Speaking in Tweets

A recent study by two computer scientists from the University of the Phllippines finds that the length of tweets on twitter declined markedly from 2009 to 2012. From eight words to five. Of course, tweets are limited to 140 characters and there are still many tweets that are close to that length as well, but the decline in the average length is remarkable.

This decline is explained in part in the study by a growing use of jargon, indicating that twitter may be coalescing around discrete groups of people who understand a particular kind of jargon.

But there are other possible explanations. It could be that we are just getting more efficient in using twitter, learning how to communicate in shorter sentences. Or learning how to make best use of links to lengthier expositions.

Another interesting question is whether the use of technology to communicate is having a more general impact on our methods of communication in modern society. It makes sense when you look at the more common means of communication – texting, email, Facebook and other similar social media.

Certainly texting is meant for short snappy messages, often using shortened versions of words (eg – ty for thank you.) Even email, which may be the modern version of Proustian verbiage, tends to be quite concise, largely because people continue to grow increasingly impatient with long passages of writing, whatever the form.The finger often hovers close to the delete button.

These trends are wreaking havoc in the world of grammar and composition. Even the words twitter and tweet have made it into the Oxford Concise Dictionary (Who reads the non-concise version any more?).

The trend raises the obvious question of whether this is good or bad. Of course, that’s a value judgement, but nevertheless a few observations seem relevant.

First, writers have stressed for the past century the merits of brevity and precision in writing. The master was Hemingway, who won the Nobel prize for his ability to condense the universal human experience into a few short sentences. And Alice Munro, who in awarding her the Nobel prize last week, was referred to by the committee as the “Master of the Short Story”. There’s something timely about that.

Clear, concise writing also requires discipline, which attribute has become less common in our society. Perhaps technology is sneaking some of it in through the back door.

Some things seem certain. Our modes of communication with each other have changed drastically, and probably permanently. Our languages are changing – as they always have – but perhaps more quickly than they have before. People will continue to think of new and more efficient ways to convey their thoughts and ideas, particularly as the technology of communications changes. TY. TWMA. 🙂