Brevity is the soul of Twitter

Twitter’s tell-your-story-in-140-characters ethos is a natural evolution of a trend in literature that’s been developing for many years.

Actually, you might even trace it back to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1603, in which Polonius intones that “brevity is the soul of wit.” (Ironic, coming from Shakespeare, who, judging by the length of his plays, found brevity an alien concept.)

But the tipping point for concise expression came much later, and was heralded by seven words: “It was a dark and stormy night …”

The opening passage of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford is considered by many to be to English literature what Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is to filmmaking: so awful it must be celebrated.

In 1982, San Jose State University professor Scott Rice created the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, challenging aspiring writers to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” To date, the contest has drawn more than 10,000 contestants.

(A recent example, from 2008 winner in the adventure category Shannon Wedge: “Leopold looked up at the arrow piercing the skin of the dirigible with a sort of wondrous dismay — the wheezy shriek was just the sort of sound he always imagined a baby moose being beaten with a pair of accordions might make.”)

The significance of the contest, aside from inspiring some howlingly funny prose, is that it asked contestants to focus not on producing a full-length work of literature, but to compress the art of a novel into a single paragraph.

Trace that lineage through the Web site, which urges contributors to post “true stories, told in one sentence.” The site was the winner of the 2009 Weblog Award for Best Microblog, and the contributions are alternately ironic, hilarious, frightening, and achingly sad. (My favourite: “If I had known it would’ve been the last piggyback ride, I would’ve asked you to carry me much further.”)

It’s an artificial and arbitrary constraint that serves to wring as much emotional content out of a brief passage as possible. Every word must carry weight. The impact is often stunning.

Twitter’s 140-character limit isn’t exactly arbitrary – it corresponds to the short messaging service limit of 140 eight-bit characters, whether to mimic or accommodate a texting environment. But the constraint is part of the appeal of Twitter (and and the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest). It is akin to the rules of hockey: the players can’t choose what limits them, and are challenged to perform to the best of their ability within those limits. Twitter challenges users to communicate what they are thinking, feeling or doing in real time, as completely as possible, in a minimalistic literary environment. Much of it is banal, but often, there are gleams of genius and transparency. When you tweet, aim high.

We’ve taken for granted that the evolution of the social Web will have a radical impact on news media. Will it also change our notion of literature forever? Is this the end of the novel as we know it?

(My last tweet, by the way: “I just had to reset my ‘Days Without A Self-Inflicted Injury’ clock to zero. Again.”)

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