Short Is Sweet: Postcards Begat SMS Begat Twitter
by MG Siegler on July 4, 2009
Recently, I’ve noticed something. If you send me an email, the likelihood that I’m going to respond is pretty small. But if you send me a message on Twitter, the likelihood that I’ll respond is much higher. Certainly, part of it is that I get fewer messages on Twitter. But you might be surprised at how close it’s getting in volume when you add @replies to direct messages. The bigger factor for me, is the length of the messages.
If I open up an email and see it filled with paragraphs of information, guaranteed my eyes are going to glaze over. Certainly sometimes it’s an important message that I do need to read, but most of the time it’s just a core message filled with paragraphs of bloat. I don’t want or need the bloat, I need the core message. And that’s why I love Twitter. You simply cannot go over 140 characters. And more often than you may imagine, that’s enough.
Now, on the face of it, plenty of people will disagree with me on that point. But think about it. In an age where we’re bombarded by tons of information, from multiple angles, all day long, there is something beautiful about brevity.
I used to read screenplays for a living. Trust me when I say that there is no shortage of people who can blather on about something to seemingly no end. But the skill in writing a screenplay often came down to if you could convey what you needed to convey in just a few lines. It’s not an easy thing to do — at all. And while it’s not quite the same because it’s even more compact, Twitter forces you do to a similar thing in its own way. And Twitter is hardly the only form of communication that has done this.
Most users know by now that the 140 character limit of Twitter is actually tied to the limits of text messaging. Text messages can only be 160 characters long (Twitter needed to reserve the extra 20 characters for usernames). But do you know where the 160 character limit comes from?
The LA Times ran an excellent piece a few months ago about Friedhelm Hillebrand, the father of the modern text message. He dreamed up the 160 character limit while working at a typewriter in the mid-1980s, trying to see how long sentences needed to be to convey something. He found 160 characters was the magic number he kept arriving at. But the deciding committee for SMS still wasn’t sure until they looked at postcards and found that most of those had messages of 150 characters or less.
And so you see, while you may think Twitter’s character limit is silly or frustrating, it’s actually born out of two other forms of communication that are widely accepted and used the world over. You may not think of Twitter being just like a postcard, but in some ways it is — one that you can instantaneously send to many friends or acquaintances at the same time. And minus the cost of a stamp.
Even with the rise of technology, the lure of the short message remains. And that was the key reason why I found Twitter compelling when I first started using it over two years ago. I never thought of the limitation in a negative sense, but rather as something that could inspire creativity in messages. And could even spur communication.
It’s liberating to know that you only have 140 characters or less to respond to something. For a lot of messages, that removes a huge burden of trying to say enough to the person you’re talking to so that they don’t think you’re being rude. With a 140 character limit, a correlation between briefness and rudeness doesn’t exist.
And that’s why more and more I’m finding myself telling people, “Just message me on Twitter.” It’s a two-way street. I don’t want to have to read you go on and on about something that could be said in one line, and you won’t have to listen to me go on and on about something in response. Again, it won’t work for all messages, which is why Twitter or something like it will never kill email, but for a lot of messages, it works just fine.
Characters and time are saved. It’s a limitation that is liberating.
Why text messages are limited to 160 characters
May 3, 2009 | 1:28 pm
Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times
Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a sheet of paper.
As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.
That became Hillebrand's magic number -- and set the standard for one of today's most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.
"This is perfectly sufficient," he recalled thinking during that epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. "Perfectly sufficient."
The communications researcher and a dozen others had been laying out the plans to standardize a technology that would allow cellphones to transmit and display text messages. Because of tight bandwidth constraints of the wireless networks at the time -- which were mostly used for car phones -- each message would have to be as short as possible.
Before his typewriter experiment, Hillebrand had an argument with a friend about whether 160 characters provided enough space to communicate most thoughts. "My friend said this was impossible for the mass market," Hillebrand said. "I was more optimistic."
His optimism was clearly on the mark. Text messaging has become the prevalent form of mobile communication worldwide. Americans are sending more text messages than making calls on their cellphones, according to a Nielsen Mobile report released last year.
U.S. mobile users sent an average of 357 texts per month in the second quarter of 2008 versus an average of 204 calls, the report said.
Texting has been a boon for telecoms. Giants Verizon Wireless and AT&T each charge 20 to 25 cents a message, or $20 for unlimited texts. Verizon has 86 million subscribers, while AT&T's wireless service has 78.2 million.
And Twitter, the fastest growing online social network, which is being adopted practically en masse by politicians, celebrities ...
