Monday, November 4, 2013

Harrison Bergeron and the forced equality of Twitter

I've been experimenting with Twitter recently and giving a lot of thought to how it can compliment blogging, longer form writing and other projects. It's an interesting platform, almost a medium to itself,  with lots of interesting features, but if you limited me to one defining aspect, it  would clearly be the 140 character limit. Both the style and content of tweets have clearly evolved around those constraints.

And because my mind is prone to odd turns, that got me to thinking about the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. story "Harrison Bergeron." In case you're not familiar with the story, here's the premise:
It is the year 2081. Because of Amendments to the Constitution, every American is fully equal, meaning that no one is smarter, better-looking, stronger, or faster than anyone else. The Handicapper General and a team of agents ensure that the laws of equality are enforced. The government forces citizens to wear "handicaps" (a mask if they are too handsome or beautiful, earphones with deafening radio signals to make intelligent people unable to concentrate and form thoughts, and heavy weights to slow down those who are too strong or fast).

How does that relate to Twitter? Consider the case of the following two writers:

The first sits at home in a comfortable chair, using an ergonomic keyboard, with three large high-definition monitors and a high-speed Internet connection;

The second is standing in line at a convenience store with one arm filled with groceries, trying to type out a message with one thumb.

If these two writers are allowed to compete on equal terms, the first will soon dominate the platform. Here's where the Harrison Bergeron effect comes into play. Twitter creates an equal playing field not by improving the productivity of the mobile user but my handicapping the user who would normally be dominant.

Of course, the hundred and forty character limit is also a handicap for the mobile user, but it is a much smaller handicap. In most cases the guy tweeting on a phone would probably not go that much over 140 characters anyway.

Twitter's character limit is not driven by a misplaced sense of fairness. There have been big practical benefits from this approach. By coming up with a mobile-friendly platform, Twitter has come to dominate the social and much of the news side of what is perhaps the fastest growing and most lucrative market in 21st-century communication. Those thumb-typers brought a lot to the table.

So, just to be clear, there is no disrespect intended here but it is interesting to note that the fantastic success of Twitter can be largely attributed to a largely arbitrary restriction imposed on its users.


  1. There is another effect that is very strong. The idea that it is harder to write a short piece than a long piece. The 140 character limit forces writer to be terse. Otherwise there would be a tendency for people to write long posts that were pedantic rather than edifying.

    1. Yes and no. If you hold content constant, yes, but most tweets are limited to subjects small enough that you can cover them in 140 without being all that economical, particularly when you have multiple tweets, often redundant, tweets on the same topic.

      There are certainly plenty of pithy tweets but there are also plenty that aren't.