Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Friday, Dom Sagolla ’96 — or, as he is sometimes known, @dom — came back to his alma mater, Swarthmore, to promote his new book, 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form. In this day and age, the short form is constantly in use in chats, email subject lines, tweets, Facebook updates, and the like. This book is meant to be a style guide for the modern writer. “I saw a need for this type of guidance — I wrote this book from a sense of responsibility,” said Sagolla.
Sagolla has been involved with Twitter since the very beginning. In 1996, Sagolla was an employee of Odeo Inc., a 14 person podcasting company. Around this time, Apple had begun its domination of podcasting, and Odeo was looking for ways to reinvent itself. During a brainstorming meeting, Sagolla pitched an idea not unlike Twitter. Users would be able to call in and record a five second voicemail on their phones that could be accessed by their friends. Sagolla attributed this idea to Swarthmore’s introduction of Voice Over IP during his time here, having been fascinated with the system and spending time learning the intricate details of phone messaging and voicemail.
Jack Dorsey, another member of the company, pitched his idea called “Status.” Status would be a system through which you could text an update to the service and it would forward it via text to your friend group. Dorsey’s idea won out in the end, and the name “twttr”—today known as Twitter—was decided upon.
The original prototype of Twitter allowed users to submit messages with unlimited characters. This was a problem because since Twitter was meant to be text message dependent and people’s tweets were being broken up into successive messages. In Feb. 2007, Dorsey decided to limit the system to 140 characters. In response to the uproar and debate following this decision, he tweeted, “one could change the world in 140 characters.”
As one of the original users of Twitter, Sagolla quickly discovered that he could explore many different voices and styles of tweeting. Combined with Dorsey’s famous tweet, this discovery led Sagolla to realize how our internet-dependent generation was creating what he calls “a new genre of literature” and “a new generation of writers.” Sagolla’s book is a guide to help short form writers, encouraging them to take a more deliberative approach to tweeting.
Sagolla did stress that this was a new and experimental form of writing. He mentioned that he was giving the lecture to “learn from the audience as much as he was to present” and warned the audience that they were dealing with “strong media.” “It’s disruptive, we need to tame it. Use it for your own purposes, don’t let it control you.” Sagolla conceded that Twitter has the “effect of being distractive and interruptive. “Attention spans shrink—but we’ve seen this since TV, since radio. We haven’t been destroyed as a society yet.”
There are, however, many benefits to Twitter and similar social media, according to Sagolla. “It’s powerful, it can cross boundaries, cultural or legal. Anyone can have a voice in a platform,” he says. It promotes literacy, too, he argues, “Nowadays, anyone can be a writer simply just by starting to write. As a society we can become more literate.” Twitter also helps with networking—it’s “about connections that you want to create.” It “helps create short, sharp thoughts,” boiling tales “down to their essence.” It keeps friendships alive over time and distance because it eliminate the need to “spend a lot of time catching up with people. The conversation is already in context. It cements friendships in a way, like sending out a mass email. You can always catch up with someone in an instant.”
Towards the end of his presentation, Sagolla declared, “Someone really cares what you’re doing no matter what time of day it is.”
Dom Sagolla’s book 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form can be bought in stores, online, or as an iPhone application.