In praise of Twitter's new 280-character limit
Twitter as we know it is about to change. That's a good thing.
Is the Twitter apocalypse nigh? When the social media platform announced it was experimenting with doubling the space for each tweet to 280 characters, my immediate reaction was to take it personally. I joined the chorus of other long-time users decrying the change, fearing it would alter the fundamental nature of the service.
But now, with a bit of perspective, I welcome the shift. By slowing the service down and making it more clunky, the new character count might just change Twitter for the better.
If one doesn't use Twitter regularly, changing the character limit might seem like an absurd thing to gripe about. Yet there are many good arguments for not wanting the change. The 140-character limit is a function of Twitter's early reliance on the constrained space for SMS messages, which were once much more important to he platform. But as time wore on, for tens of millions of people Twitter has been defined by the character limit and the concision it forces on users. That notorious brevity has produced the culture of Twitter: its breakneck pace, the weird jokes, the pointed barbs, the tweetstorms — and the feeling that, for all its many flaws, Twitter is the place to go to know what's happening right now.
And yet there's been a cost to that culture.
Like other major social media — most importantly, Facebook and Instagram — Twitter's role in society has been less a mere function of tech than a social experiment. And now, after a decade, it's clear that this experiment has also produced a plethora of negative effects, some broad and social, others personal. While changing the character limit won't help with Twitter's broader problems, it may still do one useful thing: force some of us to reconsider how we use the service.
Certainly, Twitter is in many ways still vital and alive. The combination of not having to follow someone back if they follow you, coupled with the public-by-default approach, lets collections of once-strangers emerge into new communities. Yes, there are people full of themselves, but there are thousands of informed people giving knowledge away, countering mainstream narratives that do not hold up scrutiny. As Alexis Madrigal put it in the The Atlantic, "Twitter's value has always been in these little pro-am micro-networks, hived off from the larger feed, where anyone with knowledge, wit, or skills can become central to the perception of a moment." And of course there are the brilliant jokes, the critiques, and the way that groups, marginalized people particularly, can find a home.
This is all true. But the trouble is that Twitter's greatest strengths turn into negatives when either the scale gets big enough, you follow or are followed by too many people, or you've simply been on it for too long. The openness of the public platform means one is often bombarded by perspectives and by trolls. The very brevity that enables so much of what people like about Twitter also fosters a political culture that favors obsessing over the meta-discourse — are you speaking about things the right way? — than debating the philosophical underpinnings of positions. This is entirely understandable — Twitter isn't the place for extended debate — but it doesn't mean the situation is good.
Inevitably, this means that the communities that form inevitably start to clash, often with little effect beyond shoring up divisions on either side. This sense of "bonding through battle" has its uses, particularly for the marginalized, but the effect is often exhaustion. What's more, the common tendency to snipe, make the least charitable read, and wildly extrapolate intent out of one tweet is only made worse by the space constraint itself. This is all to say nothing of Twitter's biggest and most pressing problems: abuse, bots used for nefarious purposes, and the still-growing presence of hate groups on the platform.
But while doubling the character limit will do little to combat or enable hate or foreign espionage, it may still help. In making Twitter's best characteristics worse, it might also make some of its worst aspects better.
While Madrigal argues that the shift to 280 characters will have little effect because of images, screenshots, and more, it's already become apparent that those who do have the new space use it to slow down. Stringing together these new larger tweets quickly produces a workable paragraph of a couple of hundred words, and if this feature were rolled out more broadly, it would inevitably force people to follow fewer people or check in less as the flow of information would otherwise become unmanageable. Simply put, slowing Twitter down will change its culture, and that may well be for the best.
After all, it is more difficult or, perhaps less appealing, to throw off pointed one-liners, misread intent, or engage in mostly futile debate when there is more space for people to say what they mean. The brevity of tweets and the ability to follow thousands of people also encourages a kind of platform addiction where you don't want to miss out on all the chatter; perhaps a stream of longer tweets might make the desire to be on the platform all day simply less feasible. That might thwart Twitter's desires as a company — but that doesn't mean it may not have surprisingly positive effects for the tens of millions of people who use it.
It is easy to talk about what is best for Twitter in terms of some perceived plateau of social harmony or psychological well being. Twitter like all social media is an arena for social and political exchange, and out of necessity, much of that will be both acrimonious and loud, not to mention constant.
But there are already signs that prolonged exposure to the pace and culture of Twitter simply cannot hold. This week Li.st, the app started by TV star B.J. Novak that lets people share lists of their own making, told its users it was shutting down. It was unsurprising. It is incredibly difficult for any new social app to gain traction when the incumbents of Facebook and Twitter are so ubiquitous. In their farewell email, describing where the team was going next, they suggested they were working on "simple tools that inspire people to express themselves more easily, creatively, and authentically than they thought possible — and places those tools in an environment that's been designed from the start to allow for more forms of expression, more privacy, and more personal connection."
It's a common refrain: that people want what is best about a place like Twitter — the community of strangers, the self-expression, the creativity — but without the downsides that come with scale and the inevitable bad actors. One option is Mastodon, a newer Twitter-like service that allows for smaller, private communities, and a variety of different "instances" instead of one giant shared platform that houses tens of millions. There are other, smaller networks, too, kept hidden out of obscurity, or far more simply, the group text, which acts as its own kind of ad hoc social network. And indeed, perhaps this is why the switch to 280 characters has, while controversial, elicited far less reaction than it might have a couple of years ago.
People are beginning to recognize that it's time to move on — that after a decade of playing at a social experiment, anything that gives one a reason to leave may in fact be a relief.