Twitter, Language, and Brevity

Twitter is fascinating in many ways, but for me, two things stand out. (If you don’t know what Twitter is, click here.)

If you google “evolution of language on Twitter,” you’ll find some great posts that describe the social science at work within Twitter. They imply that Twitter is one giant grooming site where the gift of language allows Homo sapiens to broadcast from a distance, increasing the likelihood of attracting mates while preserving survival by leaving the rest of our bodies free for self-defense.

That’s a pretty deep analysis for a deceptively simple Web site.

Although the sociological aspects are intriguing, I’m naturally more interested in Twitter’s impact on the English language and how it’s design contraints have placed a value (almost in terms of currency) on words.

The Twitter community is the Twitterverse. Posts are tweets. Twitter friends are tweeps. Face-to-face meetings with your tweeps, organized by tweets, are tweetups.

So many new words evolved from the word Twitter that someone created a twittonary.

I jumped on the “tw-” bandwagon too, choosing tweditor as my user name.

Twisting existing words for Twitter can get rather silly, of course, and not every tword will survive. But many of the basic terms will, if only because Twitter’s sheer novelty demanded a novel vocabulary.

Twitterers are also repurposing existing words. Take via, for example. This word spun off from RT, or “re-tweet,” which is similar to the “FW:” in an e-mail subject line. I’ve been impressed by the degree to which Twitterers properly attribute original sources using RT.

Quite recently, someone suggested that the Twitterverse adopt “via” to indicate the editing of another’s tweet, since RT usually means that the tweet was pasted verbatim. And this entire discussion took place within Twitter, essentially crowdsourcing the decision to use “via.”

It’s startling to watch this happen in real time.

The other amazing thing about Twitter is that it’s the strictest editor going. Everyone on Twitter must limit their tweets to 140 characters. This sounds reasonable in theory, but it’s quite difficult in practice. There you are, typing away; before you know it, you’re in the negative character zone. How can you compress your thought? Get to the point faster? Use shorter words?

Twitter’s character limits necessitate descriptive language and headline-like summaries. Of course, it’s possible to continue a thought in additional tweets, but this occurs rarely. Even for editors skilled in “omit[ting] needless words” (per Strunk and White), tweets offer a challenging but exhilerating exercise.

This inevitable distillation of thought can only be good for us all. As Twitter signs up more users every day (the company’s YoY growth from February 2008 to February 2009 was 1,382 percent), the quantity of tweets will only increase. If nothing else, the 140-character limit suggests that you trend toward quality. (I personally won’t follow people whose tweets are boring; see this video for a hilarious parody of Twitter’s mundane side.)

Despite being in favor of tweetspeak, I am concerned that conjunctions will go on the endangered species list, sacrificed for the sake of succinctness. I also don’t want to see the “text-ification” of tweets: ppl instead of people, u instead of you, 2 instead of too.

I just hope that the majority of users will value workhorse words that, while taking up valuable space with their too-long character counts, will preserve readability across Twitter’s vast audience. In a way, it’s a survival mechanism too. Twitter needs language conventions — there’s too much conversational crosspollination, and the speed at which the conversation moves demands instantenous comprehension.