Twitter needs Shakespeare

  • Article by: JEREMIAH CHRISTOPHER WHITTEN
  • Updated: April 9, 2012 - 7:31 PM

A call for Shakespearean inspiration in a Twitter age.

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Portrait of William Shakespeare.

Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press

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I specialize in strategic communications, using words to try to educate, elucidate, sway opinion and win support. I fear, however, that words are losing their power these days, and it makes me sad -- not only for my profession, but for my life and, well, for all humanity.

Twitter is at the forefront of the decline of America's patience for prose. The social-media network recently celebrated its sixth birthday with media fanfare and reproductions of the first tweet in history.

Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey wrote in 2006 "just setting up my twttr," which was reverentially "retweeted" as if it were akin to the first telephone call in history by Alexander Graham Bell: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." (Which, come to think of it, was just as boring as the world's first tweet.)

By way of definition for the uninitiated, Twitter transmits brief messages ("tweets") around the world (the "Twitterverse") to other Twitter users ("tweeps" or "tweeple"). Twitter's obsession with brevity is unforgiving. Tweets may only be 140 characters (words and spaces), which forces tweeple to use amusing abbreviations, such as "Gr8!C u L8r."

In some workplaces, there seems to be an intolerance for eloquence that overrides all other considerations. I once worked for a client who demanded that everything be written in bullet points -- no verbs, adjectives or other parts of speech.

"Nobody will read it otherwise!" he insisted. I was delighted to send him a bullet-point letter of resignation several weeks later.

The professional pressure for brevity at the expense of thoughtfulness is expressed perfectly in a PowerPoint satire of the Gettysburg Address, which renders one of the most important speeches in history into six slides. The first full slide reduces all of the nuance, history and eloquence of the speech's opening into: "• Met on battlefield (great) • dedicate portion of field • unfinished work (great tasks)."

While the speech is too long to tweet, it is still an excellent example of "less is more." President Abraham Lincoln actually received second billing when the military cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated in 1863. He had to wait while Edward Everett, a man history has largely forgotten, spoke for two full hours. Upon finally taking the podium, Lincoln said a mere 272 words -- among the most inspiring ever uttered.

Other historical figures could be recast in the Twitterverse. Winston Churchill was a prolific author who received the Nobel Prize for Literature (in addition to saving the world from Hitler in his spare time). His 43 published books are, of course, beyond tweeting. But Churchill's caustic commentary was astonishing in its brevity and impact.

Of a political rival, he once said: "He has all of the virtues I despise and none of the vices I admire." (A masterpiece of economy at 66 characters.)

Or this, which he could have said about Twitter itself: "There are a terrible lot of lies going around the world, and the worst of it is half of them are true" (101 characters).

And, finally this, perhaps on the minds of Tweeps currently reading this essay: "The length of this document defends it well against the risk of its being read" (78 characters).

I realize I must adapt if I want to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of crisis communications. With reluctance, I opened a Twitter account several years ago. I tweet mostly about journalism and health care, and occasionally the Boston Red Sox.

The goal of most tweeple is to accumulate as many "followers" as possible. I know people who follow more than 2,000 tweeps, to the point where they can't make any sense of their Twitter stream and stop paying attention. It's like trying to listen to every conversation among 50,000 people in a sports stadium.

I try to have as few followers as possible, which is counterintuitive to everything Twitter stands for. In two years, I have blocked at least 300 followers and currently carry a modest total of 55 who actually have relevance to me.

I follow 98 tweeps, mostly journalists, news organizations, and news sites about health care and baseball. I block out anyone else who tries to clutter my Twitter stream.

I use Twitter with mixed feelings. Essential for remaining relevant in the working world, Twitter also represents everything I find depressing about the declining power of words.

How would my own favorite historical figure respond to Twitter? Shakespeare will never be accused of brevity (despite famously writing that "brevity is the soul of wit").

But he did write love poems in a narrow and unforgiving format that is somewhat suggestive of Twitter's technical restraints. The Shakespearean sonnet must be 14 lines with a predetermined rhyme scheme.

Each line must be written in iambic pentameter, which permits only 10 syllables per line in an alternating sequence of unstressed and stressed syllables. The final two lines of the sonnet must end in a rhyming couplet.

Writing in iambic pentameter today is like clinging to a dead language, but there are people who still do it (including yours truly).

So, with apologies, here is what I think the Bard would write about Twitter:

Compare my love for thee to summer's day?

An iamb by other name today would stink.

The metaphors of old have lost their sway

No thoughts complex allowed no more methinks.

Poetic words of life and strife nonesuch

Unheard unless expressed in bullet point,

The hollow space of callow minds untouched

Unless declared anon doth disappoint.

With thoughtfulness unpraised we are adrift

Intolerance for eloquence the norm,

Verbosity is vanity, no gift

Indulge in ambiguity you're scorned.

Now character is measured seven score

Atwitter is the world, bespeak no more.

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Jeremiah Christopher Whitten is a strategic communications expert in Chaska.

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