Here at TidBITS, positioning ourselves for maximum exposure and reader appeal has long been a losing game. Let’s face it, TidBITS is not for everyone. Without fully summarizing our history, since it has been covered many times before (see the “TidBITS History” series of articles), a brief recap will show the problem. We began, way back in 1990 before the word “Internet” was common coin, as a HyperCard stack uploaded to the sumex-aim FTP mirror sites; later, when more people had email, we became a subscription list sending out our content in plain setext format. But innovations beyond that point were made very reluctantly, because our guiding principle was that TidBITS was measured and literate, almost to the point of severity, and required no medium beyond plain text.
Thus, over the years, we were behindhand in adopting “glitzy” media used by the rest of the world, such as HTML email, a Web site, and (gasp!) pictures in the Web version of our articles. Most recently, we instituted a complete revamping of our Web site’s underlying technology (see “Behind the TidBITS Curtain,” 2006-09-11), followed by a dynamic recasting of the site, moving our old issue-based structure aside in favor of a new article-based orientation, with a genuine content management system behind the scenes (see “Designing a Modern Web Site for TidBITS,” 2007-09-10). As Adam said in that last-mentioned article, we weren’t attracting new readers, so it was “evolve or die.”
It’s still “evolve or die.” Despite all our efforts, one undeniable trend remains: We aren’t seeing hundreds of new subscribers every day. This became particularly evident when we analyzed the results of a recent survey (“TidBITS 2007 Reader Survey Results: Who Are You?” 2007-03-12), and discovered one overriding and disturbing trend: TidBITS readers are aging – “the largest ten-year age group represented among those responding is the 51-60 age group” – and new, younger readers are conspicuous by their absence. It isn’t hard, projecting this trend into the 30-year future, to see that this is a disaster. Unless we can bring younger readers into the fold, TidBITS will soon be overwhelmed by the growing tsunami of Web 2.0 (and 3.0 and 4.0) sites favored by today’s youth. Without eyeballs, we won’t get advertising; without advertising, we can’t pay for the server; without a server, there’s no TidBITS.
During a recent multiway iChat virtual staff meeting, as we were despairing of this situation, someone remembered the reader response to our series of articles about Twitter (“Confessions of a Twitter Convert, 2007-10-09″ and “Confessions of a Twitter Revert,” 2008-01-02). When Adam confessed that Twitter had its uses, our readers cried, “Well, duh!” When Glenn confessed that he couldn’t endure the constant Twitter input, our readers screamed, “What a fogey!” (And though he hasn’t admitted it in an article, Glenn is back on Twitter in force.) Clearly, our readers appreciate short-form messaging services. And the younger they are, the more they like them.
From this, the conclusion was suddenly obvious. Since our conversion to a Web format, and especially since our recent move to an article-based structure, our issues have been getting longer and longer as we’ve abandoned the 30,000 character limit that we had imposed on ourselves back in the days of limited email gateways. This, clearly, is the wrong way to go. What our younger readers want isn’t longer; it’s shorter! In fact – it’s Twitter. Think about it. Attention spans are getting shorter. Today’s youth are bombarded by an army of stimuli, with cell phones and text messaging positively ubiquitous. That’s how they want their TidBITS, too. As Antony says in the first scene of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra when a messenger arrives: “Grates me, the sum.” In other words: “I don’t have time for details; just hand it to me in condensed form.” And what could be more condensed than Twitter? 140 characters of pure, unadulterated “sum.” Shoutcast your message into the ether, and instantly all subscribers see it, grok it, and move on.
So, here’s the plan. Starting today, a new Twitter account – TwitBITS – will represent TidBITS. All TidBITS articles will be condensed to 140 characters, and this summary will be sent out as a tweet, automatically, the instant the article is posted at our Web site. Readers who are “following” our Twitterized TidBITS account, by whatever medium (Twitterrific, SMS, PocketTweets, and so on), will instantly be apprised of each article as it appears. Naturally, we don’t expect this format to appeal to everyone; the geriatric wing of our readership will surely prefer to continue reading TidBITS in its long form. But as the TwitBITS buzz starts to catch on, we expect a much younger population to begin discovering TidBITS and, we hope, flocking to us.
Just one problem remains: Condensing an entire TidBITS article into 140 characters is not easy. In order to do it, we’re clearly going to have to surrender not only length but also literacy. In particular, we’re going to have to adopt some form of abbreviated language that can accommodate the maximum possible meaning in the fewest possible characters. This, of course, is a problem long ago solved by today’s youth, who sprinkle their text messages with all sorts of abbreviations such as “LOL,” “ROTFL,” “CUL8R,” and so forth. We’re going to have to learn this style of abbreviation and adopt it. After some research, we at TidBITS have discovered that in fact there is already an entire dialect of English devoted to precisely this sort of brevity – LOLCat.
For those not in the know, LOLCat is a highly condensed patois, based on text messaging, and imagined to be produced by the grammatically challenged intellect of a cat. Its expressive potential is well demonstrated by the fact that the entire Christian Bible is currently being translated into LOLCat (as of this writing, the project is nearly 50 percent complete). Clearly, any dialect is worthy of serious consideration if it can recast the Second Beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount as, “U r doin good if U iz sad kitteh; U can has petting.”
To be sure, we’re not yet entirely certain of the details, but we imagine that, for example, Rich Mogull’s recent article, “Should Mac Users Run Antivirus Software?” (2008-03-18), might be summarized as: “Macs can haz virusez? No, U r doin good. But f u haz Windoze BFz, can iz in ur mail sistem. So u iz tell ur ISP 2 blok spam an virusez, k?” (138 characters.)
For us at TidBITS, with its outstanding tradition of literacy and expansive, technical description, to produce such primitive, puerile blather will certainly be painful. But, let me repeat, this step is absolutely necessary to our survival. So please, everyone get with the program here. If you don’t want to subscribe to the TwitBITS version of our articles, that’s fine; neither do we. But if you have children of text-messaging age, please do urge them and their friends to subscribe. We desperately need their eyeballs. Even TidBITS founder and publisher Adam Engst, when asked whether he felt any qualms about surrendering TidBITS’s long-standing reputation for in-depth, well-written articles, said (with some difficulty): “Yo, dude, LOLCat teh bom. Srsly.”