Twitters 140-character limit forces its users to be funnier. It cant compete with Facebook and shouldnt try
On Wednesday, President Donald Trumps favourite social network for conducting diplomacy and insulting NFL players announced a major change.
Twitter is currently testing an increase in the character limit, allowing some users to type in up to 280 characters instead of the usual 140. And that was enough to inspire Twitters ever-vocal users to vent, 140 characters at a time or, for the few lucky testers, 280.
This is a terrible idea. It took me just 24 characters to say that. And before I devote considerably more to why, Ill acknowledge that as problems go, this is tiny. Well, twice the size as before, admittedly but still, compared to the devastation in Puerto Rico, or the resurgence of the far right in Germany, or even Arsenals sputtering start to the season, this is the most first world-iest of first world problems since the kale shortage.
And yet, for those of us for whom Twitter is our primary interface with whats happening in the world, its a major, highly undesirable change. If it becomes permanent, it will irritate many users daily, to approximately the same degree as those preachy requests not to print emails that make your email flow over to another page when you do print them. And thats reason enough to argue against it.
Brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare told us. A curious claim coming from a man who wrote four-hour-long plays, admittedly but brevity is definitely the soul of Twitter. A good tweet boils information down into whats essential. You get the headline, and a little more detail. Thats it.
Thats why whenever big news breaks, Twitter is the best place to go. Its almost always faster and more efficient than television, radio, newspapers, or any other source. I love the Guardians live blogs, but when something major unfolds, Twitter becomes a collective live blog written by the worlds best journalists (at least if your feed is well-curated). Brexit, Trumps election, the recent hurricanes all of these events, and countless others, unfolded in a more compelling way on Twitter than anywhere else.
Its also one of the best mediums for humour ever invented. Famous comedians like Ricky Gervais are drawn to it, but Twitter has also turned hundreds of thousands of ordinary users into published wits, and their best lines reverberate around the world via retweets only seconds after the event theyre joking about.
If you follow a lot of journalists and comedians, as I do, the resulting blend of experiencing and joking about life becomes intoxicating and addictive. You become accustomed to experiencing any moment in our culture from the new Star Trek to the Super Bowl as it happens. Anything from the joyous to the tragic is shared immediately. Its like gathering in the town square, over the planet, in an instant.
None of this needs twice the number of characters. And of course, the longer tweets are, the fewer you can digest in a minute. Simply put, longer tweets means more flab. And watching those privileged few whove been granted the right to experiment with it today only illustrates how unnecessary it is.
Admittedly, the 140 character limit is an arbitrary one, imposed so that tweets could be submitted via SMS, with 20 of the 160 characters in an SMS reserved for the writers Twitter ID. The 160-character figure came from a designer whose exhaustive tests led him to believe that this number was perfectly sufficient for most messages.
And it is. If you want more words, blog and post a link to it. Write a Medium post. Screen shot from your Notes app. If you must, chain tweets together in one of those threads that have become so popular lately and I despise because they arent what Twitters for. Under no circumstances should you write longer tweets.
Any decent writer knows that cutting out unnecessary words is the key to potency. Kill your darlings is the watchword pare back your message so that its as clear as possible. A 140-character limit forces tweeters to be concise and, simply put, thats why Twitters so essential to its users.
The brevity of Twitter is probably why it appeals to Donald Trump, who apparently prefers to ingest his information in tiny, hand-sized chunks and has so little patience for writing that he tends to do it with a chunky pen. But despite even this, Twitter is still great the way it is believe me.
I know why Twitter is doing this. Its because the company is chronically unprofitable, and it will try anything it can to tweak it so it becomes a magic revenue generation machine like Facebook. These efforts have bloated the platform so now there are moments, tweets you may have missed, the explore tab, and all the other features that we addicts entirely ignore.
But its always going to be a niche platform: it delivers information overload, which is only enjoyable for some of us. It cant compete with Facebook, and shouldnt try.
So please, Jack Dorsey, just charge anyone who tweets more than once a day a dollar a month, and leave your brilliant creation the way it is. A modest fee would also help solve Twitters actual biggest problem, which is the appalling trolling and abuse thats become commonplace on it. As one 280-character user wrote:
Twitter is already great, and the last thing it needs is anyone trying to make it great again and again. Before we know it, the company will double the limit again to 560, and then theyll remove it entirely, and then Twitter will become a crappy, bloviation-filled clone of Facebook that even Donald Trump doesnt bother with.
In fact, perhaps thats a sufficiently good reason to increase the limit. As you were, Dorsey.
Dom Knight is a writer, broadcaster and co-founder of The Chaser
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