Shakespeare once said that “brevity is the soul of wit”, and in the case of Twitter that’s certainly true. Indeed, during its ten year existence, one of the most defining things about Twitter has been the character limit it imposes on its posts. Far from causing people to be sloppy or use too many abbreviations, it’s forced people to augment their sentiment, point, or jokes to fit the format. The result, from a writing perspective, has been as interesting as it’s been distinct.
Pushing the Limits
That’s why it surprised many people last week when Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, announced that the social network would be experimenting with expanding its character limit for certain users. Instead of the customary 140, some users are now able to tweet double that, at 280. The group that has been given this ability is rather small, and in truth there is no certainty it will be rolled out to everyone, but the move was a big step nevertheless.
If you’re not a regular user of Twitter, it can be hard to grasp how the 140 limit influenced the format. But to hear Dorsey tell it, the limit was never meant to be the network’s defining feature. According to Venture Beat: “As Jack Dorsey explained in a 280-character post recently, the 140-character limit was fairly arbitrary and based on the SMS limit at the time of 160 characters. (Knowing my kids can now send page after page of questions about homework, that doesn’t seem to be a restriction anymore.) Somehow, 140 became part of the tech lexicon. It was a way to force people to be brief and get to the point.”
So how do users feel about the upped character count? One might assume everyone would be pleased to have more space to say what they want to say. But in reality, the reaction has been, at best, mixed.
A very popular user, the model Chrissy Teigen, joked (on Twitter of course!) that “literally my only talent was being able to think of tweets exactly 140 characters long. i don’t know if I will be able to alter this to 280.” Others criticized Twitter for making changes to the network that don’t tackle the real problems, including abuse, trolling and the proliferation of hate speech: “Now we’ll get 280 character death threats instead of 140 character death threats. Twitter, tackle the real problems.”
So what can Twitter users expect if the 280 limit becomes the norm on the network? Here are some ideas:
Fewer Twitter threads: Twitter threads—where a user posts a succession of Tweets in reply to the one before it— had become popular lately as a way for users to make a point in more than 140 characters, while still linking Tweets together. This is likely to fade in popularity as users will have more room to say what they want in a single Tweet.
Watch out for POTUS: Trump’s use of Twitter has stunned the world in so many ways. People will definitely be watching out for how more space on the medium will influence how he uses it.
More marketing copy: This is a boon for advertisers, who will no doubt use the expanded character count to say more and sell more—no doubt annoying their users in the process.
Longer, potentially more boring Tweets: Having to work less hard to say want you want in a single Tweet will probably mean that the medium will lose some of the biting wit it is known for.
More users: Twitter has always been a network with fewer, but more devoted, users compared to a platform like Facebook. But expanding the character count makes using the platform a little more accessible, which could in fact increase users—no doubt part of the reason the company made the move in the first place.
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