I learned how to write 140 character tweets at the age of 16. I’m nearly 47. Let me explain…
Back in the day in Watford, the funny little town in which I grew up, we used to have two local newspapers. The Evening Echo was published six times a week, including the exciting Saturday evening sports special that would include match commentary from that day’s exploits of my beloved Hornets. The Watford Observer came out every Friday and was the broadsheet tome for the town. Yep, two newspapers, paid for by readers, in a town of about 80,000 people.
At sixteen I was lucky enough to land a week of work experience at the Observer’s offices on Rickmansworth Road. It seemed, looking back on it, to be a fairly well established programme for senior school kids. A day was spent with the court correspondent in Watford Magistrates listening to various cases of minor misdemeanours. But mostly what I remember doing was writing column fillers.
Each week the newspaper would receive dozens of press releases from local organisations wishing to inform the residents of South West Hertfordshire about jumble sales or sponsored walks or what have you. My job for the week was to distil down the essence of these missives into short, pithy prose that could be used to fill in the spaces between the advertising and the proper articles.
The process for most of the week involved me cutting down a page or two of A4 text into as small as possible a number of words, taking it to the subeditor who would read it through and then tell me it was still too long. Two or three iterations later and it would pass muster. By the end of the week I had half a dozen of these micro articles in the paper. It was an incredibly proud moment when I saw them all for the first time (and I really meant that).
So when in 2009 I joined the Twitter party, that week of intense training in the art of succinct writing came back to me. And I absolutely loved the linguistic challenge of being able to say what you wanted to say in just 140 characters. It was almost haiku like. Or a form of work Sudoku.
But in the last few years features like threading have come along, so now it’s no real surprise that yesterday Twitter decided after trials that the 140 character limit would be doubled. My competitive social networking advantage learned all those years ago in the offices of the local rag is no more. 280 characters feels like an essay in comparison to what we’ve been used to. But, no doubt, it’ll become the new normal soon enough.