As the velocity of communication approaches realtime, language compresses.
Think about it. When people originally started talking about Twitter, the first thing they’d always mention was the 140-character limit that the service imposes on tweets. So short! Who can say anything in 140 lousy characters? Crazy!
And it’s true that when a person who is used to longer forms of writing starts emitting tweets, keeping to just 140 characters can be a challenge. You actually have to think a bit about how to squeeze your thoughts to fit the format. It doesn’t take long, though, for a twitterer to adapt to the new medium, and once you’re fully adapted something funny happens. The sense that 140 characters is a constraint not only disappears, but 140 characters starts to seem, well, long. Your own tweets shrink, and it becomes kind of annoying when somebody actually uses the full 140 characters. Jeez, I’m going to skip that tweet. It’s too long.
The same thing has happened, of course, with texting. Who sends a 160-character text? A 160-character text would feel downright Homeric. And that’s what a 140-character tweet is starting to feel like, too.
I think our alphabetic system of writing may be doomed. It doesn’t work well with realtime communication. That’s why people are forced to use all sorts of abbreviations and symbols – the alphabet’s just too damn slow. In the end, I bet we move back to a purely hieroglyphic system of writing, with the number of available symbols limited to what can fit onto a smartphone keypad. Honestly, I think that communicating effectively in realtime requires no more than 25 or 30 units of meaning.
Give me 30 glyphs and a URL shortener, and I’m good.
This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.