How much can you convey within 140 characters? And what, of any worth, can really be said within that limitation? I was having this debate the other day in a LinkedIn Group, with the other person maintaining that it was perfectly feasible to convey something of genuine worth or insight within a solitary, isolated tweet of 140 characters on Twitter.
This discussion put me in mind (as so much modern communication technology does) of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work (you should really read it, you know), Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopic tale of a life and mental resistance under a fictional omniscient totalitarian state. One of the means by which the state subjugates and subdues its population is the reduction and destruction of language itself.
The state in Nineteen Eighty-Four launches its attack on language as a way of diminishing the range of human thought. The less variance and choice we have for expressing ourselves, the less chance there is that we will question facts or statements. This reduced language is known as Newspeak in the novel. One state worker describes its construction as follows:
‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?’
The character, Syme, goes on to explain the rationale:
‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…’
‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.’
Does all of this seem familiar, even for those who may have already read the book or seen an adaptation? I would argue that we are collectively on the verge of a Newspeak era, inadvertently brought about by the imposed length restraints of social networks and the accelerated speed with which we post and consume information.
This blog has argued previously about the disastrous mob mentality that networks such as Twitter seem to engender, and it has also cited social media/Nineteen Eighty-Four parallels before in regards to the advent of Google Glass technologies, but I think that destruction and abbreviation of language used in Social Media exchanges is probably the greatest threat posed to us by modern means of communication.
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. #Newspeak
— Nick Lewis (NLC) (@NLCuk) May 27, 2013
If you think about it, a hashtag is almost a Newspeak word, being a reductive, concertinaed composite that is meant to almost summarise a subject or an attitude. And think about your own Social Media conversations; how often have you had to edit down or summarise an intended post, just so it would fit in the allotted space? And having edited that post, how satisfied were you with the final version? Did you have mild pangs at the rough crudity of what you posted, and what you lost from the original draft? I know I have.
I don’t want to come across too much of a Cassandra, arguing that social media is somehow an apocalyptic trend in human interaction (this blog has actually argued the contrary in the past), but we should not be blind to the pitfalls and potential dangers inherent in conducting all our communication through social networks.
US Trailer for the 1980’s adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four
It must be noted that real-world political trends (the intrusion of advertising jargon into political communication) preceded and foresaw the reductive power of social media, for what is a soundbite if not an ancestor to the tweet? The prominent soundbites of the recent age are all distinctly Orwellian in their reductive power, and have the smack of pat summary of the most idiotic and populist tweets: “The war against terror”, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” , “Excellence for all”, “Lessons will be learnt”… this depressing list of meaningless platitudes goes on and on.
I for one, however, advocate social media as a means of bringing more expansive content to the attention of others (whether it be blogs, videos or articles). In this sense, the use of social media is expansive rather than reductive, helping educate and not restrict the thoughts of others; Double Google Plus, if you will. Therefore, ultimately, I think social media can be (and is) an enhancing tool for the greater good, as long as we do not end up, inadvertently and mindlessly, declaring our love for a consumerist iteration of Big Brother himself.
Nick Lewis has previously lectured at the University of Sheffield on Social Media. If you would like Nick to speak on social media to your class, business or organisation, please contact Nick Lewis Communications today by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.