One Hundred And Sixty

When I first went to university, in 1999, I got my first mobile phone. Back then, messaging features on mobiles were a bit more simplistic than they are today.

For example, phones were only just starting to appear that could handle multi-SMS messages. For those without this feature there was a new skill to be learned.

With practice, we got to be particularly good at cutting out messages down to the requisite number of characters to fit into a single SMS: just 160 characters.

We even learned how to meaningfully split messages in our heads, with indicators (ellipses, or numbers showing message parts), to carry longer concepts. (4/19)

Even when multi-message capable phones came out (I got one in 2000), these skills were still useful. At 10p or 12p per message, you soon learned to be concise.

Nowadays, this skill has lost its value. With more and more people having “unlimited SMS” plans or enormous quantities of credits, there’s no need to be brief.

If you’ve got an iPhone, you don’t even get told how long your message is, I hear. You just keep typing. And that’s not uncommon on other kinds of handset too.

Your phone’s still splitting your message up, in the background. Putting markers in, so that other phones can understand. And these markers are human-readable.

Just in case your message is going to a phone that’s over about 12 years old, your smartphone makes sure that the markers would be understood by humans. (9/19)

So now we’ve got smartphones talking to each other in a language that humans designed to talk to one another in. Does that feel really strange to anybody else?

I looked at my phone while I wrote a message, today. I noticed that number in the corner, that indicated that my message would span 3 texts. And I didn’t care.

Why would I? It’s a vestige of an older form of communication. Someday, it’ll look as primitive as the paintings on the walls of caves, daubed by early humans.

But for now, I remember. And, somehow, the skill I learned all those years ago – a trick that’s alien to almost anybody younger than me – has a new, fresh use.

Twitter. 140 character messages. A little bit less than a text, which seems strange. Are they really trying to make us even more brief than those early phones?

The skill is still the same. Think ahead. Prune. Plan. Snip. And, if you absolutely must span several messages, make it clear to your reader so that they know.

I see a whole new generation of people learning this skill that I once learned. It’s not the same (it never will be): they don’t pay 10p every time they tweet.

But you know what? It’s just as pointless now as it was the first time around. If you want to say something, say it. If 36p is too much, risk a 10-second call!

And in the case of the Twitter generation: if your message doesn’t fit on Twitter, then it probably doesn’t belong on Twitter. I’m a 160-character-or-more man.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for the Twitterverse with its 140-character limits. But it’s nice to remember how to think in 160, just like I have in this blog post.


  1. Claire Q Claire Q says:

    [160 characters / 1 message]

    Mobile phones once had a 160 character limit for texts; Twitter has created a new generation of people for whom brevity is the soul of wit. It’s not your style.

    1. Dan Q Dan Q says:

      [142 characters / 1 message]

      I’m not sure whether or not I’m supposed to take that as an insult! But I do appreciate that you said it in exactly 160 characters: nice work.

      1. Claire Q Claire Q says:

        [290 characters / 2 messages]

        I just thought I’d see if I could summarize the whole thing in 160 characters. Was surprisingly hard, sorry if it came across negatively. I see it looks like I said you weren’t witty, which of course you are – just not by being concise! BTW – I think your character counter needs a +1 somewhere…

        1. Dan Q Dan Q says:

          [123 characters / 1 message]

          Indeed! Right you are! There was a bug with counting apostrophes after WordPress had curly-quoted them. Fixed to “160” now.

  2. Rory Rory says:

    [397 characters / 3 messages]

    The reason Twitter is 140 rather than 160 characters seems to relate to differences in the size of SMS messages in different countries. If you encode each character with 7 bits you get 160 characters out of 1,120 bytes but if you use 8 bits per character you only get 140 characters. Be glad you didn’t live somewhere where they needed 16 bits per character back when you used to pay 12p a text ;)

    1. Dan Q Dan Q says:

      [357 characters / 3 messages]

      On the other hand, I gather that 16-bits-per-character languages are often (but not always!) more-expressive in fewer characters. In Chinese, for example, there’s a 16-bit (or, worst-case, 32-bit) character for every possible word they could want to say. From a data perspective, the equivalent would be if no English word was longer than four characters…

      1. Rory Rory says:

        [440 characters / 3 messages]

        I can’t speak for Chinese but with Japanese at least it’s quite variable, depending on how formal/informal you are will have a big effect. So a text to friend could be quite short but a text to your boss or a senior co-worker might be a lot longer while saying essentially the same thing. I also wonder if this limit is why emoji became so popular, there are icons for many common actions, places and expressions as well as the usual smilies.

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