In the first decade of this new millennium, we find ourselves on the brink of massive change. Advances in new media have been made beyond our wildest dreams. The response? To dream wilder. Computers, cellular phones, high-definition television and many others mark this decade as one of notable progress. But these are merely devices; what about their intended purpose? Communication is central to many of these hallmarks of technological progress. Consider what some may perceive as an average evening in the United States: You can watch American Idol on Fox, make your vote using your cellphone (probably powered by AT&T) then later use your laptop to tweet your thoughts on the episode in one concise statement. The tweet’s relevance is subject to question though. Just how important are your thoughts on the entertainment you consume? Does reducing that thought to a length of 140 characters reduce the meaning behind the thought? What is tweeting or, to use a broader term, micro-blogging? How does it impact the world of technology and communication as we know it today?
Let’s start with a definition. According to the Macmillan Online Dictionary, micro-blogging is “putting short updates such as brief texts, photos etc. on a personal blog, especially by using a mobile phone or instant messaging software.” It’s classified as a “buzz word” or “a word that has become very popular, especially a word relating to a particular activity or subject.” From this, one can surmise that micro-blogging is a fairly new term for an activity that has reached popularity only recently. Macmillan goes on to briefly detail the word’s background by breaking it down into its two component words for the sake of etymology. “Micro” means small while “blog” is short for “weblog” or “online journal.” The latter concept was conceived in the early nineties with the advent of the internet we know today. (Macmillan 2011) With this in mind, we can clearly see that micro-blogging’s ancestor is less than two decades old and already spawning. Technology has its roots firmly entrenched in its consuming public and is branching out with new tendrils every day. We’ve gone from diaries for our eyes alone to blogs for an online audience to micro-blogs for instant gratification in disseminating our opinions. It seems our voices get louder as technology makes it easier for us to be heard.
But what is the nature of this new-found voice? What is micro-blogging to the average person? Now that we’ve broken it down into its simplest essence through the dictionary definition, I present here my anecdotal definition. As I see it, micro-blogging is a more personal method of communication in that it tends to be more impulsive. A single sentence escapes one’s fingers far more easily than several paragraphs. If one has certain feelings, a single burst comprised of 140 characters (perhaps rife with typos and shorthand misspellings) is far easier to manage and post than a blog entry comprised of a multitude of thoughts in hundreds (maybe even thousands) of words. With the latter, one is forced to introspect and ponder, to re-read and analyze. Is this really fit to post? However, with a micro-blog entry, one simply hits send upon finishing the sentence, almost as if to punctuate it. “Send” is the new “period.” Indeed, errors might add to what makes a micro-blog more personal. This is a heat of the moment impulse thought presented raw with mistakes and all.
However, more personal as it may be, does it get the message across better than a blog entry that’s been thought out? Blogging versus micro-blogging can actually be seen as analogous to letter-writing versus e-mailing in this way. It takes time and patience to compose blog entries and handwritten letters while e-mailing and micro-blogging offer instant gratification. There’s also a contradiction here though. While both e-mailing and micro-blogging offer instant gratification, the latter is far more personal. Why is this so?
First, let’s look at the eldest of these forms of correspondence. In the letter, your penmanship is a concern along with the choice of words and the frequency of error. When writing out a letter by hand, it’s common for people to first compose a rough draft. From that rough draft, a final draft is copied out which lacks all the mistakes present in the rough version. There’s no backspace key when it comes to putting pen to paper. Then, when it’s time to mail your letter, it can take days, weeks or even months to reach its destination. The effort in producing a letter is palpable and therein we find the personal appeal. It’s a form of one on one correspondence that transmits a willingness to exercise effort for the receiving party.
On the other hand, e-mailing is much faster. Once you hit send, your message is now in your intended recipient’s inbox. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the next room sharing your wi-fi connection or on the other side of the planet; the amount of time it takes for your message to come to them is the same. Though some actually do put in the effort to spell correctly in their e-mails, the norm (as I’ve experienced it) is to treat it as a less formal medium of communication unless one is corresponding with an authority figure. Text-speak and typos are common especially when an e-mail is rushed. There’s no personal touch brought by penmanship when one simply selects a font. So this begs the question: how does micro-blogging, despite being faster than e-mail, somehow end up being more personal? What sets it apart from the standard blog format?
We’ll have to first look at the blog before we can arrive at an answer. In a blog entry, one is essentially writing a diary entry for the public. Though certain web platforms offer you the option of locking an entry to a select few individuals, what you write here is still intended for some form of public consumption. Most blog entries tend to be comprised of at least one paragraph; a far cry from the character limits one finds in micro-blogging. In fact, one could say there is no word limit to a blog entry. You can go at length about a certain topic with no end in sight should you wish it. But is it enough to hold attention? Most of the time, when people surf the internet, they tend to simply scan over a text rather than truly assimilate. In this way, the impact of your thoughts may be deadened. If your intended audience’s attention span isn’t focused, your message is unlikely to get across.
Going back to our earlier query about why micro-blogging is more personal and likely to get across to readers as opposed to a blog entry or an e-mail, we can surmise that the answer lies in impulse control, length and audience. When one is micro-blogging, the words come easily because one must be concise. Hardly is there ever a spell-check function or an option to change fonts to distract you from the words you wish to post. You simply type what you think and hit send. In a way, it can be comparable to instant messaging or text messaging where you find yourself speaking to the other party directly. Micro-blogging feels like a conversation as opposed to simple blogging which feels like you’re putting your thoughts up for peer evaluation. With its short length, micro-blogs aren’t difficult to read. You can go through hundreds of tweets on someone’s Twitter feed over the span of a single hour. In this way, the audience is compelled. Rather than becoming bombarded by a wall of text, they see information in manageable chunks and thus have an easier time focusing.
But what about e-mail? Aren’t they similarly short at times? Don’t they also fulfill instant gratification in being easy to send and receive? Yes, but e-mails tend to fulfill a different need than a micro-blog. With a micro-blog, you are writing for an audience. With an e-mail, you are writing a brief one-on-one correspondence like a text message. Writing for one just doesn’t fulfill the same social expectations as writing for many. In an e-mail, one can perhaps revive the length of the usual letter format and fill it with one’s emotions but then we come to the same problem we have with blog entries: length that requires more attention to focus on. In the end, micro-blogs are more personal than e-mails because they encourage impulsiveness and do so with an audience watching. It’s a new kind of digital exhibitionism.
But, as we all have already learned when it comes to technology, new doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” Micro-blogging is something users must be responsible with. After all, since it appears to be a license to be impulsive, one is now more likely to post something one might regret. A harsh Tweet can’t be taken back easily. Sure, you can delete it but there’s that saying about things on the internet being there forever. One can say that the same standard for even the simplest form of communication applies here. Think before you speak or, to be more apt, think before you Tweet. You never know who’s watching on a social network. You just might put off future employers and ruin your chances at an excellent opportunity. That’s the power of 140 characters. Micro-blog responsibly.