The Morselization of Information

Wavii delivers morsels of news, five words at a time

Five years ago, Twitter’s critics dismissed the idea that news could be transmitted in 140 characters. Now, Adrian Aoun thinks it can be done in just five or six words.

one-third of a bird
One-Third of a Bird — Photo from John ‘K’ on Flickr under Creative Commons license.

So how much signal do we need to distinguish it from noise? Is five or six words, maybe 45 or 50 characters at most, enough to see traces of meaning? A good headline writer can manage that task in eight to ten words. (Reuters took ten above.) Is half a headline enough?

Twitter and SMS catch all kinds of flak for forcing users to distill a thought to 140 characters, but Aoun & company are set to do it in one-third of that or less. They seem set to perform the same function as Twitter — linking interesting static content — but they deny their audience the luxury of annotation to suggest context. The service performs a useful function only if the user can determine — accurately — whether the linked resource will be worth the attention span based only on the mini-headline. Who ever thought Twitter would start to feel like a communication indulgence?

I’m sure the NLP processing is cool as hell — it will have to be to do anything at all for its users. But is attention span so scarce that a useful resource must be dumbed down to five words to make it consumable? At some point this quest for precision becomes pathological. The pinpoint indicator loses context, so it indicates nothing, so only the great wash of recall is left splashing randomly around.