As long as there has been language, there have always been two ways to say something: the long way and the short way. Whether for comedy, argument or presentation, there’s a delicate balance between saying too much and not saying enough. While it’s easy when writing a paper or telling a joke to overstay your welcome, the most effective deliveries are concise articulations of important points that are just long enough to make their case. Though not academic in its aims, Yik Yak has become a medium that inspires college students to think in this way.
Yik Yak, for those unfamiliar with it, is an anonymous social media app designed for college campuses that only lets users make posts with 200 characters or fewer. It doesn’t have user profiles, pictures or advertisements. All you can do is write your own posts and upvote or downvote those made by others. It seems pretty elementary, but by browsing the highest-rated “yaks,” it becomes obvious that in order to get to the top, you can’t waste a single character. My personal favorite goes something like, “I want my lab partners to lower my coffin into the ground at my funeral, so they can let me down one last time.”
Though that may just seem like a funny little phrase, it’s actually pretty ingenious that it can be expressed so tersely. There are a million ways to vocalize a thought like this: “I hate my lab partners.” “I can’t depend on them.” “I’m the only one who ever does any work.” All of these convey the same message — but the yak has a setting, a build-up and a punchline in the word count it takes most signs to say things like, “It’s good to wash your hands.”
Yik Yak, when used this way, demonstrates an artistic and rhetorical concept that is essential to modern discourse: brevity. Compared to posts on other social media sites that impose no limits on post size, especially in a culture that values being articulate very little outside of formal settings, the best of Yik Yak provides a reminder of how refreshing it is to read something short and to the point.
This trend toward brevity is one that has been received exceptionally well through history. Ernest Hemingway, with his simple sentences and casual dialogue, inspired 20th-century writers to abandon modernist excess. Miles Davis, with his delicate tone and sparse improvisation, spawned an entire new subset of jazz music in the 1950s. These are two textbook examples of excess giving way to moderation. When impressive style becomes bloated and convoluted, it becomes evident that the most effective way to draw in an audience is to keep things simple and direct.
This is a concept that is endlessly applicable to everyday life, far beyond yaks about homework distractions and political quips. Picking subtlety over extravagance is a mature and sometimes difficult choice to make when trying to make a resounding point. But with news media and entertainment tailored to shorter and shorter attention spans, brevity is one of the most powerful rhetorical devices a person can have at their disposal. Whether it’s an essay for a class, a roadside advertisement or an intriguing story you’re itching to tell people, err on the side of saying too little rather than too much.
Excess leaves no room for imagination and intrigue. Brevity draws audience members in, and it lets them demonstrate their own creativity and find something that speaks to them personally in the content. To paraphrase filmmaker Andrew Stanton: Give the audience two and two, then let them make four. They’ll love you for it. Accept and appreciate the challenge of limited space. There’s a word limit on this article partly for that very reason. I, for one, am grateful for it.