Here’s a small but revealing example of how communications technologies can work differently once they leave the land of their birth: individual Twitter posts can express more information in Chinese than in English, because the Chinese writing system uses ideograms rather than an alphabet. The difference? Ideograms represent words or concepts with a single character, where alphabetical systems spell them out letter by letter.
Alphabetical systems have a real advantage in some areas. They tend to be easier to learn, since you don’t have to memorize thousands of individual symbols, and they’re definitely easier to type. But since ideogrammatic systems allow for the transmission of rich information in a very small space, they can be a good match for a system like Twitter or SMS text messaging — assuming you have a good interface! If you’re able to enter and view ideograms easily, Twitter’s role as a conversational space can really expand, since its most significant limit in English and similar languages is the fact that you can really only fit so much complex thought into 140 characters. Twitter as a medium for philosophical debate?
I’d never considered this idea until I caught a segment on today’s Morning Edition looking at the role of Twitter in publicizing internal dissent in China, in which the head of a similar Chinese microblogging service mentioned the idea that ideograms can transmit more information in a small space than other writing systems can. Twitter turns out not to have much of a role in China so far, despite some hype in the segment intro, largely because the internet does turn out to have an “off” switch, as we found in Iran. Still, our fascination with cross-cultural communications differences makes me bet that there are more than a few Ph.D. dissertations lurking in the future of the Chinese microblogging connection — and one day, maybe even some free speech.
Update: Alas, not a new idea, as Andrew Leonard picked up over on Salon.com a couple of months ago.