One Hundred Forty
Writing is difficult. Especially good writing. It takes time and mental effort to take an idea, broaden it into a theme, imagine it as a story—a coherent flow of thought expressing the idea from introduction through conclusion—then put that story into words. Not easily done. That explains why I greatly admire authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, journalists, essayists who are accomplished wordsmiths—those writers who always seem to find the right word, the right style, the right phrase, and the right voice to express a thought or emotion and intricately weave them together to create story.
Twitter (actually, twttr.com, at the time) arrived almost a decade ago (Can you believe it?) on July 13, 2006. Its distinguishing characteristic as an online social networking service (well, aside from introducing hashtags to the world) is its 140-character limit for online messages. The limit came from Twitter’s original objective to let a person send a status message, as an SMS text message on a mobile phone, that could then be broadcast to a group. The SMS architecture constrained the length of the messages. The initial concept of sending status evolved into the broader perception that the service would be much more valuable as a way to express any spur-of-the-moment thought as a short burst of information. Brevity and immediacy were the keys. Thus, the 140-character limit has continued as a centerpiece of Twitter even though it’s not required anymore by text messaging services—it underlies Twitter’s unique purpose as a facilitator for disseminating short, quick capsules of information.
One reason for Twitter’s proliferation (more than 300 million active users) is that the 140-character limitation eases the writing process. The mental calisthenics are gone—no more taking an idea, broadening it to a theme, imagining a coherent flow of thought, and creating story. Now it only takes an Internet link, a Twitter account, and a keypad to produce stream-of-consciousness missives on Twitter—something that appeals to many. Additionally, the audience is huge which provides even greater incentive for anyone to produce a continuous flow of 140-character thoughts.
Much has been written about the advantages and disadvantages of a 140-character world by people much more knowledgeable about the subject than I am [see, for instance, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. So, I won’t even try to add anything to those ideas. Instead, as a way to have some fun and as a bit of a mind game I began to think about some famous historical phrases and writings and how they would change if truncated to the Twitter 140. It became an entertaining exercise.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s truncated Sonnet 43:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For
It ends rather suddenly and misses the beautiful conclusion:
...I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the propo
We miss the whole proposition that “all men are created equal,” and, later, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy:
To be, or not to be—that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take
The 140-character excerpt does include the six most famous words uttered by Hamlet as he began his soliloquy, but it certainly misses the depths of Hamlet’s introspective contemplations about life and death.
Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) farewell speech to Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman):
Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it
Unfortunately, the 140 truncation removes “We’ll always have Paris.” and “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” The emotion is extinguished.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief,
The stop at 140 characters drops most of the memorable 617-character opening sentence to the Dickens’ classic.
The Bible, Genesis 1
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep,
This hardly scratches the surface of what’s to come.
Abbott & Costello, “Who’s on First”
Abbott: Strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names. Costello: Funny names? Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames.
Bud Abbott’s warnings to his friend Lou Costello, who is considering a baseball career, never even get to describing first baseman Who, second baseman What, third baseman I Don’t Know in this much-shortened version of an American classic comedy sketch.
Cheech & Chong, “Dave”
Speaking of classic comedy sketches, there’s this well-known stoner skit from Cheech & Chong. Unfortunately, it does not include the legendary, “Dave’s not here, man.”
“It’s, it’s Dave, man, will you open up? I got the stuff with me.” “Who?” “Dave, man. Open up.” “Dave?” “Ya, Dave,
“Over the Rainbow,” by Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg
Dorothy would have never returned from Oz with this rendition of the song.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue And
The examples are endless. Although, ironically, I noticed that the majority of my comments about the 140-character excerpts could easily be reduced to something less than 140 characters. Maybe there is something to this easy, quick way to write after all. 🙂