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Quoting Twitter in Academic Works

[Updated 15 July 2013]

The Purdue OWL’s summary of the MLA style quotation rules now also lists tweets. On their website, they say the following:

A Tweet

MLA posted guidelines on their website for how to cite a tweet on a Works Cited page. Begin with the user’s name (Last Name, First Name) followed by his/her Twitter user name in parentheses. Insert a period outside the parentheses. Next, place the tweet in its entirety in quotations, inserting a period after the tweet within the quotations. Include the date and time of posting, using the reader’s time zone; separate the date and time with a comma and end with a period. Include the word “Tweet” afterwards and end with a period.

Brokaw, Tom (tombrokaw). “SC demonstrated why all the debates are the engines of this campaign.” 22 Jan. 2012, 3:06 a.m. Tweet.

Purdue Writing Lab (PurdueWLab). “Spring break is around the corner, and all our locations will be open next week.” 5 Mar. 2012, 12:58 p.m. Tweet.

As has been customary with MLA style for some years now, they omit the URL. There is an argument for doing this (URLs change, become obsolete, web pages disappear), but still, in a paper in one of my courses, I will tell my students to include the URL as well. In a school context, the time span required to write a “Facharbeit” or a presentation is not too long, and most of the URLs will still be valid when I get that text to read.

So, in my classes the first example above would read:

Brokaw, Tom (tombrokaw). “SC demonstrated why all the debates are the engines of this campaign.” 22 Jan. 2012, 3:06 a.m. Tweet.
15 Jul. 2013. <>.

I’ll leave the previous post below for historical purposes.

[Updated 29 Aug. 2010 - thank you, Matthias, for your constructive comment!]

Maybe there haven’t been many reasons so far why somebody would like to quote a Twitter posting in an academic paper. However, it seems to me that the importance of Twitter as a source of intelligent content is growing, if only slowly. So if somebody wants to quote a “tweet” – what should she do?

Ever since my days at university (some decades ago), I’ve adhered to the documentation standards of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The most important rules are explained at the excellent site of the Purdue Online Writing Lab, run by Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana (USA). The relevant page in this context is this:

MLA Works Cited: Electronic Sources (Web Publications)

They don’t list Twitter explicitly yet (as an example, say), but the guidelines for web postings in general show how to go about it:

Cite Web postings as you would a standard Web entry. Provide the author of the work, the title of the posting in quotation marks, the Web site name in italics, the publisher, and the posting date. Follow with the medium of publication and the date of access. Include screen names as author names when author name is not known. If both names are known, place the author’s name in brackets. Remember if the publisher of the site is unknown, use the abbreviation n.p.

As an example, I’ll quote one of my own tweets. The bibliographical data should enable potential readers to identify what Twitter posting I refer to. Since tweets don’t have a title as such, it would be difficult to put it in quotation marks, so, instead, I give the date and time when it was posted.

Vilsrip. Posting at 11:23 AM 25 Aug. 2010. Twitter. Twitter, Inc., San Francisco. 25 Aug. 2010, 11:23. Web.
29 Aug. 2010 <>.

The above example is supposed to be part of a bibliography (a.k.a. Works Cited). You could leave out the URL, but I always like it included. Twitter makes it easy to use an unambiguous URL for the individual tweet (called “status” in Twitter terminology); it can be retrieved by accessing the Twitter user’s “profile” and right-clicking on the time and date provided at the bottom of the respective tweet (choose ‘copy link address’ from the context menu). In case it is a very recent tweet, it is advisable to wait until it is more than 24 hours old, because before then, Twitter gives you only “about 2 hours ago” or “about 21 hours ago” instead of the precise time and date.

In the text body of the paper (or book), this would look different, of course. If you quote a Twitter posting in text form, it ought to be followed by parenthetical documentation, like this: (Vilsrip, 25 Aug. 2010, 11:23). If you use screenshots, though, you could have them include the author and date line, and that – in my opinion – should be enough; a screenshot of your own timeline shows the author plus time and date, whereas a screenshot of an individual tweet (status) only contains time and date, so that the author’s name has to be given in your text.

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