Lessons From Twitter

Five years after the first tweet, social media is making us better writers

Twitter turned five yesterday.

Happy birthday, Twitter. (Repeat 140 million times.)

That’s the number of tweets posted, on average, every day, according to Twitter. Per week, that’s almost a billion. Per year, at 140 characters a pop, that’s approaching “grains of sand” territory.

If brevity is the soul of wit, then Twitter, like Polonious, is certainly pushing a lot of words over the transom to say it.

Individual accounts are growing at the speed of light, too. Some 460,000 are added daily, with 572,000 on March 12 alone, Twitter says. In the time it took to read the previous sentence, thousands of new accounts were created.

For the concision-impaired, there’s a guidebook by Twitter co-creator Dom Sagolla: 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form. At 208 pages, perhaps “short” is not the appropriate word choice.

Like other social media, Twitter has advanced beyond mere messaging and into the arts. To wit, four poets created verse within the text limit of 140 characters for last Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review. (Epic win.)

Alas, a backlash is brewing.

A growing number of ‘real-time messengers’ are lobbying Twitter to expand its boundaries in order to become even more mainstream. A mere 140 characters—including spaces!—is simply not enough, they say.

Not enough? That is the raison d’etre of Twitterdom, whose siren song has not (yet) seduced me, but whose principles I respect.

In my world, a lean, well-ordered sentence trumps a bloated, vacuous thought every time. Adjectives, like artificial sweeteners, should be used sparingly. Colons, on the other hand, are your friends—take one to lunch this week.

In that spirit, each sentence in this blog contains fewer than 140 characters, I’m pleased to report. Tweets for the tweet, as it were.

After three decades as a professional writer, here’s my suggested motto for Twitter: Think big. Write small. Enjoy the medium.