It seems that we are constantly inventing shorter ways to communicate. Note that I didn't say faster or more efficient, just shorter. The Internet especially seems to want to help us shorten the length of what we read. In the age of print, books and pamphlets dominated alongside newspaper and magazine articles. While radio and television started the process of condensing communication, it has accelerated dramatically since the Internet became more ubiquitous. Our attention spans shrink and so does what we read.
Of course, the perceived attention span shrinkage may be a symptom not a cause. As we have less time to devote solely to reading, we crave shorter forms that give us what we need most in the smallest amount of time possible. We still want longer form writing when we have the time. Reading a book on the beach is the ultimate summer pleasure. Other times, we barely have time to check Facebook. Subsequently, we now have a hierarchy of written communication. It starts off long and detailed and ends in microblogging which is incredibly short – haiku short – and lacking entirely in details.
Books provide deep understanding. If you want to become expert at something, books are a good place to start. Articles don't go as deep as books but the longer format allows you to become knowledgeable about a great many things in a short amount of time.
Unfortunately for the magazines and newspapers that typically publish articles, blogs are superseding them. Blogs have a two key advantages – instant distribution and easy publishing. Instead of waiting hours or even months to get something in print, a blog gets your “article” out there right away. And anyone can publish a blog. No wrangling with editors and publishers. No pesky fact checkers. That, of course, is the weakness of the blog. As a reader you don't always know if you are getting facts, opinion, spin, or outright falsehood. Blogs are killing newspapers and magazines and I worry that the truth will die with them. Disclosure: I always present this blog as opinion and nothing more. Don't believe everything you read. Fight the power!
Microblogging and status messages on services like Facebook are quickly becoming the way that many people broadcast information. Short, instantaneous bursts of information, microblogging leaves little room for understanding or explanation. In terms of depth of knowledge they are at the shallow end of the pool. But this is what we want or need. We want to know a little something about everything but don't have the time to read hundreds of books, newspapers, or articles. It's kind of like an information buffet. You take a taste of this and that so that you can see what you like.
As recent events in Iran have shown, microblogging is a very powerful media. Anyone can crank out a Tweet from a cell phone and have it be published before authorities even know it's there. It's hard to censor in those circumstances. Once again - Fight the power!
Perhaps in the future communication will get so short that no one will say anything at all. I could live with that. It would certainly cut down on the information overload if there was no information. I doubt very much that's where we will end up. But every time I predict we are at the floor, we push right through it.
Still, with SMS limited to 160 characters and Twitter limited to 140, I can't imagine how much smaller we could go. Perhaps we will need to write in glyph based languages like Chinese or Ancient Egyptian where more information is contained in each character.
Of course, many times there is beauty in simplicity and in an economy of words. In that vein I offer you this haiku:
Like the bird in spring
Sitting in the tallest tree
I must Tweet today