What does the rise of “snack-size communication” mean for writers?

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

It’s official—texting has supplanted actual conversation on American mobile phones, according to a new Nielsen survey for the second quarter of 2008. According to the survey, U.S. mobile subscribers sent and received 357 text messages per month as compared to only 204 phone calls.

Unless you have been tied to a chair in front of a typewriter somewhere, this news doesn’t come as a shock. Handwritten letters, typewritten manuscripts, even the well-composed e-mail have given way to “snack-sized” messages that can be digested in 10 seconds or less. Phone texting, Facebook status updates and Twitter alerts have reinforced a new word, or rather, character limit on communicators: if you can’t say it in 140 characters, don’t bother.

What does this mean for writers, especially those who shine in long-form works, such as 10,000-word nonfiction narratives, epic poems, or novel-length, um, novels? Reactions are decidedly mixed, so far.

Journalists who find the digital revolution to be an aid and not a threat seem to like Twitter. The New York Times ran an article earlier this year on the growing popularity of reporters “tweeting” via Twitter at live campaign events and a compilation of Twitter statistics shows that public accounts owned by American newspapers are experiencing a growth spurt. Web consultant and journalist Craig Stoltz over at Web 2.0h…Really? (great blog name!) claims Twitter has made him a better editor:

“I’ve been an editor for 20-plus years. But Twitter—that idiot desktop companion for the work-averse—has become my mid-career editing coach. This may be due to how I use Twitter, at least some of the time: Less for top-of-brain me-spatter and more for tiny reports or editorials.

“Fact is, it’s tough to convey any substance in 140 characters. You have to carefully weigh every word, letter and space. Even punctuation.”

On the other hand, poet Robert Peake writes a rather damning (and well-thought-out) indictment of Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies, especially where the writing of verse is concerned. He asserts, after playing with Twitter for a few days and having it leave him rather cold,

“We care about poetry precisely because it exists outside this frenetic word-space (found in cyberspace). We care about poetry because it represents a kind of necessary antidote to the soul-draining quantification and commoditization of language the information age has brought. All good poems, no matter their style, share this: an enforced attention to language, and some degree of innovation upon it. This runs contrary to the bigger/faster/more pervading everything from network news to the blogosphere.

“….That’s why there will never be a Poetry 2.0. The first version still works fine. And when the new has finally worn off all our technobabble, poetry will still be around.”

However, Tom Watson found poetry in the words of the people he follows on Twitter, often unintentionally:

“This Twitter thing may have legs, but not in the way its founders or a few self-obsessed wired wonksters may think. See, Twitter is a poetry machine.”

He gives as an example the tweets of a friend headed home to comfort his mother after his father has passed away:

Driving down to West Cork used to be a quiet pleasure.
Now it’s a melancholy chore.
Still, the sky is absolutely full of stars.

He also provides several other examples, and a commenter on this 2007 entry also provides a good link to examples of haiku-via-Twitter.

(Another writer whose microblog posts read like poetry is Dave Bonta at The Morning Porch).

Some fiction writers on the Internet have found ways to use Twitter to promote longer works. TwitterLit provides twice-daily tweets of the first lines of novels and other types of literature (memoir, etc.), with an Amazon link for those who want to learn more or (one hopes) buy the book. And tech-savvy English or media history professors may be heartened to learn that Twitter users staged a reenactment of sorts on the 70th anniversary of the radio broadcast of the “War of the Worlds”. No word on if panicked mobile phone users rushed to CNN.com to verify the story.

My take on text-sized communications? While I haven’t used Twitter yet, I have texted for nearly a decade and I would consider microblogging or “liveblogging” an event via Twitter.

I think text-message-sized communications are a double-edged sword. Using tools that enforce the 140-character limit can make you a better editor or poet, learning to choose your words, even punctuation, with much greater care. You can promote great words and links, your own or those of others, with it. It can also reduce your communications to others to your impulsive reactions and meal choices.

As the obscure movie quote goes, “Choose wisely.”

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2 thoughts on “What does the rise of “snack-size communication” mean for writers?

  1. Robert says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful weigh-in on the changing landscape for words.

  2. […] is More I’ve blogged a bit about this before, and today it’s the main point of my post: non-fiction writers can learn a lot about economy of […]

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