If you were to reply to an email message, it’s generally acceptable practice to respond at your convenience, as you are able, or at the very least during the same business day. Email is not instant messaging after all. It’s like an exchange of letters. You send a message and you expect your correspondent to write you an answer in a similar fashion. Maybe the recipient needs to better digest the contents of your email. Maybe he’s researching and studying how to best respond.
Instant messaging, on the other hand, is different. It’s like a phone call–you expect the person you’re chatting with to answer as soon as you hit the “send” button. If we further compare to other modes of online communication, blogs handle it differently, because you write a message meant to be read, but you don’t exactly expect the reader to respond.
In a way, Twitter features these different characteristics from email, IM and blogging–of course, in 140 characters or less. You can write a tweet meant for consumption by the general public. You can write a direct message or a @reply directed at someone. And you can even have these exchanges of @replies on an instant basis, like being in a public chatroom where people can listen in.
Just this evening, after reviewing the day’s tweets by my contacts, I sent replies to a few. When I looked at the timestamps of the original messages, most were posted about 30 minutes to about an hour prior. But one of the tweets I replied to was already six hours old. In that case, was my @reply already too late? Was the original tweet stale already? What was the point of replying to an old tweet when twitter posts were supposed to be about “what [you are] doing right now?”
It’s like your neighbor asking you about the weather in the morning, and you get back to him later that evening that it’s a lovely moonlit evening, without a cloud in the sky. Where’d the rest of the day go?
In a way, Tweets are like blog posts, as they have time stamps and permalinks. And they’re sticky. Once you post a tweet, it’s public record and is searchable (unless you delete it), and so users looking for relevant material on the search engines or even Twitter’s own #search feature can chance upon your tweet, no matter how old it is. And whenever someone posts a reply, Twitter does have a record of which particular post that @reply was directed towards, and even links to the original tweet in the “this post was in reply to …”
Still, not all Twitter clients cite the tweet being referenced. And so sometimes the context is lost.
How long after a tweet should you reply? In the Twitterverse, what is considered fresh? How old is considered old?
I think for me, it’s reasonable to publicly reply to a tweet that’s at most one hour old. Otherwise, I insert a few keywords from the original tweet just to make sure the recipient and everyone else listening in would not be lost.