I got into a small debate/discussion about direct versus representative democracy. Via Twitter. While drinking. Not really the place for significant exposition. I thought of the founders of the US discussing the Federalist Papers. And I thought, “what if?” Not “what if the founders were drunk?” but “what if they were limited to tweets?”
I went to Project Gutenberg and grabbed a plain text file of the Federalist Papers. I stripped off the Gutenberg header and footer so that I was left with the main text, and the headings that were part of the original text.
I wrote a quick script to split the text on periods, question marks, and exclamation points. I filtered out sentences under 15 characters (since there are titles and non-sentence cases). Seems like a comfortable threshold for “smallest possible sentence” — at least 15 characters between “end of sentence marks”, excluding newline characters.
There are 6190 sentences in the text. Of those, 2528 are less than or equal to 140 characters in length (but larger than 15). There are 3662 sentences greater than 140 characters in length. 59% of the sentences wouldn’t fit in a single tweet.
The longest sentence in the Federalist Papers is
The recommendatory act of Congress is in the words following:“WHEREAS, There is provision in the articles of Confederation and perpetual Union, for making alterations therein, by the assent of a Congress of the United States, and of the legislatures of the several States; and whereas experience hath evinced, that there are defects in the present Confederation; as a mean to remedy which, several of the States, and PARTICULARLY THE STATE OF NEW YORK, by express instructions to their delegates in Congress, have suggested a convention for the purposes expressed in the following resolution; and such convention appearing to be the most probable mean of establishing in these States A FIRM NATIONAL GOVERNMENT:“Resolved, That in the opinion of Congress it is expedient, that on the second Monday of May next a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several States, be held at Philadelphia, for the sole and express purpose OF REVISING THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such ALTERATIONS AND PROVISIONS THEREIN, as shall, when agreed to in Congress, and confirmed by the States, render the federal Constitution ADEQUATE TO THE EXIGENCIES OF GOVERNMENT AND THE PRESERVATION OF THE UNION
I’m not sure where to go with this. I could filter down easy abbreviations like “for” => “4”, “people” => “ppl”, etc, but there’s a limit on the information content of a single tweet. Possibly we’ve invented new words in the past 200 years that would allow for a higher idea/characters ratio, but there’s even a limit on the complexity of sentence structures that can be conveyed in short messages. Franklin and Douglas would debate for hours on end using enormous grammatical structures that most people can now barely read. Does this make us dumber?
I’ve got no evidence to back this up, but it does seem easier to communicate things orally instead of in writing. I think the parts of the brain that process language have been around longer than the parts that process writing, so our brains might be better equipped for insanely long spoken sentences instead of written sentences.
Fun for brainstormin.