It’s perhaps fitting that Twitter, the social media service most identified with brevity, has doubled the upper character limit its users can tweet, while at the same time insisting the fundamental change in no way alters its essence.
At its core, the internet as we know it exists in a state of permanent contradiction where everything both simultaneously lasts forever and is constantly in flux.
But can Twitter thrive in this nominal state of concise and verbose, and what does the change mean for a platform that struggles to add real users at the same time it fails to identify and delete fake ones?
While the company has run tests on what preselected individuals do with a 280-character limit, that experiment was necessarily limited to a small segment of the overall Twitter population. What giving 280 to everyone will mean for Twitter’s future is a difficult question, and one with neither a 140- or 280-character answer.
But that hasn’t stopped Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey from guessing. And as with many things in Silicon Valley, the decision appears to have come down to growth. In a prepared statement, the company said it hoped the expanded character count will increase engagement, and allow people to spend less time editing their tweets before hitting the publish button — apparently a desirable goal in and of itself.
“The culture of Twitter grew out of the site’s rules and constraints. Changing those will undoubtedly have an effect on that culture”
“Historically, 9% of Tweets in English hit the character limit,” read the press release. “This reflects the challenge of fitting a thought into a Tweet, often resulting in lots of time spent editing and even at times abandoning Tweets before sending. With the expanded character count, this problem was massively reduced – that number dropped to only 1% of Tweets running up against the limit. Since we saw Tweets hit the character limit less often, we believe people spent less time editing their Tweets in the composer.”
“People did silly (creative!) things like writing just a few characters per line to make their Tweets extra large,” the company explained of its 280 test in the same statement. “It was a temporary effect and didn’t last long. We expect to see some of this novelty effect spike again with this week’s launch and expect it to resume to normal behavior soon after.”
So, we know the “why” of the thing, but the long-term effects are perhaps harder to suss out. In the immediate future, we can expect to see scores of obnoxiously long tweets that take advantage of the increased character count to spam users’ feeds, but Twitter insists that trend will quickly pass.
However, it’s what comes later — not the “soon after” — that will really matter. The character-limit change isn’t a “silly” one. Rather, it fundamentally alters the amount of information that can be shared with each tweet — and it’s particularly difficult to know what Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users will do with that new power.
Like the famed Oulipo novel omitting the letter “e,” the culture of Twitter grew out of the site’s rules and constraints. Changing those will undoubtedly have an effect on that culture, and day-to-day users may not respond so kindly. Doubling the length of tweets might, possibly, have the unintended consequence of dulling the service in an as-of-yet undetermined manner.
Now that every tweet has the potential to be a paragraph in length, will Twitter become less about “what’s happening” and more of a LiveJournal-esque blogging platform? Or, perhaps, the acerbic tone encouraged by the site’s previously imposed limit will slowly fade away — leaving nothing but thoughtful discussions and rambling polite disagreements (don’t hold your breath).
Perhaps an instructive example can be found in Mastodon, the open-source social media platform that mimics Twitter in some ways while differing in important others. There, in one of its many instances, users have long been able to send 500-character messages. That, plus admittedly heavy moderation, has led to a seemingly less hostile user experience than offered by Twitter — something Twitter’s advertisers would likely kill for.
Maybe Jack Dorsey has been paying attention.
Because while it may be inscrutable to the common user, Dorsey clearly has a vision in mind — one that involves people spending increasing amounts of time on his platform. However, from the perspective of those already using the service every day, the long-term effects of this character limit increase might not be so subtle as Twitter continues over the years to slowly bend to the demands of user growth. Whether it finally settles on 280, 420, or 540 character-length tweets is anyone’s guess.
In the end, the final specific character count permitted by Twitter may not actually matter that much. What today’s change makes clear is that the future of the service is a cluttered one, and the site’s users will just have to get used to brevity and verbosity occupying the same space at the same time. Fortunately for Twitter, that’s exactly the kind of mental juggling act that the internet, in all its wonderful contradictions, was made for.
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