From the latest episode of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Searching for a new angle to boost declining user growth, Twitter is allegedly looking into ballooning its signature 140-character limit to a whopping 10,000 characters permitted per tweet. Cynically, one might liken this to the corporate version of soliciting extra revenue by placing a gun against one’s head. Twitter’s founders explain that 140 character tweets were born of a limitation of the old SMS service, and that jacking our favorite little bird morsels up to 10,000 seeds will allow for more content, more conversations and more general user pleasure. Apparently no one at Twitter remembers Polonius’ famous line from Hamlet, that “brevity is the soul of wit.” For almost 10 years, brevity has been the soul of Twitter. Taking that away is removing what makes Twitter special. As many have pointed out, we already have a social network for Ulysses-length diatribes from drunken uncles: it’s called Facebook.
Twitter is, paradoxically, a platform to be used quickly, yet one that requires a great investment of time to use properly. It’s nothing to fire off a witty observation on the state of the world or scroll through the exploits of your favorite celebrity as you wait for your coffee to brew in the morning. But obtaining the most value from Twitter involves a painstaking, methodical curating of the perfect tribe: finding and following the people who draw your interest, and attracting the best and most engaged followers for whatever content you’ve chosen to produce as part of your personal brand. Unless you’re an established media personality, or that mind-blowingly awesome, it can take years. But setting the biz-speak aside, Twitter is also a place where friendships that would otherwise be impossible geographically are made and nurtured. It eliminates the pedestal separating public figures from the masses and allows us to interact with them as casually as if we had run into them in a coffee shop. And it allows real-time access to breaking news and unfiltered updates from people who find themselves in the middle of history as it unfolds, not to mention cat pictures. Lots of cat pictures. Certainly there is a lot of chaff (including a great deal of gush about One Direction – seriously folks, Zayn isn’t coming back), but separating out the wheat is part of the joy of using Twitter in the first place. From the beginning, restricting everyone to 140 characters, and refusing to succumb to creating a velvet-roped, more permissive stratosphere for “platinum level subscribers” or some such twaddle, has kept us all on the same playing field, no matter how famous or unknown we are. My tweets have just as much potential to reach every Twitter user on earth as follower champion Katy Perry’s do. (They won’t, but the mathematical probability is not zero.)
Innovation thrives on restriction, just as Twitter sprang and thrived from within its traditional 140-character constraint. As much as we like to give play to the phrase “thinking outside the box,” figuring out how to express ourselves within that box can also be a stimulating exercise as it forces us to speak with economy to get our message – or our humor – across. The content that people remember most is that which they can repeat to their friends and family in short bursts. Much as a veteran blogger might be loath to admit it, length has certainly never been a guarantee of greater quality. There’s a quote from an old West Wing episode that I’ve always chuckled at: “anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn’t trying.” In social media, the reverse is true. The world is spinning faster, our time clawed at by infinite demands on it, and Twitter’s brevity has been a helpful traveling companion for the age: a readily accessible combination of news aggregator, social updater, inspiration provider and joke generator, yours for the perusal at the touch of a little blue bird on your smartphone screen.
Of additional importance is Twitter’s role as a gateway. The ability to share links to longer material, inviting a user to browse further rather than shoving the entire enterprise beneath your nose, has allowed content generators (like myself) to introduce our work to our audience without feeling like we’re shouting it at them, and preserves freedom of choice: you may have absolutely no interest in whatever I’m writing about today, but at least I can make you aware that I have something new, and you can always ignore it and move on to the next item in your feed. Surfing Twitter is a bit like browsing the spines on a bookstore shelf, plucking out a title that grabs you and scanning the blurb before committing. If you had to plod through each entire novel before deciding whether or not to buy, you’d still be there, and your blood pressure would be spiking at the imposition on your precious time. There are already plenty of platforms that allow long-form content, and Twitter integrates best with them by serving as an easily navigated, self-maintained index of those sites, rather than attempting to compete with them.
One argument in favor is the suggestion that just because you can use 10,000 characters doesn’t mean that you will. I agree. 10,000 characters is an enormous number; you’ll see by the end of this post an example of what that looks like, and who has the patience to crank that out every time we want to send a quick update on how the baristas misspelled our name today? But give humanity a wide open space in which to dump its trash and you’ll be shocked at how quickly it fills up. You know who will use all those characters? Spammers, for one. Every Nigerian prince promising that you too can buy new a million new followers or make $5236 an hour working on your computer from home is salivating at this opportunity to flood Twitter with their auto-blasted nonsense. Racists, for another. It’s bad enough when some asshat’s hateful garbage gets retweeted into your timeline when there’s only 140 characters’ worth to cringe through. Are we prepared for the onslaught of copy-pasted manifestos on white purity that are forthcoming every time President Obama does something they don’t like? Among its faults is Twitter’s ongoing inability to crack down on abuse, and one shudders at the thought of the bigots, misogynists, homophobes and celebrity stalkers of the world being handed broadened canvases they can smear with impunity.
Regardless of how zealously you unfollow, block and mute, you’ll only be able to avoid so much of the incoming debris: insidious marketers, who have been steadily encroaching on Twitter’s turf to the point that almost every third tweet is a promoted one from a company you’ve either never heard of or simply can’t stand (I am wearing out my thumb lately clicking “Tweet is not relevant”), will be able to turn your feed into a stream of constant, bloated advertising, since they can afford to pay their infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters to dream up 10,000 characters of content for them. The effect will be to clutter up what is already a crowded landscape with enormous, garish and inescapable billboards, making the search for worthwhile content that much more frustrating. Upon finding themselves bombarded with ads, traditional users will flee, perhaps in mass migration to other sites where such things are verboten. As for attracting new users, well, when was the last time you watched a new TV show because you heard the commercials were awesome?
Upon deeper reflection, this move to 10,000 characters does feel sadly more and more like an accommodation to the demands of advertisers rather than an organic evolution of the platform based on its users’ needs and wishes (witness the many unheralded cries for an edit feature for tweets that have already been posted). And it’s only advertisers who will be able to exploit the 10,000 characters to their fullest potential, squeezing them for every precious cent they’re worth. Twitter knows that the majority of its users won’t fill all that space. Even 2,000 characters would be a stretch for most. No one wants to dedicate so much time to composing something that will potentially fall out of sight a few minutes after it gets posted. I would imagine too that as part of the Faustian bargain with the advertisers, such elephant-sized tweets will not be allowed to be condensed (i.e. no “click to open full window” button) but rather be foisted upon your feed in frustrating enormity, their inducements inescapable no matter how fast you try to scroll through them.
There are perhaps less radical improvements to be pursued, such as potentially removing links and hashtags from the character count, and adding the aforementioned edit button (although thousands of grammar sticklers will promptly lose their reason for existence) that will serve to open up avenues of expression while preserving the full stop at 140 that makes Twitter what it is. If we want to expend 10,000 characters on a particular topic, we can tweet a link to our own website, just as we’ve been doing all along. Ultimately Twitter is going to do whatever it’s going to do, but removing what seems to be one of its key planks and annoying its users in the name of progress (i.e. more advertising revenue) seems a counter-intuitive business strategy. A bit like Walt Disney World razing Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom so they can replace it with a selfie stick store. Perhaps Twitter is counting on the general apathy of the people who use social media: the ones who rant and rave about changes and upgrades only to promptly forget about them after a week. But this change may represent an irreversible tipping point, where Twitter sacrifices its uniqueness on the altar of profit, alienating forever those who have helped make it what it has become.
(And if you are keeping score, the post plus the headline makes 10,000 characters exactly.)