Does my tweet look fat?

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.

20 thoughts on “Does my tweet look fat?


    What you’ve just described is basically every East Asian language, essentially. Most typical, everyday conversations use barely a fraction of the available vocabulary. I don’t think it’s necessarily leading to some horrible end for the English language; it’ll become a dialect or jargon.

  2. Joe Clark

    No, CanuckInvestor, what he might be describing is Chinese, but certainly not Japanese (kanji, kana, Latin), Vietnamese (Latin), or, say, Thai or Khmer (their own alphabetic scripts).

  3. Tom Lord

    “Tim wrote a book. The title of the book is the Twitter Book. […]”.

    Gesture. Point. Words fingers point moon.

    Look! Ha ha! Twitter funny. Twitter useful. Twitter sloppy, bad.

    You go now!


    (Yes, but what about the concept of the categorical imperative? Is it coherent? On an emotional level I can see some parts of Nietzsche as, not so much refutation exactly, as alternative. On a practical level, Foucault’s modes of analysis seem more productive to me. In retrospect, compared to either, Kant seems quaint or dowdy. I don’t know, somehow just hard to take seriously. Ironically in this context he seems pointlessly long-winded.

    BTW, Should Tim arrive, would we want to invite him to sit with us and discuss or shall we skip that for now? If he were to engage I suspect it would be hard to get him past cautious “talking points”. How would one think, with no clear idea of the subjunctive? (For example.) Or without any ability to coordinate complex subordinate clauses in one’s parsing.)

    [title for this comment: six of one, half dozen of another]

  4. Linuxguru1968

    Maybe the solution to the problem is to have all Twitters start writing their tweets as Haiku. Imagine all tweets using 5-7-5 and visual imagery. For example:

    “My tweet does look fat

    as it approaches real time

    language compresses.”

  5. Matthieu Hug

    @Joe Clark You are almost right in making right @canuckinvestor misled remark: although Japanese kanji are actually nothing else than Chinese characters, imported some 1600 years ago. Japanese has 2 alphabets on top of that though, which have become widely used (Chinese doesn t).

    Anyhow nothing less than 3000 to 4000 characters are required to read decently Chinese, so that far from the 30 glyphs Nick is asking for ;-)

  6. Cynthia Rettig

    Technology has created shorthands before. Consider Mrs. Touchett in Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” (1881) as she tries to save money by sending short telegrams. Here’s one: “Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.” And another: “Changed hotel, very bad, impudent clerk, address here. Taken sister’s girl, died last year, go to Europe, two sisters, quite independent.” I’ll take the unending breadth of James’s language any day! Nick, I challenge you to write your next book in glyphs . . .

  7. Andy O

    So why is your post explaining this so long? If realtime communication is only to send URLs then 140 characters is indeed spacious – but in that case, the tweet is just the metadata and the meat is not in the tweet.

  8. Andy O

    So why is your post explaining this so long? If realtime communication is only to send URLs then 140 characters is indeed spacious – but in that case, the tweet is just the metadata and the meat is not in the tweet.

  9. Carolina Hummel

    Hi Mr. Carr,

    I am a senior at Milken Community High School in the history course America 3.0, focusing on the last 40 years of American history. In this class, I read your book, The Big Switch and am interested in your thoughts and the information about technology, I did not know before.

    I also read, “Does my tweet look fat?” from your blog and discussed this topic in class. For a homework assignment, I was told to read, “Is google making us stupid?” following this blog entry. In order to read your article, I had to sit secluded from everyone, with an iPod of Chopin on maximum volume to drown out any other noise, and extensively annotate a printed out copy to keep my concentration focused. As you say in this blog entry, reading books, articles, or even a long tweet is becoming more difficult than ever. With the ability to “tab browse”, concentration on one topic is almost impossible without separating yourself from everything around you. With the invention of a computer chip installed in the brain, as you discussed in iGod, information will be so easily accessed, you will not have to read through large amounts of information to find the facts you need. With little work, easy, quick, and short information will be available, although it could be incorrect or altered by the developers of this chip. This is the scariest part of the idea, and of your book. At my school, I have been trained to find the deeper meaning in literature, history, language, Jewish studies and even art. This skill will end up being worthless with the brain chip as deeper meaning will already be available and not original. I think this is what made me realize that this chip is not good, because without individual ideas what else will be needed to know. Everything will already be solved and individual opinion will be disregarded. I think that most people in America will think this is a good idea without understanding the consequences of it all. Some people don’t want to work harder and don’t care if the information is incorrect, and use it just because it is the easiest to find. I think it will be sold with too many benefits overshadowing the disadvantages. As people are becoming too “lazy” or unable to focus on one thing at a time, this is very appealing.

    I am grateful for the information you provided because it woke me up to reality and what will happen in the future. I was shocked and intrigued by your book and you blog, because it is in fact easy to read and engaging. Thank you for your help.

  10. PLANETwebfoot

    I have thought about this very topic before, specifically the 140 character limit and how it was all the talk at the beginning. At the end of the day, Twitter is just a micro blog site, and if we really want to engage then niche social networking sites are the best place for us.

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