For The Smart Set, Ryan Bigge offers this thoughtful history of concision in writing, from Zen koans and poetry to the telegram, to Twitter. (Thanks, Kathryn, for the link.) Through a series of wide-ranging examples (including a four-minute/one-word-in-variations scene from HBO’s The Wire and a single-character telegraph from Oscar Wilde to his publisher), he suggests that Twitter, far from symbolizing the end of thoughtful communication, evolves from an age-old writerly value: economy.
Positing that “constraints generate creativity and that the utility of concision depends on context,” Bigge also acknowledges that “being laconic can […] belittle,” and that working in a small space doesn’t benefit from a small vocabulary. Advertising jingles as “capitalist proverbs” and overly-simplistic book summaries, cell phone novels typed in mostly one-syllable words, an unwillingness to engage with any complexity…these are the shortcomings Bigge (citing Orwell) calls “thoughtcrimes.”
How and when we do short, not short itself, is the problem.
I agree that Twitter does not threaten to supplant existing forms, at least the ones worth caring about. Twittering cleverly about a worthy subject will not render obsolete entire books about it, nor will Twitter replace inspired epic letters or long and languorous phone dates. Like any form, it can be (and often is) abused, but it’s hard to see it, despite all those impassioned articles that deem it so, as harmful.