280 Characters: Taking A Deep Breath on Twitter’s Big Change

I have seen a great deal of hand-wringing about the recent decision of Twitter to test out a new character limit, a 100% increase to 280 characters over the traditional 140 character tweet. I didn’t initially love the idea either, a longtime Twitter user I have a strong emotional relationship to that symbolic limitation and like many of you believed it was that limit that defined a Tweet.

However, it is important for us to keep perspective. The fact is the 140 character limit, which was defined by the text length of an SMS message minus 20 characters for a username, is just that: A limitation. It is a limitation imposed by a technology that has since changed and removed that limitation itself, and it is a limitation that was not part of a broader vision for Twitter outside of its need to be accessible by mobile.

Having thought through my use of the platform since around 2008, I can actually think of very few positive impacts of that limitation. Sure, it requires skill to fit a cogent thought into a 140 character limit, but that is a silly virtue to hold above the ability for self-expression and the further goals of micro-publishing. It degrades the quality of the language and thoughts shared on what has become the soap box of the modern era. It creates an impetus for shortening words (“thru,” “biz”), replacing words with emoji, and other degradations to the English language that are not virtues in communicating clear ideas.

Clear ideas, something I’ve grown to hold quite dear. We are in an age when the future of our country, and even the world, is subject to the whims of a single user, and he is not the first or the last person of cultural import to make their thoughts known on this platform. We need platforms that allow for clear articulation and a broader dialogue, we have plenty competing for the meaningless dialogue crown. Twitter is the primary PR tool of our time, unless anyone had missed the memo, and You are still able to adhere to 140 characters, if it is a critical point for you, but let’s be clear that this provides a place for more complex discussions in a time where it would be hard to argue they are not desperately needed.

Not only that, throughout the history of Twitter we have seen tactics of a broad range to overcome this limitation. Today, it is the Twitter “THREAD:” which is used by most major influencers, especially those covering news and world affairs, to delve deeper into issues of importance while maintaining the platform as their primary content repository. Before that, you had the much more crude method of taking a screenshot of a longer idea, or a poem, or a short essay, and posting the picture. A picture was worth a thousand characters.

Parity with Facebook

The biggest argument against this goes something like this:

“This simply brings Twitter closer to becoming another Facebook, and no one needs another Facebook.”

Is this true? Yes, in a remarkably superficial way. it does begin to bring Twitter into closer range of Facebook’s ~400 character limit. However, character limits do not define the difference between Facebook and Twitter, their cultures do. Facebook is a private place, inherently, built on exclusivity and “Friends” and recent changes have proven powerful for publishers but the private culture remains. Twitter is a public discussion, of issues ranging from nuclear war to the names of Kanye’s children, between people of varying and often distant relation. So, calm down, this doesn’t make Twitter into Facebook, it just makes it better.

The Possibilities

As many of you know, I’m married to a PhD in English Literature (#WifeBrag) whose life is built around poetry. I’ve always thought Twitter would be a great platform for a rebirth of modern poetry. In many ways, it has become a natural home for old forms of poetry, like Haiku, and new forms of poetry with hashtag games such as #StoryInSixWords. However, for those who know the importance of form in poetry, the 140 character limit quickly runs its course. Spaces, line breaks, all of these must be accounted for, and limiting the use of the perfect word is not an option because it’s too long. This change will not remove those challenges, but will certainly remove some of the limitations on the application of the platform.

That is just one application, but another is the modern soundbite. As someone who has done some work in politics, I can tell you that the modern political statement is often built around 140 characters or massaged to fit within it. Take a moment and think of that, especially given the context of our current political climate. Do you think it is helping?

Welcome, 280

So I say to those who argue this is the end: Why? Why is this the hill that Twitter dies on? Let’s not simply request that Twitter never changes because it’s stock price is performing so well, let’s allow some strategic thinking on how best to grow a platform I believe connects the world more seamlessly than almost any other.

In language and ideas, less is not always more.

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