Twitter and the Aphoristic Society

On: October 14, 2008
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“To marry is to halve one’s rights and double one’s duties”  (Arthur Schopenhauer)


 Aphorism and epigram have a rich history in Western literature. Ever since the days of Greece and Rome, writers and philosophers have been challenged by it to express themselves in short and brief, yet meaningful and often funny statements. As one “aphorism” from Hamlet has it, “brevity is the soul of wit”, and what briefer way of expressing oneself than writing an aphorism?

Putting a lot of thought into few words is a particular writing challenge. It is not difficult to write a lengthy argument about how the act of marrying supposedly robs you of your right to do whatever you want, but it is difficult to put that same idea into a pithy statement as well as Schopenhauer in the above example. The tension between short form and big substance is what makes aphorism interesting, both to read and write. In Eastern literature, the correlate of aphorism and epigram is probably the haiku, a form of poetry which forces the poet to adhere to a rigid structure of very few syllables. In the original haiku tradition, a single haiku captures a vivid image from nature that inspires meaningful thought. What haiku has in common with the Western literary forms is that interesting conflict between short form and big substance.

Today, it seems as if the art of putting a lot of information in a short amount of words has moved out of the sphere of literature and into our general communication media. Thirty years ago, it was the norm for “informed citizens” to read a daily newspaper that was a product of independent news-gathering, usually covering important topics in some detail and having supplements where issues could be explored in even greater detail. Today, these traditional paid newspapers are increasingly obscured by free daily tabloids like the successful Swedish Metro. These newspapers often consist to a large extent of short news reports syndicated from press agencies like Reuters. Aimed at middle-brow commuters, these free dailies are very popular among readers, as they offer a free daily digest of the day’s most important news items in little time.

Similar things may be happening to television. In Holland, public television now has a special news programme in the evenings that is aimed at a “younger news audience”, featuring presenters in casual wear standing in the middle of a television control room. One of the most significant features of this news programme is the “60-second news digest” that aims to capture the day’s news in one minute.  Business newspapers now also have sections where you can read the world’s news in a minute.

Cultural pessimist and old people have been arguing that today’s young people no longer have any attention span whatsoever, that they no longer have the ability to read long texts and that they are fickle “zappers”. In Holland, this has been dubbed “zap culture”. The phenomenon of “all the world’s news in a minute” seems to reflect this. Another factor in people’s increasing preference for these types of quick news digests is probably the increasing pace of modern life.

But when pessimists and old people talk about “zap culture”, maybe we could substitute “aphoristic culture”. After all, a shorter attention span for communication does not necessarily mean that less information is processed in total. Today’s teenagers are probably more adept at scanning data for information than older people, because they are more accustomed to selecting what is relevant to them. In personal communication, too, people have started to develop preferences for short communication: text messages over calling, e-mail over business letters. One might argue that the SMS text message is like a haiku or aphorism, due to the constraints of the medium (160 characters). People today have learnt to put communication into these short and well, let’s face it, user-unfriendly messages. The cumbersome process of keying in a message on a telephone forces people to say as much as possible in as few characters as needed. So when some people talk about “zap culture” maybe they are just seeing the surface of what is simply more communication in less time.

It is possible to see the phenomenon of in the perspective of aphorism and aphoristic culture. Twitter enables the user to express 140-character “soundbites” that tell others what the user is currently doing or thinking. It lets people to express themselves, but forces them to do so in a format that can be only 140 characters in length. This brings us back to the aphorism as a literary device, and the tension between short form and big substance. True, most people who write on Twitter have no presumption of being a philosopher or poet, but it is still interesting for anyone to try and express themselves, not in a lengthy message, but in a short, concise and snappy soundbite.

Twitter enables people to communicate with others in a snappy, short and time-efficient way. It is not exclusively web-based: users can also Twitter via SMS text. Athough denounced by some as a useless waste of time, Twitter may be a symptom of a kind of “aphoristic culture”, where people value short and snappy communication over more time-consuming methods. After all, our lives have become so busy, now that we have to keep track of our own and other’s lives online.

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