The Long and the Short of Social Media & Email Messages

As email and social media messages keep getting shorter, studies of message length continue to uncover behavioral data useful in the design of social-media platforms.

Illustration: Christine Daniloff and José-Luis Olivares/MIT


A new communication study by researchers at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab found that as the volume of activity across social media platforms rises — elections, sporting events or weather incidents — social media messages grow shorter and users respond to events more quickly and impulsively.

The center conducts studies based on mobile technology and social media to evaluate patterns of activity in urban environments or among technologically connected networks of people.

The current study found that in times of lower activity on Twitter, for example, the most popular tweets range from 70-120 characters, less than the 140-character limit. During times of high traffic tweets are sent 200 times more frequently, with the highest concentration of tweets at 25 characters and sharp declines at the 130 character mark.

The effect was similar across all social media networks. “If you plot the rate of the messages versus the length, then you can find a mathematical relation between these two things during [major] events,” said Michael Szell, a researcher at MIT. The study also revealed an “index of frustration” among a small minority of social-media users, who feel they “run up against the 140-limit on Twitter.”

Additional studies of message length may continue to uncover data useful in the design of social-media platforms. Renaud Lambiotte, a mathematician at the University of Namur in Belgium, said well-designed online social experiments may also provide insight about behavior on social media and, in particular, “modeling of the relation between behavioral response and emotional stimuli.”

The lab’s director, Carlo Ratti, said there is evidence of a kind of “herd effect,” pointing out that whether people are acting independently or in response to seeing other short messages warrants further investigation.

The study is also interesting in the context of email messages. The Huffington Post suggested yesterday that successful people never send long emails, making examples of Amazon CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, “known at his company for sending unnervingly short emails,” and Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs’ “blunt” responses to customer emails:

 short messages social media emails Will Schwalbe, co-author of Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, told HuffPo: “For various reasons, short emails are more associated with people at the top of the food chain. If you also send short emails it puts you in the company of the decision-makers.”

Schwalbe says the shortform style is a sign of confidence and reflects a transition from writing emails on desktops to writing them on devices, which require endless scrolling when reading. HuffPo also points to “a movement to limit emails to five sentences or fewer.”

“If your email is longer than a paragraph or two, people will often put off reading it and it will probably take you longer to get a response,” online-learning expert Mattan Griffel writes in his post explaining how to get busy people to read your emails. “Nothing drives people crazier than an email where someone sends over a lot of information but doesn’t say what they’d like you to do.”

HuffPo’s take away lessons include making your subject line count by getting straight to the point, cutting down on unnecessary background information, and realizing that rudeness is not a mainstay of shorter emails. Of course there are other factors to bear in mind. Take, for example, what your email salutations and sign-offs communicate about you. Personally, I rejoiced upon reading Marcia DeSanctis’ Time to Do Away with “Best” as an Email Sign-Off:

In the hierarchy of email signoffs, by far the worst is ‘Best’. Maybe it’s just me, but nothing displays contempt more succinctly, or says “Leave me the hell alone from this point forward,” as concisely as this most reviled of four-letter words. Here’s the other encrypted message hidden in this verbal snub: Unlike you, I am too busy and important for a far more acceptable ‘All the best’. Two extra words. Would it kill you?

Considering an email’s context is also important. A job inquiry or professional email, for instance, should be written differently than an email to a informal contact or friend.

Regarding digital etiquette on social media, there are certain rules of engagement to follow. People often think it’s effective to contact anyone anywhere they can find them; look for websites with submission or contact forms rather than bombarding someone with tweets and updates. Remember that comments follow you, and beware of the overshare. Follow, friend, like or pin something because you really want to, not with an expectation of reciprocity or getting something in return.

And it’s always worth keeping in mind that when people send messages and email, they overestimate their ability to convey their intended tone — be it sarcastic, serious or funny — as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them.

Other research indicates that the reason for this communication disconnect is egocentrism — a well-established social psychological phenomenon whereby people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how other people will interpret them. When in doubt, pick up the phone.