280 characters – making a good thing bad?

My Twitter timeline this morning regularly features tweets agonising over Twitter’s decision yesterday to expand its ‘trial’ of 280 characters, applied a couple of weeks ago to some tweeters, to all users (among the best examples here and here. Oh, and here. As well as a delightful example of the scope afforded by the new limits here.). I guess that means the trial has been adjudged a success and Aliza Rozen, a Product Manager at Twitter, has produced some interesting data-based evidence on this. (Rozen also confesses that the reason for the expansion is that Twitter is hoping to expand use of the platform by dealing with the frustrations of tweets being abandoned because of the limit – so, at heart, it is of course all about the numbers.)

I’m a low-level, though growing, user of Twitter, and one the things that always put me off joining much earlier than I did (and that a full seven years ago), as a committed longform writer, was indeed the 140-character limit. However, I quickly came to appreciate that one of the better features of the limit was the imposed requirement for brevity and that a well-crafted tweet was, as a result, a thing of beauty. The original reason why 140 characters was selected was because it fitted within the 160 allowed by SMS plus enough for the user-name. Well, technology advances and SMS no longer require messages to be split so why should tweets? And, alightly unnervingly, we have already been moving in this direction for some time with Twitter relaxing the limit last year as regards quotes, polls, videos and images.

The downside of the character limit was that many simply abandoned (or were creative with…) spelling (and grammar) in order to force thoughts to fit within the limit, rather than better ordering them in the first place. Frequently, this made tweets hard to read but the better tweets, the ones written by those with faster and more ready wit, were all the more appreciated as a result. The limit also led to the practice of getting around the limit by ‘threading’ thoughts together; these can also be difficult to read where people simply write up to the character limit in each tweet in the thread rather than ordering their thoughts to a single one per tweet. A microblog should do exactly what it says on the tin: longform blogging is better done on other platforms (like this one!).

Doubling the length to 280 characters provides a lot of space (and takes up a lot of space on the screen). Such tweets are also harder to read quickly and, when Twitter users follow hundreds and thousands of others, this greater on-screen space will lead to a lot of interesting and valid thoughts being simply lost in cyberspace as a result of overload. But, ’twas ever thus. The difficulty is also that the character limit imposes a pressure of its own in both directions – not only to reduce to fit the limit, but also to expand thoughts up to the limit where the tweets appear to be ‘too’ short. @realdonaldtrump (I don’t follow – he crops up on my timeline enough as it is) is definitely guilty of this and the existing linguistic and of course other horrors of the Donald in 140 characters doesn’t bear thinking about when he catches on to the new limit. One of the more useful aphorisms in life is that less is definitely more.

People are likely to adjust quite quickly to the new expanded limit and behaviour will normalise, as Rozen expects. Some users will make full use of the greater verbosity now allowed (and still look for more); while the faithful will insist on sticking to 140 characters (some client apps already exist in this area, and some are likely to be re-written to provide a countdown to 140). Others are likely to find some ground in the middle.

Twitter’s evidence suggests that the vast majority of tweets are likely to stay within the lower limit. I really hope that turns out to be the case. 280 characters is, comparatively for the Twitter platform, a significant expansion and I really hope that this doesn’t lead to the loss of the well-crafted, pithy tweets that the lower limit encouraged, while giving people a little more room to order their thoughts when these are simply too complex to fit within 140 characters. Some words on this at Twitter’s third-quarter results call (link above) are reassuring. And abuse can always, of course, be dealt with promptly with judicious use of the ‘unfollow’ button.

But please, Twitter: no further character expansions. And please abandon any remaining thoughts of 10,000 character tweets.

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