THE BLOG
17/09/2012 19:46 BST | Updated 17/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Twitter and the Art of Brevity

At the beginning of the 21st Century, brevity is back in vogue. Twitter is an extension of Hemingway's challenge to anyone brave enough to accept it, and, like the modernists' reaction to photography and the 'brief encounter', it cultivates new ways of seeing and thinking.

During the first decades of the 20th Century, when domestic photography was being developed and more and more people travelled and met on trains, the public was introduced to new ideas of brevity and transience. The 'brief encounter' became one of the most popular fictional plots, and it's hard to think of a writer of modernist fiction who didn't turn their hand to the form of the short story: Woolf, Joyce, Mansfield, Hemingway... all were interested in short glimpses, epiphanies, or what Woolf called 'moments of being'.

In fact, brevity became something of an artistic challenge, a new parameter in which writers could flex their literary muscles. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was famously challenged to write a six-word short story. His reply illustrates brevity at its chillingly curt best: 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'

At the beginning of the 21st Century, brevity is back in vogue. Twitter is an extension of Hemingway's challenge to anyone brave enough to accept it, and, like the modernists' reaction to photography and the 'brief encounter', it cultivates new ways of seeing and thinking.

Seasoned tweeters see the world around them in a series of tweets: pithy, often humorous observations and comments in which every word is weighed for its worth, and those that don't do their fair share of work are discarded. The resulting tweet relies, to a degree, on inference, on opening up the endless web of association, assumption and shared understanding which underpins all language, but which is most apparent when words are kept to a minimum. Hemingway's story is most effective because of what it doesn't say, what the six-word rule forces upon it. A great tweet is similar.

Take, for example, some of the most popular twitter accounts from non-celebrities: there's HM The Queen, Kim Kirkegaardashian, Not Jamie Oliver, Sixth Form Poet... All of these rely on their form for their humour. The joke is, in its very nature, brief. Once you try to explain a punchline, once you try to put it into more words, its effect dies. The inference, the click of the brain that makes you realise what's funny, relies on a certain amount of uncertain, inferred knowledge.

However, this is also what makes Twitter such an easy pitfall for the unsuspecting celebrity or politician. Twitter isn't a place for explanation, and, in opening up the web of inference, can quickly lead to misdemeanours, crossed wires and people getting the wrong end of the stick (think, for example, of the reaction to Diane Abbot's 'divide and rule' tweet...). Great tweeters (of which I'm not one) have learnt anew the art of brevity which fascinated the modernists: they know which moments to choose, which words have meaning and which don't pull their weight, and, most importantly, they know how to use shared knowledge and inferred meaning to their advantage.

There is an art in brevity which trains the mind to see in a certain way: plenty of people have the bizarre ability to be witty on Twitter and yet remain aggressively boring in real life. They have found their form in the tweet, just as some writers (like Katherine Mansfield) found their form in the short story, in the brief encounter, and struggled to expand beyond it. But they're the ones with all the followers. For the rest of us, we just have to hope that we can find someone who cares enough to listen to the extended version.