The big news story this Easter weekend in Brussels was the (now entering day 3) public transport strike (or “werkonderbreking”/work interruption) triggered by the murder of one of the employees of the transport company. Amid all the media covereage, I was struck by one report by the local station TV Brussel, which included a survey of “online” media. In her summary, the reporter found that in general comments on the main newspaper sites were the most extreme, with (predictably) polarized comments like “get back to work”, “let the perpetrator rot in jail”, etc.), while messages on Twitter were in fact taking a more “long term” view on themes like violence and safety. Suprising?

While not personally confirming this (beyond my own casual use of the web this weekend), the report struck a chord with me, and in particular my growing irritation at some rather sloppy throw away criticism of electronic media, and micro-blogging (as most popularly embodied by Twitter) in particular. Most recently, I encountered this at the Document Freedom Day event in the European Parliament. The closing presentation by Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, was particular irritating especially given my appreciation for the Free Software foundation and its work. Among other broad strokes, his presentation was framed along the lines of “(free) books are important because there are some ideas that can’t be expressed in 140 characters”. OMG.

Reducing the view of the “message” in this case to its 140-character length is missing the point. When one “zooms out” to included how messages are written are (equally important) read, a tweet or a text is often situated in a rich context of conversation between individuals taking place over a longer span of time. Messages are typically richly interlinked (both by literally containing external links, as well as through (hash)tags and clickable author names). Micro blogging platforms, just like IRC chat, and email mailing lists, support wonderfully complex kinds of dia-/multilogues to occur, often way beyond the traditional “depth” of the (online) newspaper, whose conventional “inverted” pyramid structure dictates that (typically moderated) comments appear safely below the “content” of an article, a form that better affords “hit-and-run” diatribes rather than any particular engagement within a community of readers. The 140 character limit is a means of “leaving space” for others, ensuring a kind of “mixability” that strengthens the message rather than merely limiting it.

Vaguely criticizing Twitter for the message length limit not only exposes a misunderstanding and devaluation of networked communication but obscures urgent concerns relating to liberties and freedom of communication (in all its forms) when they conflict with the limited interests of a corporate entity like Twitter. Returning to the “good old days” of traditional authority-driven book publication is certainly not the answer.