... and news outlets, has its very DNA in text messaging. To avoid the need for splitting cellular text messages into multiple parts, the creators of Twitter capped the length of a tweet at 140 characters, keeping the extra 20 for the user's unique address.
Back in 1985, of course, the guys who invented Twitter were probably still playing with Matchbox cars.
Hillebrand found new confidence after his rather unscientific investigations. As chairman of the nonvoice services committee within the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a group that sets standards for the majority of the global mobile market, he pushed forward the group's plans in 1986. All cellular carriers and mobile phones, they decreed, must support the short messaging service (SMS).
Looking for a data pipeline that would fit these micro messages, Hillebrand came up with the idea to harness a secondary radio channel that already existed on mobile networks.
This smaller data lane had been used only to alert a cellphone about reception strength and to supply it with bits of information regarding incoming calls. Voice communication itself had taken place via a separate signal.
"We were looking to a cheap implementation," Hillebrand said on the phone from Bonn. "Most of the time, nothing happens on this control link. So, it was free capacity on the system."
Initially, Hillebrand's team could fit only 128 characters into that space, but that didn't seem like nearly enough. With a little tweaking and a decision to cut down the set of possible letters, numbers and symbols that the system could represent, they squeezed out room for another 32 characters.
Still, his committee wondered, would the 160-character maximum be enough space to prove a useful form of communication? Having zero market research, they based their initial assumptions on two "convincing arguments," Hillebrand said.
For one, they found that postcards often contained fewer than 150 characters.
Second, they analyzed a set of messages sent through Telex, a then-prevalent telegraphy network for business professionals. Despite not having a technical limitation, Hillebrand said, Telex transmissions were usually about the same length as postcards.
Just look at your average e-mail today, he noted. Many can be summed up in the subject line, and the rest often contains just a line or two of text asking for a favor or updating about a particular project.
But length wasn't SMS's only limitation. "The input was cumbersome," Hillebrand said. With multiple letters being assigned to each number button on the keypad, finding a single correct letter could take three or four taps. Typing out a sentence or two was a painstaking task.
Later, software such as T9, which predicts words based on the first few letters typed by the user, QWERTY keyboards such as the BlackBerry's and touchscreen keyboards including the iPhone's made the process more palatable.
But even with these inconveniences, text messaging took off. Fast. Hillebrand never imagined how quickly and universally the technology would be adopted. What was originally devised as a portable paging system for craftsmen using their cars as a mobile office is now the preferred form of on-the-go communication for cellphone users of all ages.
"Nobody had foreseen how fast and quickly the young people would use this," Hillebrand said. He's still fascinated by stories of young couples breaking up via text message.
When he tells the story of his 160-character breakthrough, Hillebrand says, people assume he's rich. But he's not.
There are no text message royalties. He doesn't receive a couple of pennies each time someone sends a text, like songwriters do for radio airplay. Though "that would be nice," Hillebrand said.
Now Hillebrand lives in Bonn, managing Hillebrand & Partners, a technology patent consulting firm. He has written a book about the creation of GSM, a $255 hardcover tome.
Following an early retirement that didn't take, Hillebrand is pondering his next project. Multimedia messaging could benefit from regulation, he said. With so many different cellphones taking photos, videos and audio in a variety of formats, you can never be sure whether your friend's phone will be able to display it.
But he's hoping to make a respectable salary for the work this time."
Twitter creator Jack Dorsey illuminates the site's founding document. Part I
February 18, 2009 | 5:04 pm
Sitting in the Flickr archives is a nearly 10-year-old document uploaded a couple of years ago by its author, Jack Dorsey (@jack), who started Twitter in 2006 along with co-founders Evan Williams (@ev) and Biz Stone (@biz).
The legal-pad sketch of the idea that would become Twitter has been noticed before, but given all the recent hype, we thought we'd track down Dorsey and ask him about it in a little more detail. In the following interview, Dorsey uses the document to touch on aspects of the micromessaging service's history, including the inspirations and constraints that came to define one of the Web's most rapidly growing information channels.
Twitter didn't just fly out of thin air and land on a branch. As Dorsey explains, it has conceptual roots in the world of vehicle dispatch -- where cars and bikes zooming around town must constantly squawk to each other about where they are and what they're up to.
It was when Dorsey saw these systems through the eyes of the social, mobile Web, where anyone can squawk from anywhere, that Twitter's Big Idea was born.
Is this the founding Twitter document?
It has very special significance -- it's hanging in the office somewhere with one other page. Whenever I'm thinking about something, I really like to take out the yellow notepad and get it down.
Twitter has been my life's work in many senses. It started with a fascination with cities and how they work, and what’s going on in them right now. That led me to the only thing that was tractable in discovering that, which was bicycle messengers and truck couriers roaming about, delivering packages.
