Twitter and Compression of Meaning

An interesting and often-mocked technical limitation of Twitter is the 140-character limit.  The semantics of the buzzword “microblog” aside, I notice in my own Tweets that the strict requirement for very short messages has improved my writing.

(Let me note, before going any further, that I am not an abbreviations kind of guy. I virtually always write complete words and sentences using proper grammar, syntax, and punctuation.  Though I do use emoticons from time to time, I limit myself to a standard subset of smiley-, frowny-, and winky-faces, with the occasional raised or angry eyebrow thrown in – basically anything I can make with a colon, a dash, greater-than, less-than, and the parenthesis.  I cringe when reading things like, “c u 2nite” or “lol” or “<_<”.  Perhaps that makes me an angry old man; if so, that is a mantle I will wear.)

When tweeting large thoughts, I find myself editing the message to fit within the allotted space while maintaining the same meaning.  The need to transmit the same semantics in a smaller space requires wielding more powerful language: stronger verbs, more-nuanced adjectives and adverbs, and better-placed punctuation and pronouns.  Squeezing the same content into less space is the very definition of data compression; so, in a very real sense, this is data compression for people.  What once might have rambled on for an entire paragraph now takes one or two concise sentences.

Users get more bang for their buck when reading a tweet.  Coupled with the instantaneous and ubiquitous accessibility of these meaning-laden tweets, it’s obvious why Twitter has taken off.

Like most compression, though, there is a tradeoff between space and time.  Though I have not measured, I have a strong sense that the ratio of time-editing-per-character is higher on Twitter than on any other medium I use.  On the receiving side, the message might take longer to comprehend, especially if the vocabulary is unfamiliar to the recipient.

And some messages, like some data, will simply never fit into the allotted space.  That’s why I still have a blog.