All Atwitter About Twitter

When everybody has an opinion about something, I usually find a way to remain noncommittal. Paper or plastic, white rice or brown rice, early Woody Allen movies or his later work — I can go either way.

But Twitter. Twitter has everybody talking, and most of the talk seems to be about Twitter itself. Twitter invites users to document their lives with small shreds of updates which are then shared with anyone else who wishes to follow them.

As the devices we use to access the Internet have been shrinking, so too have the size of the messages. Twitter limits each post to 140 characters, so people using their cell phones to log on don’t find themselves contemplating how to begin the Great American Novel when they fire off a missive.

Critics claim Twitter is proof positive that attention spans are shrinking so quickly that complexity of thought cannot survive. They complain it propagates the mundane so well that any nuggets of gold will be lost in its sea of dross.

Twitter calls itself a microblogging service, free to anyone with a computer or cell phone. Critics call Twitter an early sign of the apocalypse. If there’s middle ground between these two opinions, I haven’t seen it.

Me, I like Twitter, because of its limitations. Begin with the number: 140. It’s a marvelously human number. For 30 years, most of the numbers we’ve seen attached to computers came from the computers. 128 is a binary number, two to the seventh power.  144 is likewise a number’s number — twelve squared. After a full generation of being told by the computer how much it can do, we’re finally telling the computer how much is enough. 140=7x5x4. Those numbers read like a handful of people divulging what were their favorite numbers in kindergarten. It’s arbitrary. Capricious. Human.

Hooray.

Limits enhance creativity more than they curb it. Brevity is the soul of wit. Less is more. Computers brought complexity into our lives, allowing us to do things that could not otherwise be done by humans. As capacities grew, so did the complexity of the tasks we tackled with silicon assistance. But elegance was lost in the bargain.

We all cringe when we get e-mail “updates” from somebody who goes on and on, wasting our time with the most banal details. These people have always done this, but it used to be once a year at Christmas, limited to two sides of a single sheet and allowing room for clip-art wreaths and candy canes.

New York Times columnist Russell Baker bemoaned the introduction of the word processor to the newsroom, because writing had become so effortless that there was no physical reward for ending early. The bell of a typewriter calling for a carriage return forced the writer to maintain a connection to the real world, or face real consequences. The bottom of the page arrived without even a bell, unless you were Kerouac typing on a continuous role of paper.

Our own Jack Wilson, editorial page editor of The Register-Guard, pointed out to me years ago that the “delete” button on word processors changed writing dramatically, because altering a sentence became too easy. Back in the days of Correct-o-type or liquid paper, you didn’t begin typing a sentence until you knew how you were going to end it. That dastardly “delete” button made Kerouacs of us all, but without the talent or the torture.

Stream of consciousness has had its day. Storycrafting is making a comeback and Twitter can be thanked for doing its part. Twitter does everything but ring a mechanical bell when you’ve reached the limit of 140 characters. If your thought is not quite complete, you have no choice but to tighten it up to make room for what didn’t fit. That “delete” button is finally becoming as useful as it is easy. Twitter forces consideration that what your overlong post may lack is clarity of thought.

You can cheat, but only by being clever with abbreviations. You can’t enter a cheat code that gives you secret powers to exceed the limit. The limit stands. Honeywell meets haiku.

As publishing paradigms convulse, who will ask if a thot can be expressed with fewer words? For the next little while, maybe Twitter. Kudos.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes for The Register-Guard each Friday, blogs here and can be followed at www.twitter.com/dksez. For the record, the final paragraph of this week’s column (with “thought” misspelled) took exactly 140 characters.