December 12, 2012

Blessed are the tweetmakers. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The pope is on Twitter now.

He tweeted his first words today. He tweeted quite a lot.

“Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”

Then: “How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?”

“By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need”

So I guess the verdict is in: 140 characters is enough. 

As someone who’s been on Twitter since 2009, I had some doubt on this front for a while. I like to write long, embellished sentences with lots of subordinate clauses and semicolons all jockeying for position. To constrain them into the confines of a tweet kept requiring me to replace an “and” with an ampersand, and this seemed like sacrilege.

One hundred forty characters, in theory, seems like a lot. For years the only things with 140 characters in them were Tolstoy novels. But then you get down to it, and to squeak in under the limit you are forced to purge your excess. I hate purging excess verbiage. I like to wallow in it. I like to wrap myself up in it like a giant word-blanket.

But when you eliminate the nonessential, what remains, however strangely punctuated, is the only thing you really needed to say after all.

I’m not sure the Pope, with his multiple question-and-answer tweets, quite understands what a single one can do. Sometimes you don’t need more characters. Just look at Words of Hope, where you can send a personal message to someone who truly needs one this holiday season — yup, in 140 characters, or less.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.