In the old game show Name That Tune, contestants bid on their ability to name a song in as few notes as possible. “I can name that tune in three notes,” one contestant would say. And the other would counter, “I can name that tune in two notes.” Occasionally a contestant would be brave enough to take on the daunting challenge of naming a song with one note. I think about this when I consider other forms of artistic communication. Could you name a poem with one word? Could you name a painting with one color? Could you name a dish with one ingredient?
There’s a story often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway where he bet a bunch of friends that he could write a complete story in six words. He supposedly walked away with ten dollars after submitting the following: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by how many words you can whittle a story down while still retaining its intended emotional impact.
With the Hemingway example, it’s not the six words that make it powerful, but rather all the words not being said. Those six words create the tip of an iceberg and it is what’s below the surface that makes the story so gut-wrenching.
The image the sentence conjures up comes with a vacuum that your brain immediately fills in with details — the particulars involved are a combination of the little information the writer has shared and the baggage you are bringing with you. A young child will read the six-word story with a different set of emotional tools than a parent will. The same idea applies to the contestant of Name That Tune who listens to that one note and must fill in the empty space around that note to win the prize.
Writing on Twitter is a combination of being on Name That Tune and taking the Hemingway bet.
The 280-character limit often forces you to distill your message into one to two notes in the hope that the readers can work out the rest on their own. With 6,000 tweets happening every second, roughly 500 million tweets every day — that’s a lot of potential icebergs floating around.
I believe that the primal message of art throughout the centuries has been reminding us of the need to connect with one another. Every story is a hand reaching out blindly hoping for someone to take it.
For good or for bad, social media has become another channel to not only inject art into our lives but has become art itself. And just like I can create a timeline based on the books and short stories that have fundamentally changed my life, a lot of people can do the same for the tweets and memes that changed theirs.
I connected with nearly 150,000 people with two words and they were in ALL CAPS. This is when I transformed into Twitter’s @DRUNKHULK. I tweeted “HULK DRUNK!” and my life changed nearly overnight. I’ve often joked about how I published numerous stories over the years that I struggled to write as perfectly as possible only to have no one read them, but the day I hit Caps Lock and typed in broken English, everyone started paying attention.
My success on Twitter brought with it a lot of opportunities for public speaking events, which then gave me the confidence I needed to try stand-up. Believe me, when you go onstage and tell jokes, you end up learning a lot about yourself and people. One of the things I’ve learned is that an audience will follow you pretty much anywhere if you keep rewarding them.
This is something I intellectually understood on social media, but I needed a live audience to truly grasp that laughter and inspiration are forms of currency. Every time I made them laugh, I bought another minute of the audience’s patience.
Because humor tends to be compact, it’s no wonder it works so well on Twitter. Here is one of the most popular @DRUNKHULK tweets: IT IMPORTANT CELEBRATE EARTH DAY! NO ONE CELEBRATE PLUTO DAY! AND YOU KNOW HOW THAT TURN OUT!
Now I know tweets are short by their very nature, but a lot of people still have a hard time understanding that you don’t need to max out the number of characters every time. Economy is paramount. The shorter the tweet, the faster it travels.
As a rule, I rarely wrote a tweet longer than 127 characters, mostly because I learned early on that connecting through laughter or being inspirational on social media is always as the crow flies, the shortest distance possible (even with the recently expanded character limit on Twitter, I have tried to stick with this rule).
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. 30 seconds of advertising. YouTube clips. Memes. We’re writing in shorthand again, only now we’re using animated GIFs to express our thoughts instead of words.
Whether it’s a snack culture or burst culture or microculture, there’s a whole generation out there raised on screens who really can name that tune in one note. They only need to see the tip of the iceberg because they already know what’s below.
On top of that, they want to experience and consume as much of that seemingly-infinite content that’s out there and they know they only have x amount of time to do so. Whether your passion is music or books or movies, you already know you’re never going to consume it all.
So if you love cinema and a three-minute original short film on YouTube can press those same buttons a full-length movie can, you’ll take it for the sake of expediency.
Any tweet or Facebook post could be a game-changer for you. We have seen writers finally reach their audiences on Facebook. We have seen people tweet jokes in poor taste only to have their lives unravel in real time. There’s a social media lottery happening every day that can make or break you. And whether that lottery brings you money or scorn, loquaciousness isn’t necessary to get the job done either way.
So load your words like a limited supply of bullets and make every shot count.
With 6,000 shots happening every second, someone is bound to hit the bullseye, and it might as well be you.
Make someone laugh. Inspire someone. Take their outstretched hands. Connect.
By rewarding others you inevitably reward yourself. By changing others you will certainly change yourself.
How many notes do you need to recognize your favorite song? That said, if I wanted you to recognize how amazing you are, exactly how many words would you need me to write?