Will we ever run out of original tweets? Math says ‘no’

Twitter is a never-ending source of bite-sized content – so how long until we run out of original things to say using it? Turns out there is an answer.  There are 140 characters in a tweet, 26 letters in the English alphabet, 27 if you count spaces.  Now, thinking about all those Twitter accounts (ignore the inactive ones and those annoying fake ones that occasionally send you spam replies) that give out information 140 characters at a time, how many unique tweets do you think it will take before we completely run out?

This highly interesting question was the subject of today’s XKCD’s What If? entry.  To blow your mind even further, here’s what Randall Munroe had to say to try and break down the semantics behind the question: Using the English alphabet including spaces, “there are 27^(140)≈10^(200) possible strings. But Twitter doesn’t limit you to those characters, though. You have all of Unicode to play with, which has room for over a million different characters. The way Twitter counts Unicode characters is complicated, but the number of possible strings could be as high as 10^(800).”

That equation (which you probably had to read multiple times) refers to tweets that may or may not contain non-English words (or non-words, for that matter).  It also may or may not contain proper nouns comprised of odd letters.  So to simplify it a little bit more, Munroe considers a language limited to only two valid sentences to make it easier for tweet readers to determine a pattern and count bits of information.  He also references mathematician Claude Shannon, whose Wikipedia entry credits him for “lowering uncertainty in written language” and “providing a clear quantifiable link between cultural practice and probabilistic cognition” by simply considering white space as the 27th letter of the English alphabet.

Still confused?  After Munroe mathematically illustrates Shannon’s process in his post, he came to this conclusion: Approximately, there are around 2^(140×1.1)≈2×10^(46) unique tweets that make sense to English speakers.

As if trying to compute that wasn’t enough for your brain to handle, Munroe goes on and tries to answer the second part of today’s What If? question: How long would it take for the population of the world to read them all out loud?  Skipping to the end part of his wonderfully entertaining visualization of the question’s complexity, here is the answer in its simplest form: It would take more than one eternal lifetime to read all the unique tweets possible.

While pondering on that, go ahead and tweet something right now, knowing that despite being limited to 140-character sentiments, you, like the rest of the world, will never run out of things to say.  Just think about all the tweets being sent out per day.


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