Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Design Crime: Trimit Butchers Text Into Snippets, Making Plagiarism Easier

A new app uses a "patent-pending algorithm" to condense text. Can it do it better than a human?

Design Crime: Trimit Butchers Text Into Snippets, Making Plagiarism Easier

Maybe this has happened to you. You want to tweet a story on a blog from your iPhone. But you don't have time to read the whole thing, or think hard enough to summarize it. A new app named Trimit thinks it can help.

Trimit is billing itself as the first automatic text shortener and summarizer for mobile devices. According to founder Nick D'Alosio, the app uses a "patent-pending algorithm" to shorten texts of any size to appropriate lengths for social network sharing. The lengths include the obvious 140 characters for Twitter, but also longer lengths like 421 characters for a Facebook wall post, and 700 characters for a Tumblr post.

I downloaded Trimit, which is usually $.99, however it's free for the next few days. The clean, Twitter for iPhone-esque interface is easy enough to use, with a brief tutorial that points out all the features. To test how it works, I imported the link for this Co.Design story: "Infographic Of The Day: Using Twitter And Flickr Geotags To Map The World"

The entire text of the story, over 2000 characters long, is imported into the field, where, if I wanted to, I could edit it by hand to the proper length using the character count. But I want to use the algorithm, of course, so I employ the "trimming" feature, which condenses the text into 140 Twitter-ready characters.

While I guess this edited version is essentially correct in capturing the spirit of the article, it's not exactly my takeaway from the piece at all. Plus the use of "2" for "to" irks me, as does what's either the misspelling or condensing of "Flickr" to "Flikr."

Here's how it shortened for Facebook. Again, not especially comprehensible or accurate. I started to go through the prompts to post this to my Facebook page. But then I realized: I couldn't bring myself to post this bizarre language among my other carefully composed updates.

While we can't expect an algorithm to perfectly condense our words (yet), I kept wondering under what circumstances I would need to use this app. Would I really want to recommend a link to something without reading it in its entirety? Would I really be too tired (lazy? uninspired?) to write my own Facebook update?

Maybe the Trimit bookmarklet, which is coming in a few weeks, will be more useful for some people, since you'll be able to pull up the condensed text summary of any website as you're browsing. But really? Would you rather rely on an algorithm to tell you what you could have read than that you actually, um, read? Trimit might be helpful for some people — those who don't have time to read or write. If you are one of those people, I am very sorry, and I think you might want to think about scheduling a spa treatment or book a short trip to the beach before you purchase this app.

But on a larger scale, I can't endorse Trimit because it encourages people to use and share robot-concocted summaries of my words instead of the actual words I'm writing here (and if you've read all the way to the bottom of this post instead of Trimming this already, I thank you). It might even encourage plagiarism, since it eliminates the effort needed to trim a story into a repost-able blog entry.

The great technology writer Clay Shirky is quoted in Trimit's promotional video, appearing to endorse the app. They actually use his voice from a talk he gave on information overload. But Shirky has praised the Internet for creating a new and invigorated culture of reading and writing. I can't help but think that he'd be greatly disappointed that his name is being used to sell this product.

[Top image by David Goerhing/Carbon Design]