Doubling tweets from 140 to 280 characters will change Twitter for the better for most users.
Journalists like me love Twitter for several reasons. It helps with the job, by giving unmediated access to the thoughts of 330 million people — including everyone from the most powerful man on the planet to someone who just witnessed something incredible or awful, or who just made a terrible joke.
If you’re following the right people, it’s a fantastic way of seeing a whole community thinking, arguing, explaining, and sometimes fighting — all in real time.
More than that, Twitter allows journalists to indulge their favourite pastime — chatting, joking, and showing off — using what was once their most fundamental skill: the ability to get a point across as succinctly as possible.
Maybe it’s nostalgia for the old days, where even the finest copy ran the risk of being trimmed by ruthless sub-editors to fit the printed page, which gives journalists a particular interest in how many characters there are in a tweet.
For most of us it is still 140 (a legacy of the days when tweets were sent by SMS), but yesterday the company announced that it will test out doubling the number of characters in a tweet to a massive 280.
Some languages (such as Japanese, Korean and Chinese) can convey more information per character than others, and so hit the 140-character limit less frequently. The company also notes that “in all markets, when people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people Tweeting — which is awesome!”.
It seems that people who have never had to take a 500-word story and cut it to 300, then 50, and then finally into a 20-word picture caption (sob!) just aren’t interested in trying to fit their thoughts into 140 characters, and will go and use Facebook instead.
Or as Twitter’s blog put it: “Trying to cram your thoughts into a Tweet — we’ve all been there, and it’s a pain.”
While brevity and constraint is one of the delights of Twitter, one of the reasons that Facebook has rapidly outpaced Twitter is that you can do more with it. Twitter has added images, videos, and other features; lengthening tweets is Twitter’s latest attempt to narrow that gap.
So what will 280-character tweets mean?
1. More waffle, but more nuance
One of the wonders of Twitter is that it forces you to boil down everything to essentials: it’s hard to be evasive and fill your tweets with caveats if you’ve only got 140 characters to get your point across. It’s hard to waffle in a tweet. The downside of that limitation is that most fights on Twitter break out because someone has oversimplified their own position and then spends the next hour apologising and explaining what they really meant.
2. A slower news feed
Twitter (and social media more broadly) gets a lot of criticism for degrading our attention spans. I think there’s a lot of truth to that: training our brains to absorb ideas in chunks of just 140 characters is not necessarily a good idea.
It’s easy to follow a thousand or so people on Twitter (I don’t know how anyone can meaningfully follow more) because each utterance is atomised, easily absorbed and easily flicked past. Doubling the character count will double the cognitive load of each tweet, which means it will take longer to scroll through the news feed and require a greater attention span. Will it be worth it?
3. Fewer followers, richer conversations?
Jumping up to 280 characters won’t fix Twitter’s problems overnight: there is still the huge issue of anonymous trolls and horrible abuse, particularly directed at women, on the platform. Many would see fixing that as more of a priority than simply making tweets bigger.
Still, depending on whether the 280-character limit — which is currently only a very limited trial — gets rolled out more widely, I can see Twitter becoming a richer experience.
Twitter can often seem like a battle of ideas and relentless self-promotion that lacks the warmth (and to some, the mawkish sentimentality) of Facebook. Making it easier for people to express themselves with more characters may make it less cold and unwelcoming.
If longer tweets become the standard, some will mourn the old wickedly concise way of doing things, but most users (especially new ones) will benefit. Changing one of Twitter’s most iconic features could be a big step forward.