A Wishful Prediction About Twitter



Is there a word for a prediction you wish you could make, but are thus far reluctant to? The prediction I would like to be able to make is that Twitter will inspire people to write shorter email messages. Too many people write email messages that are way too long. (I include myself here.)

Is there a word for a prediction you wish you could make, but are thus far reluctant to? The prediction I would like to be able to make is that Twitter will inspire people to write shorter email messages. Too many people write email messages that are way too long. (I include myself here.)

The problem is that the longer the message, the less likely it is to be read. When I receive a long message—and what qualifies as long varies with my priorities and my mood—I often defer reading it till later. Sometimes, though, later never arrives because other priorities (and other email) have intervened.

Long messages are also easily misread. In responding to a verbose message from a client recently (and circuitously verbose at that), something compelled me to reread the message before sending my reply. It's a good thing I did, because I had missed a key detail that made my reply all wrong. The key detail was buried within other semi-irrelevant details.

I've been trying my hand at replying to email messages in just a line or two. Alas, it's not so easy. As Blaise Pascal said, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time." (This quote has also been attributed to Mark Train, but Wikiquote cites Pascal as the source, along with the publication it appeared in and the quote in the original French: Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte, in case you're curious.)."

I will continue to hope that I catch 140-character fever and everyone else does, too.

User Comments

Anonymous's picture

I agree with your sentiment but I think you overemphasize the wrong side of it. The Pascal quote is dead on: people need to take more time when writing (so they can write less). If your client, who wrote the easily misunderstood email, had spent longer organizing his thoughts, then he would have written a more focused email that you would not have misinterpreted at first blush.

Edward Tufte, a relatively famous statistician who has several books on presenting data clearly, was also on the panel that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster. He has a long speech about how several significant engineering details were poorly managed because engineers were forced to present them in a form akin to the 6x6 PowerPoint rule (no more than 6 bullet points, no more than 6 words each). The engineering complexity and trade-offs were lost in such a brief format, and decisions were made with poorly understood input.

So brevity is important, but more important is the amount of time we spend thinking on things in order to make them brief. Twitter's 140-character limit might make us be more to the point, but we can only hope it also makes us think harder about what we're trying to say.

April 24, 2009 - 4:00pm
Danny Faught's picture
Danny Faught

I use that quote from Pascal often - it's one of my favorites. I shudder to think, though, that the atrocious abbreviations that people use to cram more into those 140 characters on Twitter will migrate to email usage. Actually, it seems that email is becoming less relevant, so you may get your wish by virtue of getting more tweets and text messages, and less email.

But email isn't dead, and it's still important. I usually send short emails, especially when I'm asking for clarification about something. The conversation may change directions based on the answer to a question.

April 24, 2009 - 7:06pm
Anonymous's picture

Paco, you've raised some important points, and I agree with you...mostly. The Challenger example you cited is a perfect example of the dangers of brevity - though, of course, there were other contributors to that disaster.

And I certainly agree that spending time organizing our thoughts can improve our messages. But I find that when an email message is long, I balk at reading it, even if it's well-organized. Actually, in this balking stage, I don't even know if it's well-organized. I see a screen jam-packed with verbiage, and my brain rebels.

In any case, I suspect that some people believe they did spend time thinking about what they wanted to say and did organize their thoughts before hitting the Send key. Nevertheless, it didn't come across that way. My client who sent the mishmashed message is a thoughtful person who wouldn't slapdash a message together without some thought.

One thing that makes long messages more readable is limiting paragraph length - that was one of the problems in my client's message. A near-endless paragraph can be just as unfathomable as a short one that's muddled. One of my own goals in writing is to limit paragraphs to 8 lines for articles and books and 2-3 lines for email. It spurs me to figure out what I'm trying to say. So I'm hoping that the brevity imposed by Twitter will force us to do the thinking and organizing that you advocate.

April 25, 2009 - 12:40am
Anonymous's picture

Danny. Less email. Now there's something I'd really love to predict. Who wouldn't be happier with less email? But I'll bet you're right (though you're only shuddering to think about it thus far) that in the meantime, Twitter-induced abbreviations will start to become prevalent in email. <br><br>Here's a thought: As 140-character communications migrate to email and elsewhere, will people lose their ability to think at greater length? <br>

April 25, 2009 - 12:50am
Anonymous's picture

one of my favorite subjects...regarding twittering, and the case of the poor young man , who thought '"There's no easy way to gain general tech skills that young people have but to be young - play video games, update your Facebook daily, text-message your friends."

part of my response: "there's a bigger problem in this than just having no clue…this means that we don't have a chance of competing into the next cycle when our 20 yr olds not only can't read, but can't think at all, which I guess is a skill that precedes reading, now that I think about it. The growth of synapses comes from the conscious and semi-conscious effort to make connections, and as a matter of fact, the whole computer industry has roots in language and symbology, which for twitterers, is only a 140 character (why 140? eh?) long TWIT, fully disclosing the limited nature of the attention span we are faced with in these people.

the codes that twitter uses to squeeze more content into less space has evolved a whole language subset, filled with '@' signs and special marks…though catching some attention now, this is a short-lived language at best, (maybe it has 2-years ?) and I'm afraid will go the way of all the other dead languages collecting dust in the halls of history. there will be something that replaces the impulsive drive-by hit-or-miss chat that twitter allows…it's fun to bombard the universe with nonsense, even for a day. fun for a someone who can't read.

April 25, 2009 - 3:11am
Anonymous's picture

was that a too-long comment? :>

April 25, 2009 - 3:12am
Anonymous's picture

Not too long at all, Kristin. Interesting points, in fact.

April 27, 2009 - 1:18am

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