Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chinese: The "Zip" of all Languages?

Chinese microblog platforms have one major thing in common with Twitter, they limit updates to 140 characters. However, since a Chinese character generally conveys much more meaning than a single letter of the Roman alphabet, a Chinese microblog update can say a lot more than one in English.

As a very rough guide, four Chinese characters (新浪微博) are used to describe one of China’s leading microblog platforms, while fourteen characters are needed to write its English translation, Sina Microblog.

Similarly, 推特 - the Chinese for Twitter, does in two characters what English does in seven.

In addition, Chinese sentences do not need any spaces to make sense, even after punctuation marks.

Admittedly, posts on Chinese microblogs are often a mixture of English words and Chinese; and the online cultures of China and the English-language speaking world abbreviate in different ways.

However, despite these qualifying factors, by offering the same 140-character limit, microblogs are being much less stingy to Chinese writers than people updating in English.

So, a company or an individual can say a lot more. And quite often, they do just that. First, look at this fairly typical Twitter update from microblog aficionados, Dell (@DellOutlet):


Below is another update, also from Dell (@delldirect), on Chinese “twitter-like” site,


In just 114 characters, this Dell microblogger had managed to say the following:

Dell’s National Day Sale will run from Sept 11 to Oct 8. To celebrate the 60th anniversary w. the motherland, Dell Home Computers is offering 6 cool gifts & deals on 10 computer models. These exciting offers will run non-stop for 4 weeks. Also, get a free upgrade to color casing & a 512MB independent graphics card, as well as other service upgrades. All offers are on a first-come-first-serve basis. What R U waiting 4? Act now!

It doesn’t look so “micro” now, does it? By using only part of their allowance, Dell managed to say the equivalent of 430 English-language characters.

When it comes to microblogs, I am less likely to read long updates; fat blocks of characters – English or Chinese – put me off.

Of course, not everyone is as lazy as me. However, companies should think about whether they should take advantage of these slightly less “micro” opportunities by writing longer updates. Personally, I think they shouldn’t. In this case, less is definitely more.

This post originally appeared on by Jeremy Webb
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