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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Brexit and EU citizens: A practical note

The UK government’s announcement yesterday of its plans for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit contained one or two nasty surprises, not least among them that EU citizens will be forced to hold some sort of documentation proving the right to stay and work in the UK after 2018 – a prima facie case of discrimination vis-a-vis UK citizens who do not – and should not – have to carry any such documentation.

Aside of the understandable outrage here, and here, that May should consider such discrimination to be ‘fair’, and that many EU citizens have already gone through a lengthy process of securing permanent residence documents only for these now to be useless, as well as that this is not a situation of fact, simply an opening ‘offer’ in the Article 50 negotiations process, one of the interesting issues around this reference is the practical logistics around documenting 3m people in the time available. Those who have gone to the trouble of securing permanent residence rights, via the infamous 85-page form, are promised a ‘streamlined’ and ‘user-friendly’ application process but there are clearly doubts about the ability of the appropriate government departments to be able to deliver on that, not least stemming from the bureaucratic delays that as few as 150,000 people experienced in applying for PR to government departments that were simply overwhelmed. Let alone 3m (+).

There is little detail on the document as to what the government means by ‘streamlined’, although there are vague (and inevitable) references to it being ‘digital’ and the days of the 85-page form seem to be numbered.

However, there are doubts about the ability of the UK to deliver on this score, too. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, publishes a continually-updated scorecard on the digital single market – which, of course, we are leaving – called the ‘DESI composite‘ (this is the Digital Economy and Society Index, not this one). Overall, across the five components of the index, the UK is above average – it’s actually in seventh place among the EU-28. However, one of the constituent components is ‘digital public services’, which measures a country’s ability to deliver e-Government services, including the provision of pre-filled forms and online service completion. Here, it might not be a surprise to learn, the UK is doing rather less well – not only is it below the average for the EU-28, it’s actually fallen as far as 18th place.

(As an aside, I can recall a previous government vowing that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in the EU by 2015: we don’t – on the DESI composite’s ‘Connectivity’ sub-index, we are sixth, rising above only Finland among the other nations above us on the overall list – which are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We were sixth in 2015, too.)

So, there are some quite deep-rooted capacity issues which need to be resolved. We can well imagine that these ought to have been resolved before the UK government could even make such an offer – since it is not doing so from a position of strength – and certainly by the time any agreement may be implemented. Perhaps the UK government might look to other EU governments for advice on how to deliver the sort of ‘streamlined’ digital public service that would be required to document 3m EU nationals in the way this proposal envisages – perhaps from other countries which are higher up the DESI list than the UK. Perhaps we might ask Poland, for example.

The spy behind the screen

Interesting news today that Facebook has denied Admiral the right to use its data for its Firstcarquote app.

The news is undoubtedly welcome from a data freedom point of view – it could indeed lead to decisions which have all kinds of implications as regards the perpetuation of social bias based on race, gender, religion or sexuality – although I’m not quite sure that Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group is right to give Facebook as much credit for the – perhaps temporary – withdrawal of permission as his press release does. It is a step in the right direction, admittedly, so I can see where ORG is coming from – but it is an infinitesimally small one.

There is undoubtedly more to this than Facebook suddenly deciding to uphold the data privacy of its users. The app might well, as referred to in the news pieces, contravene Section 3.15 of Facebook’s platform policy, but Admiral has been working with Facebook on this app for months and the principle of data privacy seems a strange one to crop up at this – very last minute – stage. Besides, the whole point of Facebook is to collect data on user preferences, likes and dislikes, and views, the mining of which to monetise at some future point. That’s why so much money has been chucked at it in the past. Note that the rest of Section 3 of the platform policy – which is titled ‘Protect data’ – is not so much to do with the protection of individuals’ data but to ensure that the data that third parties receive is not then compromised (resulting, presumably, in its value being undermined). And note also that it is rather arguable whether Section 3.15 itself is actually contravened in practice by what the app is reported to do.

It’s probably not quite as simple as Facebook deciding that it wasn’t going to make enough money from the app, and therefore deciding to withdraw permission; or that it has other plans with other insurers which might be jeopardised by letting this partnership with Admiral go ahead. Either (or both) might of course be true: time will tell.

But, quite clearly: beware the claims to data privacy mounted by organisations the sole purpose of whom is to collect your data. As Red Riding Hood found out, grandma has big eyes all the better to see you with.