Brevity is the soul of…

… social media?  Perhaps.  Let’s discuss.  I’ll be not-so brief.

The actual quote comes from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.   In a fairly lengthy discourse the character Polonius says, “…brevity is the soul of wit…”  So, what does it mean?  Take a look at this forum that I stumbled across.  Short answer comes from the second response on the forum. Scroll down a bit further, though, and you’ll find a more detailed interpretation.

Now, before you start pulling your hair out, let me explain why I went to the trouble to look into that quote.  After all, this is not a high school literature blog.  However, it is an excellent example of a major discussion in the world of social media, and society as a whole.  There is a trend toward brevity in social media.  In SocialCorp Social Media Goes Corporate, Joel Postman wrote, “It’s pretty well established that social media is ‘fast’ in a number of ways” (page 156).  Later on the same page Postman said, “What’s going to matter next is not speed but brevity. Attention spans seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and at the same time, trends in online content are adapting to this fact.”  For example, Twitter limits posts to only 140 characters.  That’s characters, not words.  When this blog post is complete, a snippet of it will appear on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages. My @WadeAbbott Twitter account will link to this post using a shortened URL.  I’m being taught in my “New Media Production” class in graduate school that online videos should be no more than a couple of minutes long. With so much information out there, there is a trend toward brevity. Unfortunately, brevity may reduce clarity.

Does brevity cause us to miss out on significant facts?  Is it dumbing us down?  Are we being reduced to a society of sound bites, quick videos, and texting shortcuts?  That’s certainly the opinion of my brother in one of his American Idle blog posts.  I share his concerns.  I wonder if we are simply drowning in a onslought of sweet social media icing, and therefore we rarely dig down into the more substantial cake.

It’s not a new discussion.  Well before online social media, my parents frequently told me that television was having the same effect.  I’ve heard discussions of a society that gets frustrated if problems are not solved in the time frame of a 30-minute sitcom.  (Bigger problems might take a whole hour.)  For years I’ve wondered about the communication skills within our society.  I’ve had numerous bosses who seemingly could not string a complete sentence together to save their lives.  In their search for brevity, they completely mangled the message.  And what about analytical ability?  Is that a skill quickly becoming extinct?  I came across a quote about that very subject in a New York Times article today.  The quote, found on page 3 of the article about the impact of technology and connectivity on our lives, says, “Mr. Ophir [a researcher at Stanford] is loath to call the cognitive changes [caused by technology] bad or good, though the impact on analysis and creativity worries him.”  Ironically, this HUGE article came across my desk via a brief retweet from @amymengel, a local social media guru.

The answer to that problem might be in this very medium.  Blogging provides the opportunity for balance.  It can provide the brevity so desired within online communities.  At the same time, it can also provide an outlet for more detailed analysis.  What’s more, that analysis can be done by ordinary citizens, not just by so-called “experts.”

Brevity, like anything in this world, can be overdone.  Sometimes we need to dig a little deeper.  The key is balance.

Take that Polonius.

Leave a comment


  1. Lee Abbott

     /  June 8, 2010

    Two sons engaged in thoughtful writing–hmmmm, the pay-off for restricting TV?

    • I don’t know if restricting TV helped my writing. It certainly helped my reading abilities. I wonder what my not-so-little brother thinks about the comments.


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