The Cruel Discipline of Twitter

When first I was told of twitter, I scoffed.  Obviously, it was for people whose thoughts fit within 140 characters.  I meant that in a pejorative way.  You wouldn’t find me on twitter.  That was a few thousand twits ago.

Though I’m hardly convinced that twitter is the moneymaker that social media gurus claim, I have come to a realization about it that makes twitter enormously useful.  Twitter demands discipline.

Some twitterers post their message in serial twits, taking three or six twits to make a single point.  They miss the point of twitter. They refuse to accept the nature of a twit, limited by 140 characters, and insist on using every word in their arsenal no matter how many twits it takes.  These are often the same folks who find the 3000 word limit on comments intolerably limiting.

Some twitterers use abbreviations to cut down on characters, such as “U” for “you”.  This is perfectly acceptable if you remain below the age of majority, but for twitterers of a certain age, it’s about as intellectually satisfying as a faux leopard-skin miniskirt.  They may not says so, but serious people laugh at you.  No, they really do.

Some twitterers send out twits that just don’t make much sense.  Sometimes it’s because the end of their thought is cut off.  Other times it’s because they, well, just don’t make much sense for organic reasons.

But twitter is cruel.  It only allows 140 characters, no matter who you are or what your reason for wanting more. You can’t argue with it, cajole it, implore it, beg it.  It doesn’t care.  It’s 140 characters max. 

What this does is impose discipline on twitterers.  To cut out painfully verbose comments down to 140 characters, we must hone our thoughts to their core.  We must use active verbs that precisely match our message.  There’s no room for the passive tense or the tangential aside.  Adjectives are limited to the truly applicable, and flowery language discarded.

A well-written twit is a work of art.  It’s clear and concise.  The harms caused by years of public school instruction in the English language are stripped away.  Any word that doesn’t enhance the twit must be rejected.  Twitter demands that we construct sentences that express our thoughts in the most frugal way, the way we should always write.  I’ve written some excellent sentences because of twitter.  As this blog shows, I wouldn’t have done so otherwise.

Many decry modern technology for hastening the death of language.  If so, then twitter may be its savior.  Provided it’s used properly.

29 thoughts on “The Cruel Discipline of Twitter

  1. Marty

    GRT POST. I would add that the current term for a single twitter update is a “tweet,” rather than a “twit”. Am I under 140? Yes!

  2. Dr. SunWolf

    Twitter’s such good thinking discipline that I’m thinking of assigning a 140 character exercise for some of my college classes. [Assuming I could describe the assignment in 140 characters, of course.]

    I’m now being told by followers that I’m supposed to “shorten” further, to leave enough room for them to insert RT @JuryTalk so they can RT my tweets. Yee gads. Just read them.

    I twitter jury law on JuryTalk and neuroscience & human behavior on TheSocialBrain–but the truly gifted Disciplined Ones Who Walk With Word Magic are people I follow in my 3rd page: these folks are artists, poets, writers, dreamers and I love seeing their 140 character messages float across the page, none with abbreviations. All with impact. Sigh.

  3. Danny Johnson

    Very interesting take.

    Completely agree with the fun and challenge of communicating a complete idea, including a link and room for an RT, all in under 140 characters. However, I don’t agree that it’s malpractice to use abbreviations in a tweet. It is true that I am probably under the age limit you proposed, but in my opinion, a perfectly abbreviated tweet is a thing of beauty and adds the the mystique of a well written update.



  4. SHG

    Around here, we do not use the cutesy twitterspeak. You are not a tweeple. We do not hold tweetups. And a twit is still a twit.

  5. Packratt

    I know it takes a bit of creativity sometimes for me to describe some of the reports I put on the Twitter feed so that they fit under 115 characters (140 -25 for link) so I agree, it’s definitely a form of mental workout sometimes.

  6. Stephen

    I agree with the post but also want to point out the exceptions to the rule. Twitter enforces the maxim that “any word that doesn’t enhance the twit must be rejected” and that’s true but sometimes words that would enhance the tweet must be rejected too.

    While brevity is a great thing and a lot of the time you can do without a particular word I’ve found issues where I’ve sat and typed and retyped to fit the issue into that 140 character box. I don’t think it’s good to bring the whole world down to 140 characters. I think that individual thoughts should be concise but that a number of letters is an absolute bar in a relative world. The hardest questions are the ones that sometimes need the most words to adequately answer. You can still be concise even if you write 10,000 words if 10,000 is the minimum you needed.

  7. Mark Bennett

    Your opinion is wrong. Abbreviations are for teenage girls typing on cellphones’ numeric keypads. All twits should be grammatically correct.

    (A clear and complete 140-character twit, using no tricks, is a work of art.)


  8. Jdog

    Serious tweeting — which isn’t an oxymoron; you demonstrate that many times in a day, often — is like short story writing on steroids. Everything that can go, has to go, down to the keystroke level. And when you’ve got a link and a #hashtag to add, it gets often gets painful.

    Often reminds me of coming up with a novel title.

  9. Jdog

    Or, at least, a work of craft. Not being an artist, I often cheat, and will ruthlessly (“Where’s Ruth?”) commit the solecism of leaving only one space after a period.

  10. Jdog

    Some are just halftwits.

    Twit is a better word, anyway; it’s 20% shorter than tweet. For the new service,, it’ll fit in even better, what with the 20-character maximum length.

  11. Marty

    I’m in complete agreement with Danny. Of course I don’t use “lol” or “lmao” but when I can use a “u” or a “haha” to explain my point is perfectly acceptable.

    I guess it depends on why you use twitter? If your point is to show off grammatical genius that I would agree with you…if your point is to build relationships and add value to conversations than let your personality show and have fun.

  12. SHG

    As long as you’re “building relationships” with 14 year old girls, you’re fine.  But for most of us, that would be illegal and sick.

  13. Jdog

    On the other hand, there are things that can be provided here. Like the two spaces after the period. Just as an example.

    I understand that custom, and laws, do evolve over time, but there are some fundamentals that it’s wrong to touch, unless, of course, it’s necessary for a really good, at a former POTUS might have said, twitification.

  14. Stephen

    Well, the custom that changed was the one space after a full stop to two spaces and that happened when monospaced typewriters took up the sort of work previously needing lead type and a print machine. Now that practically everyone has proportional typesetting facilities (whether they use them or not) on their desk instead of a monospaced typewriter it seems sensible to revert back.

    Saving an extra character in Twitter is just gravy.

  15. Jdog

    Next thing you know, you’ll be telling us that it’s okay to eat bacon, just because trichinosis is now such a remote possibility.

    Nah. The commandment was, quite clearly, “Thou shalt use a 12-pitch Courier typeface on thy typewriter, once that be invented, and between each sentence within a paragraph there shall be two spaces.” Why that should be is a matter of interpretation; the House of Hillel would say that the spaces were to represent each of the tablets that Moshe Rabenu brought down from the mountain, while the House of Shamai would argue that the spaces were as a reminder that we were forbidden from yoking both the oxe and the ass together. The Zohar reminds us that one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, and that while two can be as bad as one, that is not always the case. Ben Yehuda observed that, since errors are often made, this meant that a failure to hit the spacebar twice would still separate sentences by at least one space, while Ben Bagbag and Ben Hehe were in agreement that it gave us an opportunity to recall that while Our Lord is One, He created mankind with two genders. These days, while Orthodox maintain both spaces and the Reform movements just one, Masorti rabbis insist that either is correct, as long as both male and female members of the congregation are permitted to hit the spacebar the same number of times.

    It’s really very simple.

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