When Twitter was only just beginning to enter the public consciousness in 2009, it sparked a sardonic trend to summarize classic works of literature within its 140-character limit (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, from the book Twitterature: “Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together.”)

If the aim was to poke fun at the idea that anything meaningful could be compressed into such a short space, then five years on the joke has worn thin. Increasingly, the ability to express complex ideas with nuance and clarity in 140 characters is considered a vital skill in business communications and for anyone in the public eye, while there is serious money in an app that sends messages of just two characters: Yo.

Recent years have also seen an explosion in popularity of image-sharing sites like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr, which have accelerated the trend towards abbreviated communication. Look at Facebook feeds from a few years ago and you’ll see paragraph-long status updates; now it’s more likely to be an image and a word or two. Newcomer sites like We Heart This enable users to combine these two trends, posting pictures with a few words embedded.

As with words and images, so it is with video. A few years ago, when YouTube was gaining popularity, it had a ten-minute limit on uploads. Nowadays, the hottest ways to share video include Vine, which forces you to get an idea across within a shorter limit: six seconds. The six-second video, like the 140-character message, is fast becoming an art form.

The rushed nature of social media plays out in interesting ways in younger demographics. If you’ve listened to teenagers in conversation recently, you’ll have noticed how truncations, which initially emerged to meet 140-character limits – such as “probs” for probably, or “defs” for “definitely” – have now made the leap from written to verbal communication.

In peer-to-peer communication, from text messages to instant messenger, punctuation seems to have gone by the wayside. Of course, teenagers have always enjoyed breaking the rules of a language, but the way they communicate today does suggest that the world is rushing by with such great speed that they simply don’t have time for the likes of commas, never mind full sentences.

The trend towards compression of expression and the increasing speed with which we feel we need to both process and communicate information drives a trend towards more horizontal, rather than vertical, consumption of content. Increasingly we want to scan and skim headlines, seeking a high-level understanding of a broader range of content, carefully choosing the content with which we engage more deeply.

In contrast, in other forms of media the reverse is happening: time constraints are being removed and engagement is intensifying. YouTube now allows longer videos. House of Cards, liberated from the need for 8-12 minute commercial breaks and week-long gaps between episodes, has viewers setting aside weekends to binge-watch an entire series, which is released all at once. Similarly, there are a range of online publications such as Medium that focus on long-form written content. At the other end of the Twitter 140-character style, these offer the opportunity for extensive engagement with a topic. From many angles, time is playing an important role in the changing landscape of communication.

So what does this mean for society?

For one thing, we’re all taking in more information faster. That’s not surprising considering how much more content there is to assimilate. In 2012 alone, Twitter produced more than twice the number of words than The New York Times has published in the last six decades. No wonder we’re drawn to social networks, which force people to compress their communications for our benefit.

In light of this, it would be easy to suggest that we’re all shortening our attention spans. However, that is too simplistic, and very likely spurious. The answer is likely more complex and yet in a historical sense, more predictable.

Throughout time, our brains have demonstrated that they are quite capable of adapting to new ways of learning. Research has shown that when exposed to new stimuli, we continually learn new ways to both express ourselves and to learn. Consider people who lose their sight, only to develop a keener sense of hearing. More generally, with each major technological advance from the invention of the alphabet to the advent of the computer, our brains have demonstrated that they not only survive, but thrive over time when exposed to major changes.

In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr discusses how “writers experimented with syntax and diction, opening new pathways of thought and imagination. Readers eagerly travelled down those pathways, becoming adept at following fluid, elaborate and idiosyncratic prose and verse.” He was NOT referring to the internet or even social media – he was referring to society’s adaptation to books in the 1400s following the invention of the printing press. New methods of communication, with their associated form factors, lead not just to replacing existing forms of communication, but to creating new ones.

Compressing the way we communicate isn’t in itself new, as anyone sending a telegram would have attested. But the absolute strictness of 140-character, six second-type constraints is without historical precedent , and the ways in which they are shaping our communications are only just beginning to play out. Businesses are still learning how to balance the desire for viral sharing with the need to protect the brand. News organizations are challenged to be both fast and accurate: think of CNN initially reporting the wrong outcome of the US Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision.

As the demands on our attention increase in the social media age, we reward communicators who are skilled at requiring minimum time and effort on our part to get their ideas into our minds. While 140 characters might never be a way to summarize a Jane Austen novel, microblogging and social media generally are creating new and different methods for personal expression. Our brains are quite likely to adapt both to the volume and to the form factors as they evolve.

Exactly how compression of expression and horizontal consumption of content shape the way we learn and communicate will become clear only with time, especially with the coming of age of the generation for whom these trends are natural. But recall the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal’s famous apology for writing a long letter because he didn’t have time to compose a short one, and we’re reminded that fewer words don’t necessarily mean less meaning, less comprehension, less learning or less expression.

If history is our guide, the “less” factor in social media could indeed lead to more.

Part of a series on the top ten trends in social media.

Author: Linda Abraham is Co-Founder of comScore and Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Media.

Image:  A woman at the Frankfurt book fair. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbac