If Samuel Clemens were alive today, might he have chosen “Mark Tweet” as his pen name rather than Mark Twain?
The famous American writer is quoted nearly everywhere. His observations and opinions are delivered in concise, witty, and thoughtful phrases, many of which are 140 characters or less. Consider this very short sampling:
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
“Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.”
“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”
“Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.”
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Reading these, you could be excused for thinking that Mark Twain was a “King of the One Liners.”
But here's the thing. Mark Twain didn't write quotes. He wrote. And then he was quoted. He wrote profusely. Ponderously. Provocatively. In fact, he wasn't a fan of the aphorism.
Writing in The Galaxy about the American patriot and author Benjamin Franklin, he said: “Benjamin Franklin did a great many notable things for his country, and made her young name to be honoured in many lands as the mother of such a son. It is not the idea of this memoir to ignore that or cover it up. No; the simple idea of it is to snub those pretentious maxims of his, which he worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel.”
Mark Twain’s words have been published on Twitter and Facebook (some accurate quotes, and many mis-attributed) regularly. It makes me wonder about the longevity of things written today with our new super-abbreviated language.
Will anyone remember today’s tweets and posts? Will they be quoted 50 years from now in media that requires an even fewer number of characters?
Ask yourself, what tweets do you remember, including those that you may have even written yourself?!
I’m not opposed to this new strand of communications that has boomed over the past few years. I read it. I write it. But I’ve encountered many people who talk about communications as though it was a zero-sum game. Electronic communications must replace printed communications. Short-form must take the place of long-form. The quip must supplant the profound.
In an effort to cling to a dwindling audience, media companies have moved, albeit begrudgingly, from the world of paper, ink, and journalism to commentary, posts. These moves come from an economic imperative, to slow the flow of red ink.
But we are still in a transition phase. I hope that in our exuberance to chase readers we do not abandon products that can attract readers — products that have lasting value.
I have no doubt that the mix of media will continue to change. But I shudder to think that great journalism and great writing will be replaced by snippets of truncated thoughts, hastily written with the thumb, and just as hastily deleted by a reader annoyed that the words on his phone have briefly interrupted Angry Birds.