On Twitter, Not All Characters Are Created Equal

Design |


Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Twitter gives us no choice but to be brief. No matter what language you tweet in, you get 140 characters. But some languages can pack in more wit and meaning per tweet than others.

One of those languages is Chinese. When tweeting in Chinese your 140 character limit will take you a lot farther because the Chinese language is mainly ideogrammic, not phonetic (like the language spoken by yours truly). In this way, a tweet from China is likely to have a greater density of meaning than one from, say, Germany.

For example, in Chinese, a picture of a woman and a child combined means “good.” The ideogram below is built up from two pictograms. (To “see” the child imagine a baby wrapped in swaddling with its arms extended.)



Note that tweeting “good” in Chinese takes just one character, while the English requires four characters to convey the same meaning. If we were to tweet  the opening quote by Shakespeare in English it would take 21 characters. The Chinese equivalent? Just eight. That leaves plenty more room for the witty.

But pictures aren’t only more economical; they also have the advantage of being intelligible to people who speak different languages. That’s one reason why ideograms are used in international airports – they are sound independent. A picture of a Martini glass can indicate to most travellers that there’s a “bar” nearby.

There already exist visual libraries of ideograms, pictograms and symbols, such as the Noun Project, to draw from. And things get interesting when we combine pictograms to create imaginative ideograms. Limiting myself to those pictograms found on the Noun Project’s “Fresh” page, below are some playful examples I’ve put together. Some are rudimentary, while others are a stretch, but I hope they illustrate the expressive potential of communicating using a visual language.



With character economy and global communication in mind, the twitter experience might benefit from using ideographs in tweets. Using them could be both fun and functional as they expand the expressive power of our messages across cultures.



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