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140 characters means 140 characters: Twitter is set to make an overdue change

Fly, little birdie. Fly.
Fly, little birdie. Fly.

Twitter users have long complained that the service's promise of 140 characters per message is not exactly true. If a user includes a link or an image in a tweet, it can shave up to 23 characters off the total. Include both an image and a link and there are less than 100 characters left to work with.

And who can possibly express themselves in 100 characters?! (Ahem.)

Now, it seems, Twitter is finally set to remove this longstanding aggravation. According to Bloomberg News, as early as the next few weeks, Twitter will no longer count links and images against a tweet's character count.

This is a welcome change — and a much better idea than some of the cockamamie notions the struggling company has floated recently.

As it happens, I wrote a piece in January of this year urging exactly the changes Twitter is now making. Here it is:

Twitter has been the subject of much discussion lately, what with its slowing growth and stock troubles. Lately it has hinted at some changes, the goal of which seems to be to keep people within the "walled garden" of the app, like Facebook does with its inline stories, while allowing more text.

This is a very bad idea. If people want a torrent of pictures, videos, and unrestricted verbiage, they already have Facebook. If they want considered essays, they already have Medium. If they want whatever Snapchat does, they have Snapchat.

Tim Lee is right: Twitter needs to get some self-confidence. It needs to become more like itself, not more like its competitors.

How? I have one idea. But first, some thoughts on Twitter, of which I am a longtime and enthusiastic, some might say obsessive, user. (@drvox, yo — 112,000 tweets and counting.)


Twitter is unique because of all the things it can't do

What sets Twitter apart from its social media competitors is its particular limitations.

Text is limited to 140 characters (somewhat arbitrarily — it was originally designed as a texting tool using SMS). The number of photos, videos, or links that can be attached to a tweet is limited, because they all count against the character limit. The number of other users who can be directly cc'd is limited, as they too count against the character limit.

The ability to use Twitter as a broadcast or distribution network (a "push" medium) is limited, since people only see your tweets if they have chosen to follow you.

Twitter's friendliness to new users is limited, since any user experience must be handcrafted by intentionally following people. There's a bit of a learning curve.

Yet to the extent that Twitter captured lightning in a bottle, catching on among 300 million people (not a small number!), it is because of those limitations. The behaviors, habits, and tropes generated in response to those limitations are what give Twitter its unique character; they are its core assets.

twitter and facebook (Shutterstock)

Facebook is more and more like fast food: consistently what you like, again and again. Twitter is like ... ingredients. You make the food yourself by mixing ingredients, choosing whom to follow, whom to engage, who to block or ignore. Every user has a different recipe. That's what makes it difficult to control and monetize, but also what gives it its frisson.

Sometimes it's boring or frustrating or nasty. Twitter is not as carefully calibrated to your tastes as Facebook, so the experience will never be as consistent. But precisely because it is resistant to curation, Twitter allows for more serendipity. I've seen many, many interesting exchanges between famous people and randos with 72 followers; I can't think of any other medium where access is so democratized.

There's all kinds of hate and abuse, but there's also a lot of hilarity, solidarity, and useful knowledge sharing. Weird habits, memes, and running jokes arise and disappear, conversations form, merge, and splinter, and for the most part it all happens organically, in real time, driven by users themselves.

twitter birds (Shutterstock, and me)

Almost all of this is driven by the 140-character limitation. It is a singularly generative feature, which has elicited more creative uses and hacks than anyone could have predicted in advance. People laugh about it, but there is a real art to writing at 140 characters. It can be done well or poorly.

And it's all quick, easy to dip into and out of, flowing by all day like a river. There's no obligation to "catch up," no time commitment beyond the seconds it takes to read or write a tweet. Anything that loosens the limitations raises the commitment.

Twitter needs to get more Twitter

The executive class, investors, and at least some users seem to want Twitter to remove its limitations, to give new users a more uniform and curated experience, to make room for more text, more photos and videos, more reasons for casual users to spend more time in the Twitter garden.

But then why not use Facebook? Everybody is already using it anyway. If Twitter becomes another Facebook, it will be crushed by the original Facebook, Facebook.

Twitter needs to realize two things: a) it will never be mega-huge like Facebook, but b) it can still grow, by building on its core strengths.

The key to that is embracing the 140-character limit.


So here's an idea. It's a compromise between proposals that would remove limitations entirely (thus making Twitter a low-rent Facebook) and the desire among some old-timers for nothing to change. It's a loosening of limitations, but one that serves to highlight, rather than trash, the 140-character core of Twitter.

The problem now is that many if not most tweets are not 140 characters. Users are responding to someone (including their @ handle), referencing another tweet, or sending a link, image, or video. All those things count against the character limit, which means the text is unduly constricted and often messily run together with code, reducing its readability.

This should be changed. All tweets should have 140 characters to play with.

The way to do this is to cleave the incidentals from the tweet itself. As with email, address and attachment fields should be separate from the text.

Now, of course we don't want people attaching an unlimited amount of junk to their tweets. And we don't want spamming of unlimited user handles. So the number of @ addresses cc'd, and the number of attachments, should be limited. (Let's say three each.)

This would serve to center all Twitter use on the art and craft of conveying meaning in 140 characters. The Twitter web interface and its various satellite apps should revise their UIs to reflect this — to focus attention on the text of the tweet, separating out the cruft.

It would still be possible to attach additional text, as people have been doing, via screenshots. It's a kludge, but sometimes a kludge is fine. It's good that there's some effort required to make tweets longer; it tilts the field toward brevity, which is what Twitter is all about.

People always say they want limitations removed, but sometimes limitations are what bring out their best. Just because people push for more text doesn't mean that making it easy to type unlimited text would be good for the average Twitter user.

Twitter is about 140 characters. Just embrace it.

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