Twitter Revolution / Let's Put a Length Limit on Everything

Even if Twitter is another marginal site that might yet fade away, the concision revolution is important outside the Internet.

Even people who do not surf the Internet or are indifferent to technological innovations will find it hard to miss the buzz surrounding the Twitter social network. At bottom, this is a site that enables every Web surfer to post a personal profile and write a blog. What distinguishes Twitter from its thousands of competitors is the limit on the length of the publication - up to 140 characters (about 20 words). This inflexible framework is the real revolution in Twitter, which compels the writer to express ideas concisely, to filter out the irrelevant and to think about every word. This revolution in concision ought to spread to academia, the courts and even culture and art.

It is clear that not all content on the Web consists of sublime ideas that will improve the human condition beyond all recognition. But within the inundation of nonsense there are flashes of original thinking, business ideas and links to interesting articles on the Internet. U.S. President Barack Obama's schedule, Queen Rania of Jordan's preparations for the pope's visit or research by a leading professor at Harvard are distributed to thousands of people and advance public discourse.

Even if Twitter is another marginal site that might yet fade away, the concision revolution is important outside the Internet. The most recent state comptroller's report consisted of more than 2,300 pages. "This is one of the biggest reports since the establishment of the state," the comptroller boasted. Yet despite its important revelations, few people will plow through even the 329 pages of the summary.

Court rulings have also become bloated. The bottom line in a criminal trial for the most part consists of one word - guilty or innocent - yet the rulings sprawl over hundreds of pages. A proposal to restrict rulings in lower courts to 15 pages has dropped out of sight. A court ruling should not be the length of an SMS, but a reasonable limitation on length would enable a far larger public to read such verdicts.

Academia, too, needs a similar policy. The universities already limit the length of papers in bachelor degree programs, but this should also be applied to advanced degrees.

The concision revolution should be expanded to culture and art as well. The unwritten ceiling on the length of a film - 90 minutes - is generally observed, but some directors make films that last for three hours. It is clear that artistic freedom must be preserved, but those who drag things out instead of cutting an unnecessary scene cause spectators to writhe uncomfortably in their seats, and sometimes to pass on seeing a movie because of its length.

Long books are also off-putting. It is true that Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" had a million and a half words, while the Harry Potter books spread over 700 pages, but these are exceptions. Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man" won the praise of critics and audience alike despite (and perhaps because of) its 179 pages.

Some will argue that a concision revolution would lead to shallow discourse. However, limits would cause writers to aspire to be concise and to sharpen their message.

The age of television and the Internet demonstrates that the public finds it hard to absorb long messages. Reading long texts on the computer is inconvenient and causes eyestrain. The solution is the gradation of content for different audiences. Whoever is interested will read about the latest scientific development in 140 characters, in a 1,000-word article or in a 200-page book.

Twitter proves that it is possible to transmit even big ideas concisely. My editors even asked that this article be boiled down to 650 words. And the search for examples of this essential revolution need not be confined to the Internet: The most important scientific discovery of the modern era consisted of only five characters: E=mc2.

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