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Size Matters: The Long and the Short of Social Communication

by Joe Loong on May 11, 2009

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There’s a famous quote on brevity, usually attributed to Mark Twain, though actually written by Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” It’s based on the observation that writing more words actually takes less time, because you can just open the floodgates, whereas writing fewer words requires more time, since you have to edit and wordsmith to pare away the deadweight.

My personal experience holds this to be true, though I’m also trying to reconcile it with another truth: Online communications are almost universally short, and take almost no time to create — especially real-time communications like IMs and synchronous chat.

Look at it from the perspective of conversation — a person who goes on and on without giving the other person a chance to respond is giving a speech — a monologue. If the listener isn’t able to respond, even if it’s just interjecting a quasi-verbal “uh-huh” every so often, it stops being a conversation. So IMs, SMS and other forms of text chat are much more similar to verbal speech than traditional written works (where the author is the only party “speaking”), thus leading to shorter lengths.

160 Characters: More Than Enough? [EOM]
Now last week’s LA Times article, “Why text messages are limited to 160 characters,” exposed some of the rationale that the creators of the SMS standard used for their 160-character text limit. By analyzing random sentences and questions, they found that 160 characters was usually enough to express complete and useful thoughts, and that postcards often topped out even lower, at 150 characters.

We can see this at work in e-mail, when people send out an ultra-short message that fits entirely in the subject line. Hence the “EOM” (End Of Message) convention you see in some places — saves people the trouble of opening an empty e-mail.

Of course, this raises the question of why use e-mail to send that message in the first place? Before Twitter and other short-form messaging services, e-mail was the only game in town (depending on your groups’ adoption of IM, that might also have been an option, though sending out an IM usually indicates the desire to start a conversation).

Showing vs. Growing in Communication
Anyway, suitability of a messaging medium is pretty dependent on personality and personal preference, in addition to any objective measures of length, reliability, synchronicity, presence, etc., so I’ll just end this with a few additional, partially-baked thoughts on length & communication:

* On the writing side, it’s easier to start long and then refine your way down to short as needed. Ideally, you want to be as concise as you can be, while still conveying the information you need, to prevent excessive back-and-forth communication. If you need to iterate and go back and forth, have a conversation.

* On the speaking side, it’s better to start short — if the listener wants to get more detail, they can ask for more. It’s a more useful skill for a speaker to be able to boil something down to its core, instead of blathering on to someone who isn’t interested in hearing the detail.

Twitter is kind of a funny beast in this regard, because it’s both public messaging (chat, or chat-like) and microblogging (which is more of a publishing experience). This crossing of communication cultures may be why Twitter evokes such strong feelings from lovers and haters.

Anyway, whether you’re a long-former or a short-former, please leave a comment below.

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