That allowed me to create this visualization -- to create software that allowed me to see how this was all moving in a city. Then we started adding in the next element, which are taxi cabs. Now we have another entity roaming about the metropolis, reporting where it is and what work it has, going over GPS and CB radio or cellphone. And then you get to the emergency services: ambulances, firetrucks and police -- and suddenly you have have this very rich sense of what’s happening right now in the city.
But it’s missing the public. It's missing normal people.
And that’s where Twitter came in. What really brought me to that conclusion ...
... was instant messenger. This aspect where you can just locate your buddy list and at a glance locate what your friends are up to, or what they say they’re up to. I found the same parallels in dispatch -- here’s a bunch of ambulances and couriers reporting where they are, and here’s my friends. Now, the problem with IM is that you’re bound to the computer, so it really limited the interestingness of the messages.
So that document was around 2000-2001 when I really got into IM and a service called LiveJournal. And it was crystallizing the thought: What if you have LiveJournal, but you just make it more live? You have these people watching your journal, but it all happens in real time, and you can update it from anywhere. That document was an exploration of that concept.
When did you first try to build out the idea?
I tried it back in 2000 with the first device that RIM made -- the RIM 850, which was the predecessor to the BlackBerry. A very simple squat little e-mail device. It had four lines of text and a typical BlackBerry keyboard. They were like $400, and it would just do e-mail. I wrote a very simple program to listen to an e-mail address and take any updates from me and send them out to a list of my friends. And my friends could reply to that e-mail and tell me what they’re doing.
But the problem was that no one else had those devices –- so again, it limited the experience of that. We were limited until 2005-2006 when SMS took off in this country and I could finally send a message from Cingular to Verizon. And that just crystallized -- well, now’s the time for this idea. And we started working on it.
It was really SMS that inspired the further direction -- the particular constraint of 140 characters was kind of borrowed. You have a natural constraint with the couriers when you update your location or with IM when you update your status. But SMS allowed this other constraint, where most basic phones are limited to 160 characters before they split the messages. So in order to minimize the hassle and thinking around receiving a message, we wanted to make sure that we were not splitting any messages. So we took 20 characters for the user name, and left 140 for the content. That’s where it all came from.
For any potential Twitter historians out there, can you offer a few more details about the drawing -- the little googly eyes, for example?
The little eyeballs were "watching." The concept was watching before we kind of switched it and developed it into "following." So you could watch or unwatch someone -- but we found a better word -- follow or unfollow. The important consideration there was that on Twitter, you’re not watching the person, you’re watching what they produce. It’s not a social network, so there’s no real social pressure inherent in having to call them a "friend" or having to call them a relative, because you’re not dealing with them personally, you’re dealing with what they’ve put out there.
The document's user interface metaphor is very similar [to how Twitter turned out]. You have a little box to "set" your update, and past updates would go down into the timeline below.
Immediately the idea was device-agnostic. You could deliver over e-mail or deliver over Jabber, because IM was a real-time mechanism -- and eventually you could deliver over SMS as well. And the only other aspect on that page was how to find other people. If you know someone, you type in their name or e-mail address, and you can immediately start following their updates.
What are the "authentication triples" on the upper left there?
I was trying to be a little bit too smart, and was trying to figure out ways to do everything without a password. But that’s very difficult and requires way too much thought. So we punted on that. But someone will figure it out. [laughs]
Then when did the service's name morph from “Status/Stat.us” to “twittr” to Twitter?
The working name was just "Status" for a while. It actually didn’t have a name. We were trying to name it, and mobile was a big aspect of the product early on ... We liked the SMS aspect, and how you could update from anywhere and receive from anywhere.
We wanted to capture that in the name -- we wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket. It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word "twitch," because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But "twitch" is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word "twitter," and it was just perfect. The definition was "a short burst of inconsequential information," and "chirps from birds." And that’s exactly what the product was.
The whole bird thing: bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds. The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient. So we just fell in love with the word. It was like, "Oh, this is it." We can use it as a verb, as a noun, it fits with so many other words. If you get too many messages you’re "twitterpated" -- the name was just perfect.
But you needed that short code -– in order to operate SMS you need the short code to operate with this cellular administration. So we were trying to get "twttr" -- because we could just take out the vowels and get the 5-digit code. But unfortunately Teen People had that code -– it was ‘txttp’ [Text TP]. So we just decided to get an easy-to-remember short code , and put the vowels back in.
So Twitter was it, and it’s been a big part of our success. Naming something and getting the branding right is really important.