The Gettysburg Address in 140 characters or less

We live in the age of the short attention span. Sound bites rule the airwaves. More and more, if it can’t be expressed in 140 characters or less, nobody has the patience to listen to it.

Original text of the Gettysburg AddressInstead of 150 years ago today, I wonder what it would’ve been like if Lincoln had written the Gettysburg Address in the age of Twitter. Something like this, I imagine:

87 yrs: new nation, liberty good, all equal. #CivilWar bad: many died here. Honor dead with new birth of freedom. Govt of by & for people.

What does this imply for technical communication? People who communicate through text messages and tweets, who can download the latest songs in seconds, expect information that’s exactly what they need, when they need it, in easily digestible form.

There’s no point debating whether this makes sense, from the writer’s point of view. Or whether it’s fair. It’s our job simply to understand the demand and meet it.

Fortunately, technical communicators have been working for many years on doing just that, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. The filtering and reuse capabilities in DITA help us provide content that’s just enough, just in time — provided, of course, that we know who the users are and what information they need. The time-honored skills of audience analysis and information architecture have never been more vital.

And now I’m sure I’ve gone way past my allotted word count. Feel free to comment. And make your comments as long as you like.

Based on an article first published on the SDI blog, 30 July 2009

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