Environmental Impact: Iz Tweetz changing ur txt?Posted: July 25, 2012
Please, please forgive me for the diabolical title but I have been wondering about the effects of saturation in different communication environments and Twitter seemed like an interesting place to start. For those who don’t know about Twitter, it’s an online micro-blogging social media service. Connect to it via your computer or phone and you can put a message in that is up to 140 characters, where each message is called a tweet. What makes Twitter interesting is the use of hashtags and usernames to allow the grouping of these messages by area by theme (#firstworldproblems, if you’re complaining about the service in Business Class, for example) or to respond to someone (@katyperry – Russell Brand, SRSLY?). Twitter has very significant penetration in the celebrity market and there are often “professional” tweeters for certain organisations.
There is a lot more to say about Twitter but what I want to focus on is the maximum number of characters available – 140. This limit was set for compatibility with SMS messages and, unsurprisingly, a lot of abbreviations used in Twitter have come in from the SMS community. I have been restricting myself to ~1,000 words in recent posts (+/-10%, if I’m being honest) and, with the average word length of approximately 5 for English then, by adding spaces and punctuation to take this to 6, you’d expect my posts to be somewhere in the region of 6,000 characters. Anyone who’s been reading this for a while will know that I love long words and technical terms so there’s a possibility that it’s up beyond this. So one of my posts, as the largest Tweets, would take up about 43 tweets. How long would that take the average Twitterer?
Here’s an interesting site that lists some statistics, from 2009 – things will have changed but it’s a pretty thorough snapshot. Firstly, the more followers you have the more you tweet (cause and effect not stated!) but even then, 85% of users update less than once per day, with only 1% updating more than 10 times per day. With the vast majority of users having less than 100 followers (people who are subscribed to read all of your tweets), this makes two tweets per day the dominant activity. But that was back in 2009 and Twitter has grown considerably since then. This article updates things a little, but not in the same depth, and gives us two interesting facts. Firstly, that Twitter has grown amazingly since 2009. Secondly, that event reporting now takes place on Twitter – it has become a news and event dissemination point. This is happening to the extent that a Twitter reported earthquake can expand outwards in the same or slightly less time than the actual earthquake itself. This has become a bit of a joke, where people will tweet about what is happening to them rather than react to the event.
From Twitter’s own blog, March, 2011, we can also see this amazing growth – more people are using Twitter and more messages are being sent. I found another site listing some interesting statistics for Twitter: 225,000,000 users, most tweets are 40 characters long, 40% if users don’t tweet but just read and the average user still has around 100 followers (115 actually). If the previous behaviour patterns hold, we are still seeing an average of two tweets for the majority user who actually posts. But a very large number of people are actually reading Twitter far more than they ever post.
To summarise, millions of people around the world are exposed to hundreds of messages that are 4o characters long and this may be one of their leading sources of information and exposure to text throughout the day. To put this in context, it would take 150 tweets to convey one of my average posts at the 40 character limit and this is a completely different way of reading information because, assuming that the ‘average’ sentence is about 15-20 words, very few of these tweets are going to be ‘full’ sentences. Context is, of course, essential and a stream of short messages, even below sentence length, can be completely comprehensible. Perhaps even sentence fragments? Or three words. Two words? One? (With apologies to Hofstadter!) So there’s little mileage in arguing that tweeting is going to change our semantic framework, although a large amount of what moves through any form of blogging, micro or other, is going to always have its worth judged by external agents who don’t take part in that particular activity and find it wanting. (I blog, you type, he/she babbles.)
But is this shortening of phrase, and our immersion in a shorter sentence structure, actually having an impact on the way that we write or read? Basically, it’s very hard to tell because this is such a recent phenomenon. Early social media sites, including the BBs and the multi-user shared environments, did not value brevity as much as they valued contribution and, to a large extent, demonstration of knowledge. There was no mobile phone interaction or SMS link so the text limit of Twitter wasn’t required. LiveJournal was, if anything, the antithesis of brevity as the journalling activity was rarely that brief and, sometimes, incredibly long. Facebook enforces some limits but provides notes so that longer messages can be formed but, of course, the longer the message, the longer the time it takes to write.
Twitter is an encourager of immediacy, of thought into broadcast, but this particular messaging mode, the ability to globally yell “I like ice cream and I’m eating ice cream” as one is eating ice cream is so new that any impact on overall language usage is going to be hard to pin down. As it happens, it does appear that our sentences are getting shorter and that we are simplifying the language but, as this poster notes, the length of the sentence has shrunk over time but the average word length has only slightly shortened, and all of this was happening well before Twitter and SMS came along. If anything, perhaps this indicates that the popularity of SMS and Twitter reflects the direction of language, rather than that language is adapting to SMS and Twitter. (Based on the trend, the Presidential address of 2300 is going to be something along the lines of “I am good. The country is good. Thank you.”)
I haven’t had the time that I wanted to go through this in detail, and I certainly welcome more up-to-date links and corrections, but I much prefer the idea that our technologies are chosen and succeed based on our existing drives tastes, rather than the assumption that our technologies are ‘dumbing us down’ or ‘reducing our language use’ and, in effect, driving us. I guess you may say I’m a dreamer.
(But I’m not the only one!)