The Soul of Wit

twitter_140I am one of thousands of nontweeters on Twitter, people who signed up for one silly reason or another (mine: my publisher told me to) yet have never found much to tweet about. Trying to work up my enthusiasm for this medium of communication, I asked avid tweeters what they loved about it. Their most common answer? “The messages are only 140 characters long.”

Now that Twitter is moving to a higher limit for tweets, let’s pause on this feature, with a nod to poetic form. Why 140 characters? Apparently that is, or was, close to the 160-character limit for SMS, or text messages. Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, wanted to leave 20 characters free for the tweeter’s user name and still allow the tweet to show up as SMS on a basic phone. Presto: 140 characters. Twitter, of course, is not the first form to limit the writer’s expression. Haiku, a Japanese form that doesn’t really translate well to English, limits syllables in its three lines: five for the first line, seven for the second, five for the third. The traditional English sonnet, written as it is in 14 lines of iambic pentameter, prescribes a limit, if not for characters, at least for metric stresses. Sonnet and haiku writers love their limits; as one poet friend put it, “When I have something really emotional to say, something really out of control, I resort to the sonnet.” Other writers have invented limits to test what can be done when you are straining against them, as in Ernest Vincent Wright’s lipogrammatic novel Gadsby, which contains no words with the letter e.

But for every form there exist nonce versions, exceptions, or as some would put it, cheating. With Twitter, for several years now, users have circumvented the 140-character limit by using, a website that shortens URLs to help you stick to 140 characters. I try to imagine something like this for, say, haiku. I want to write, for instance,

The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la!
Breathe promise of merry sunshine.
As we merrily dance and we sing, tra-la! helps me out with

Flowers bloom in spring
Breathe promise merry sunshine
Dance & sing tra-la!

Okay, so Bashô it isn’t, and Twitter doesn’t even try to be poetry. But until I looked it up just now — and gave my poor brain-processing skills a minute — I had no idea that <3, for instance, a “heart” on which thousands of Twitter users have relied to shorten their messages, meant love. I suspect the combination of and Twitter slang renders such orthography ever more specific to, well, fluent Twitterers.

The reason Twitter is abandoning its limit is, of course, the bottom line. It wants to compete with Facebook; it needs more new users. Most responses to the impending change lament the passing of Twitter’s enforced brevity, as if it really did cause all those remarks about Donald Trump, soggy cereal, and the Kardashians to possess the soul of wit. But you can bet that users will wax more prolix as soon as 10,000 is the new limit. And then where will we find the witty ones?



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