Benjamin Esham

Another perspective on Twitter’s move to 280 characters

John Gruber is not a fan of Twitter’s recent change to allow tweets to be 280 characters long:

By doubling the character limit, Twitter has eliminated what made them unique. Yes, there were many trade-offs with the 140-character limit, both pros and cons. But one of the pros is it made Twitter unique. Twitter timelines now look more like Facebook — but Facebook is already there for Facebook-like timelines.

He quotes others, including J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, who are also down on the change. One of the uniquely appealing things about Twitter—especially, I think, to long-time users like Gruber—is the art of fitting a complete thought or joke into 140 characters. I enjoy writing with this constraint sometimes, and I definitely like reading well-done examples.

But here’s another way to think about it: Twitter is no longer an obscure forum for tech-industry early adopters. It has become a super-mainstream social network. The bulk of its users now are concerned not with crafting 140-character bons mots but with the ordinary, everyday sharing of information and opinions.1 For that application, the looser limit may be a boon. More characters mean room for more detail, more nuance, more subtlety on a platform that is rife with misinformation and clipped, tense exchanges. Does this mean people will begin to have more thoughtful conversations? Not universally. But Twitter admits that possibility now more than it did before, and for a site that is becoming an all-purpose public medium, I think the extra space could be a good thing.

(The elephant in the room, of course, is that Twitter voluntarily gives a platform to Nazis. In this context, the change from 140 to 280 is going to do little to cut down on abuse, and might well make it worse in some situations. Enforced terseness was causing some degree of social ill on Twitter, but it was nothing compared to the effects of Twitter’s refusal to address harassment in a meaningful way.)

  1. I’m talking about what Twitter is, not some notion of what it “should be.” ↩︎