Last week there was a flurry of blogs and a twittering of tweets about some new guidance from the Modern Language Association (of America) on How Do I Cite a Tweet?

The nub of their advice is that

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.

You may recognise this as Sohaib’s tweet on May 1st last year when he heard the helicopters that were landing beside Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, it will continue to be a much cited tweet. This is all very well as instructions as to how authors of academic papers should quote tweets. But its pretty useless as guidance as to how authors of papers should cite tweets that have been quoted. The notable point about the MLA advice on how you should quote a tweet is that you should quote it in its entirety, the MLA is counselling that one should not ‘selectively quote’ from tweets. Since tweets are at most 140 characters long that is good advice, and tweets are perhaps the only ‘works’ which a paper or book should always and only quote in their entirety. But as advice on how to build a useful bibliography or how to reliably find tweets, the MLA guidance is useless and curiously backward looking. All bibliographies and scholarly works now have digital uses, and any systematic way of referring or citing tweets simply has to use the url which will help the user to find the tweet with one click:

In the case of Sohaib Athar’s tweet that should be this url:


which leads to this:!/ReallyVirtual/status/64780730286358528

The MLA style should be supplemented by the requirement that any bibliographic record should include a direct link to the url if possible. A citation is a link, and a link should be provided, along with any canonical description of the source.

The MLA has produced some advice for people who might want to look at books or papers in this day and age without actually using them. If you intend to use a bibliography now and you are working in a library or a university you may wish to click on the bibliographic item and go to the target in question. This is an important point with Twitter because many tweets now contain multiple indirect references which are quite opaque unless we are able to instantly click through to the target. And by the same token the citation should really give Sohaib Athar’s twitter persona its full handle so you can click through from the record. The “@” matters if you are interest in the source of the quote extends to actually looking at the ‘identity’ and context of “@ReallyVirtual“. Quoting a tweet and providing a bibliographic descriptions of a tweet without providing the means to inspect it in context, is singularly pointless. All the links and indirect references in a tweet should be as vivid and as clickable as possible in any bibliographic records that purport to be useful. Citing a tweet is a matter of giving a reference to the source in such a way that the source can be consulted with maximum ease and confidence of locating the item in question. The MLA appears to be acting as though its sole objective in producing a Handbook was to produce perfectly formatted typescript, as though it were sufficient to describe a work competently without actually citing it.