Saturday, January 10, 2009

Twitter Tricks and Errata

Composing a meaningful Twitter update is like a form of poetry. I always feel like I'm writing a haiku. It's not about counting syllables; it's about counting characters. How do you make a point in 140 characters or less? It's like a lesson in headline writing.

Twitter is built around the 160 character SMS message size limit for cell phone texting. (see GSM 03.40, 03.41, and 03.38) The protocol uses a field in the SS7 protocol for call setup and teardown that is 140 octets (bytes) in size, but they cram 160 7-bit characters (septets) in there if the default aphabet is used. Some accented characters or alternate alphabets use two or three septets. Should texting cost more if you speak one of the languages which uses lots of accented characters?

I frequently run into a character deficit in the Twitter update box, then I have to edit my update down. I strongly feel that the SMS standard should have focused less on bit packing and foreign alphabets and more on message fragmentation and reassembly. Then they could have used Unicode, which contains almost every alphabet in use today. What a tragedy. U may become a permanent homonym/synonym for you in casual texting English. It may already be too late. Is spelling a new art or a lost art? I suppose if they charged by the word, people would just start leaving out spaces. In the telegraph days, people saved money by using the word "stop" instead of periods to end sentences, because punctuation was extra while the four character word was free.

Telegram rates varied depending on the distance the message had to be sent, the speed with which it needed to be delivered, and its length. A ten-word telegram sent within a city cost as little as twenty cents in the 1920s. The same telegram sent from Chicago to New York City, for example, cost 60 cents. Most telegraph companies charged by the word, so customers had good reason to be as brief as possible. This gave telegram prose a snappy, brisk style, and the frequent omission of pronouns and articles often became almost poetically ambiguous. Telegrams were almost always brief, pointed, and momentous in a way unmatched by any other form of communication.

Some phones, like the iPhone, do a good job of splitting long messages and putting the message fragments together again, despite the fact that they might arrive out of sequence. You still get charged for multiple messages. One blogger wrote that it was a coup to charge $1310 per megabit for SMS. I think his calculation is wrong by an order of magnitude, even if you do the math with the most egregious messaging rates. (15 cents per message / 1120 bits = $133.93 per megabit) In the days of $20 per month unlimited broadband, this is robbery.

Maybe poets have known for years, but I've learned a lot of tricks and creative ways to merge sentences by compressing the predicate of one sentence into a string of adjectives in another sentence to still convey my point. I abbreviate where possible. Sometimes a more descriptive word gets sacrificed for a shorter, less colorful synonym. Any form of "be" can be replaced by "=". Another useful math operator is "+". You can change "bread and butter" to "bread & butter" and win back two characters. "Bread+butter" saves you four!

Not all Tweets are crafted to fit the length constraint, and Twitter might truncate the message at an unfortunate place. For example:

@Foodimentary Food~Fact: 350 million eat with knife and hands; 250 million eat with hands only. These sets of stats come from The Japanese Restaurant Ass 1:41 PM Jan 9th from web

I digress.

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