No later than a few hours ago (I am referring to the time of writing this text, not its publication), I have written a rather unusually short blog titled “Are you a positive rule breaker?” If I say unusually short, this is because if you compare to what I have published in this blog so far, this was a dwarf of a blog. Why was that?

The answer is that I have written it under the “influence” of my Marketing Director and excellent friend Scott. Although I take full responsibility for the content of that blog, I shall admit my weak attitude towards his strong pertinent and professional advice to make it shoooooort. I said to him that I used to expose my ideas and thought more expansively. At this he replied that I was almost obsolete and that the trend is Twitter-like communication with 140 characters max. I then replied that this is all rubbish and that I actually don’t give a sh*** of Twitter’s constraints and that I will even take time in the future to write a blog about my level of contempt for this famous trend. I do not believe that you can indeed always express proper ideas in 140 characters with satisfactory result. To this answer Scott made two comments:

1à Twitter would pretend that they did psychometric researches that have shown that an idea is writeable in less than 140 characters.

2 à This is great. Do not forget to write this blog (he loves controversy and provocation as much as I do).

Well, here I am. I’m going to keep my words!

First of all, I do not believe a single second that Twitter has chosen 140 characters on any psychological research. I am an IT man with plenty of technical background and I know for a fact that a service like Twitter has to limit the size of the messages to something tiny if it wants to cope with tens of millions of messages. I do not know how many messages are sent in a day across their network but it must be rather impressive. I do not think that Twitter have released official numbers on that question. Anyway, I’d be rather tempted to believe that considering that these messages must be possible to send via a mobile phone, the text message limit of 160 characters has been considered as the hard limit for tweets and for some reasons they reached the value of 140, probably because they wanted to add some wrappers around the messages for internal use. But hey, all of this is speculation from me and I guess that this idea of psychological research was just another provocation from my friend. He knows that I am a researcher myself and that his argument would force me to think.

Now, just for the sake of it (and to give me the opportunity to develop), let’s assume that there is sort or research that would show that 140 characters is enough to express an idea. I will then ask the following questions:

  1. In which languages could such a research be valid?
  2. What kind of “idea” do you really express in such a short size?
  3. Is this trend of ultra short communication pattern really desirable?

Let’s try to answer these questions!

In which languages could such a research be valid?

For sure, such research would be conducted in English. There is nothing wrong with that. What would be wrong though is to extend the conclusions on one language into others. English is a rather efficient language when it comes to short messages. I have the choice myself between 3 languages (French, English and Hungarian) to communicate with my family by SMS and guess what: we all have adopted English as our preferred language. It makes our messages shorter and easier to write. Hungarian is pretty efficient and concise as well. It would have been a good choice. But in fact, things are not as simple as they look like. For instance, Hungarian is amazingly efficient at creating precise one word verbs for almost any situation. When the verb does not exist, it is incredibly easy to make a new one from the noun. In order to make the verb very precise, we may pick from a long list of prefixes to add at the beginning and we have at our disposal *the* verb that means precisely what we have in mind. For instance, if I say: “I want to get cash from an ATM.”, it takes about 3 words in Hungarian: “Akarok pénzt kivenni.” In this case “kivenni” means literally: buying money towards the outside. There is no need for any “I” in Hungarian grammar in such case. The notion of ATM, although you could mention it (bankomat) is all assumed in the verb “kivenni” which is used for this very circumstance. Pretty efficient, isn’t it?
Translated in French I get: “Je veux retirer de l’argent d’un distributeur.” That’s far too long for my poor characters allocation. So, in this very case, Hungarian would be a clear winner. This would be very simple if this efficiency was always true. In fact, Hungarian is not that good when it comes to nouns. In many case you have the same noun used to describe different concepts but there are adjectives added to clarify your thoughts. French would be far more efficient in that aspect of language. Now, when it comes to create new short words for new concepts and inventions, you can’t beat the English language. What makes English an even clearer winner for text messages is the absence of accents which are numerous in French and Hungarian and the absence of apostrophes like in French (2 apostrophes just in the example given above).

