Twitter = Telegram 3.0, sort of


Mobile-phone text messages (SMS) have a lot in common with telegrams, as I have pointed out on several occasions. The need for brevity forces you to be concise and encourages the use of abbreviations to save space. And of course I love the fact that Nokia handsets can announce incoming texts with three short beeps, two long ones and three short ones — Morse code for “SMS”. If text messages are Telegram 2.0, however, then might Twitter be Telegram 3.0? Once again the constraint of brevity applies, at any rate. The similarity between telegrams and Twitter messages (tweets) is explored by An Xiao, an artist based in New York, in a new piece that has just gone on show at the Brooklyn Museum (her video explanation). She’s taking a Twitter feed and turning it into audible Morse code. I think this is pretty cool, not least because there are also some portraits by Samuel Morse (himself pictured left) in the museum.

An Xiao notes that Twitter got going just after the demise of the telegram in America in early 2006. She also points out that there are some significant differences between Twitter and telegrams. Twitter messages are broadcast (one-to-many); telegrams were generally one-to-one messages. The other big difference is that the cost per bit has fallen to zero since the days of the telegraph. So instead of being used to send urgent messages, as telegrams were, tweets tend to be used to send trivia. Once you have near-instant point-to-point messaging, you can’t get any faster — just more verbose and trivial.

  1. Rob said:

    Hi Tom,
    first, I love your book ‘the victorian internet’!

    My company does still send telegrams these days. We use them for debt collection. That would be a bit hard to do via Twitter though….:)

    Anyway, people do respond muuuuch better to our telegrams than to our regular debt letters, so a telegram is still something special apparantly.

    We use the telegram service of, but there are many others as well.

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