a TV critic, I’ve had advertisers blurb quotes of mine in ways I didn’t want them to. If I saw what I’d considered an off-hand remark blown up onto a full sheet of newsprint I’d probably be mortified. But like Scott, I write for a living and have 30,000-odd followers on a public Twitter account. Twitter is conversational and intimate and I love that–but when I tweet something, I’m not having a private bull session with a few pals. Maybe having to remember that will stifle some writers online, but it’s maybe not the worst thing for any of us to keep in mind.

Which is not to say that a tweet is just like an article is just like a book. No medium is just like any medium. Tweets are usually more provisional, more from-the-gut, less considered and polished than labored-over reviews. And if you see a tweet quoted as a tweet, you’re free to take that into consideration.

But certain principles cut across media: that quotes shouldn’t be deceptive, but also that public writing is fair game to quote. Twitter is actual writing; it’s an important communication medium, and it deserves to be treated like it. Even, like it or not, by the people selling stuff.