I wish I could give more examples with other languages. Although I speak a bit of German, I will not dare giving any example. I am convinced that it would be enlightening to compare “efficiency” of languages with a very diverse sample such as: German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arab, African local languages, tribal languages from South America or indeed any other place in the world, etc. This sample would need to be well thought of to be representative. Some studies have counted up to 6909 living languages (see http://www.ethnologue.com/ ). So, there is plenty of work to do here.

All in all, I do not think that you can conclude on the size of a message for conveying an idea without referring to a specific language. It might even be useful although not mandatory to refer to a specific kind of idea or message. Are you sending facts? Are you writing poetry? Are writing about actions? Is this about new technologies?

What kind of idea do you really express in such a short size?

Say for a second that we now admit that we should communicate to each other in such a short way. Is this really desirable? I already hear a former colleague of mine who used to remind me often that Margaret Thatcher always refused to read any document or report that would be longer than one page. I could not verify that but I can believe that a prime Minister needs efficiency in reporting. As Edward De Bono, the creator of Lateral Thinking, puts it in his book “Simplicity”: “There is often a much simpler way of doing things – if you make the effort to look for it. Simplicity does not just happen.” What he highlights here is very important: yes you can make things simpler and therefore probably shorter, but making things simpler is a process that requires efforts. I would readily admit that this very document you are now reading could be made shorter, simpler and more accessible. It could probably be halved. That would take me some serious time to do so. Techniques for reducing the size of a text and producing summaries are taught at school in France and are part of the Baccalauréat exam. This shows how serious this skill can be. De Bono explains: “Simplicity is easy to use but can be hard to design. You may need some creativity.

But none of this is answering my initial question: What kind of idea do you really express in such short size (i.e. 140 characters)? The most obvious type of information you can convey in short messages is facts. A fact does not require to be substantiated very much. If I write “It’s my birthday today.” Or “I am hungry.” Or “I love you.” You do not expect much of an explanation going with it. Short messages are adequate for facts. Another possibility is to ask questions. Questions can be rather short and suffice to themselves. I see another type of content: statements. “I don’t like Mondays”, “My idea is better than yours.”, “Slavery is bad!” etc. Now, try to explain why a political decision is good or bad for the country, present properly a bit of History, articulate some ideas reaching to a conclusion, and you are in trouble.

Where I would be happy to give credit to short messages and short texts as a constraint is that it forces you to be creative if you want some result nevertheless the constraints. It is sometimes very valuable to limit the size of a text, the length of a video, the duration of a meeting if we want the human brain to be activated. Laziness is around the corner at all time. Give a software project no dead line and you can guarantee that it will be delivered within the timeframe, I mean never. Start a meeting with no ending time and you can be almost certain that it will be totally inefficient. So, yes, limitations can be fruitful.

In practical terms

Now, in practical terms, I have become a user of tweeter, I do contribute to forums and other SoMe. Why wouldn’t I? But what I see as well is that communication is becoming more and more an exchange of facts, hyperlinks, provocative statements of any sort. We seldom take time to expose our views with reasonable foundations and I kind of doubt we should call these ultra short communication events “communication”. Well, it all depends on the definition you give for communication, of course. They technically are but I often wonder what they really provide. What I expect from communication is to be “better” after than before. I want to have learned, have been challenged, have debated constructively, etc. When I get a retweet from someone that has got a tweet from another one about a link that says something as short as a half page, I wonder if it is all worth it. ;-) I’d be dishonest to not recognise that it sometimes is. But globally, I feel overloaded with “content-less” items of communication.

Now, one could challenge me that in many occasions we want fast communication. In a project, for instance, we do not always have time for debate or challenges or learning. That in itself is another debate that I will probably cover in another blog entry. In the meantime, I thank you if you are still with me at the end of this “definitely not short” text. It was a pleasure being with you and I hope to see you around again. I promise to try to be more concise! ;-)

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