Words, Words, Words

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words. Words. Words.
Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii

I’m not normally prone to quoting Shakespeare – more of a Modernist and Americanist by (academic) training and by inclination. But a few blog memes this weekend have me thinking of Hamlet and his antic disposition, and the potential for words to be meaningless.

First, James Governer and Nick Carr talking about Twitter.

Governer’s posts (“If Markets Are Conversations Then Twitter Is Money” and “Somebody shot the president! Twitter: Nothing To See Here, Get Back To Work“) argue that the 140 character limit on Twitter is a virtue, leading to greater precision and reduced verbosity:

“if you can’t say it in 140 characters its not meaningful”

With Twitter I can get up to date with my network in less than half an hour – the beauty of the 140 character limit for messages.

Carr agrees to the premise, but turns the conclusion on its head (“The Tweet Filled Void“):

I think he’s right that there are far too many words in circulation today, and I also think he’s right that meaning and even profundity can come in tweet-sized packages. But I think he’s wrong to suggest that Twitter is the friend of brevity. For that to be true, we’d have to assume that the messages streaming through Twitter are briefer than they would have been otherwise – that they’ve been pared down to their essence, like telegraphs. I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I don’t think that most tweets are substitutes for longer messages. Rather, they’re additional verbiage layered atop all the existing verbiage. Twitter adds to the great landfill of words; it doesn’t subtract from it.

Twitter, in other words, is the real “evidence of the verbosity of our culture.”

I have to agree – the things most folks say (my impression, of course) on twitter are not replacements for things they would have said in longer form elsewhere. They’re more like thoughts people might have kept to themselves, or IM’d or emailed with equal brevity.

To me, twitter sounds too much like chatter. But you’re probably tiring of hearing me say that.

Lest you think I’m twitter-obsessed, the other conversation that’s leading to me to think of the Danish prince is the one about the presidential debates.

CNN has announced that they will release the upcoming presidential debtates they host without restrictions:

The presidential debates are an integral part of our system of government, in which the American people have the opportunity to make informed choices about who will serve them. Therefore, CNN debate coverage will be made available without restrictions at the conclusion of each live debate.

While this lead Arlen Parsa to conclude that this means a Creative Commons license (since updated to a “creative commons type license”), in reality there isn’t a specific mention of what license will be used.

In fact, the announcement suggests that the only way to allow free circulation is to waive all restrictions – a major mistake given the whole structure of Creative Commons and the notion of “some rights reserved” in which you explicitly retain copyright while enabling specified uses.

There’s also no mention of what technical / functional mechanisms will be allowed for redistribution – will CNN do something to make video available, or simply promise not to take action against anyone who manages to record the debate and circulate it? Will they pre-seed edited videos into popular sharing channels?

Regardless, I think it is an advancement to enable the footage to circulate.

The question is, though, what will the real benefit of a freely-circulating presidential debate be, if the debate is run like most presidential debates: carefully restricted questions, soundbite answers with no substance, minimal follow on, and lots of evasion?

If all we get are more opportuntities to send soundbites to each other, is that really progress? Does being able to follow Obama on Twitter make me any clearer on his policies, or any more informed about the issues?

Brevity may be the essence of wit, but it provides no guarantee of wisdom.