(Eric Shansby)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Have you heard about the social networking Web site Twitter? It's a popular new way to communicate, but you must limit your messa

Heard about Twitter? It's a popular social networking Web site that doesn't let its members write messages that are any longer tha

You know "Twitter"? Website for talk. Many eyeballs. You write short! Cut you off 140 characters. Is future of communicate way!

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently became a Twitter member despite my reservations about the Web site's name, which sounds like a community of 19th-century British fops who got together fortnightly to trade witticisms over crumpets and creme de menthe cordials. And that was even before I learned that an individual message on Twitter is called a "tweet."

Once I joined, though, I discovered I was wrong. Twitter is not at all like a gathering of fops. It is more likea gathering of fourth-graders at Ashley's birthday party after way too much sugar has been consumed.

At the top of the Twitter home page is a box that asks "What are you doing?" And all the, um, Twits are happy to respond, sometimes almost minute by minute. Here's one: "Am watching movie. Eating a snack." Here's another: "Received confirmation that sewage backup is now covered on my renter insurance." Here's another: "Gonna take a nap. I feel feverish." Here's another: "Went to the bathroom." Okay, that last tweet was by me. I wanted to participate, too.

Now, I'm not opposed to self-absorbed, trivial drivel; I make my living with it. My problem with Twitter is that it has become so big and so popular that some newspapers, including this one, are stuffing their latest headlines into Twitter alerts. Even the presidential candidates are kowtowing to it, sending out 140-character campaign news updates. (Some of these sound as though they were composed by the authors of product-assembly manuals from Taiwan. Here's an actual McCain alert: "Hillary turned McCain bloggers shut down by blogger? . . . Doesn't add up.")

I appreciate conciseness, but I'm also thinking Twitter is the short-attention-span, dumbed-down wave of the future, and it troubles me. (In short.)

Twitter got a great publicity boost a few months ago when a Berkeley grad student sent out a one-word tweet to his network of friends -- "arrested" -- as he was being hustled to jail in Egypt for photographing an anti-government protest. Friends alerted college officials, whose pressure led to the student's release. Also, reports from West Coast Twits apparently beat the Associated Press by nine minutes in reporting the most recent earthquake. But defining Twitter by those lofty milestones is like defining "dog" as a "mineshaft rescue engineer."

I do not want to be unfair to Twitter, if for no other reason than I dread the inevitable barrage of deeply insulting yet peculiarly succinct e-mails. So, I'm trying to see its side.

The Web, after all, is already filled with self-celebratory maunderings of nobodies from nowhere with nothing to say; Facebook and MySpace are dedicated to exactly that. I suppose it could be argued that by limiting the length of its members' posts, Twitter is actually performing a service: forcing people to better marshal their thoughts, limiting senseless blather and, in fact, improving the general level of discourse through ruthless self-editing. To argue that, however, you would have to believe that even complex or subtle thoughts can be reliably reduced to 140 characters.

I decided to test this theory by condensing into Twitter length a piece of writing that is already famously concise. I kept feeding my version into the Twitter edit box, and cutting, until I got this sucker down to the prescribed format.

Here we go:

87 years ago, our dads made us free. Yay! Still want free, but hard! Fighting, dying, burying! Need more fight tho, so dead be happy.

Okay, twits, you win. Not much lost at all.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company