Longer Tweets Won't Debase This Art Form
Twitter's founder Jack Dorsey has taken a lot of flak for tweeting on Wednesday that the company might abandon its 140-character-per-post limit. Many see the "beautiful constraint," as Dorsey called it in his post, as the service's defining feature. It's not, and it shouldn't be.
Dorsey suggested that the ability to post more text could add utility to Twitter. In response, the movie producer Brian Koppelman tweeted: "I don't believe those who love Twitter want this. Why do you love it? This message doesn't make that clear." That was one of the milder comments. Other users accused Dorsey of caring only about the increased ad revenue that allegedly could be derived from longer posts. Yet others wondered how Twitter would differentiate itself from Facebook, which technically allows posts of 63,206 characters.
Twitter's users probably include a disproportionate number of journalists and other professional writers. That's definitely true of the 150,000 verified users. Of this select group among Twitter's 300 million user base, 25 percent are journalists and 6.5 percent are media outlets. Those of us who write for a living like translating our thoughts into the abbreviated format. It's a fun experiment and a promotional exercise for authors, too: David Mitchell, the author of "Cloud Atlas," serialized a story on Twitter in 2014.
There are some beautiful examples of the 140-character form. Here's one from Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes:
Szirtes is a critic of Dorsey's proposed liberalization:
Yet he also has done what Dorsey has noticed a lot of Twitter users are doing -- taking screenshots of longer texts and then sharing them on Twitter. Dorsey was forced to use this trick to share his suggestion with users, rather than relying on 140 characters. Sometimes your message just doesn't fit, and that shouldn't be a reason to go to a different platform.
That should answer Koppelman's question. There are other answers, though -- concerning progress, user convenience and money.
As Dorsey pointed out Wednesday, the limit was added to Twitter "early on" so a post could fit into a single SMS message. Remember those? People used to send them when mobile operators ruled. But in 2014, WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging app -- just one of several popular over-the-top messengers -- surpassed the entire global SMS system, moving more messages per day. The messenger apps don't have character limits, so the original reasoning no longer holds. To quote Keynes, "When the facts change, I change my mind."
Insisting on the limit doesn't make much sense from the usability point of view. The system is being taken over by those ugly text screenshots, which are a hassle to create on a mobile device.
Facebook acted a long time ago. Until March 2009, it had a 160-character limit for wall posts -- also to allow users to post by SMS. Then the limit was raised to 420 characters; the big leap, to 5,000, was in September 2011.
This does make the Facebook timeline less dynamic. Sometimes the beginning of a long post, the bulk of which is hidden under the cut, doesn't even suggest what the post is about. And when writers aren't forced to stick to the point, they often waste readers' time. That's where the business argument comes in, though. Time spent on a site is a valuable metric to advertisers. In November 2014, the average U.S. Internet user spent 42.1 minutes per day on Facebook and just 17.1 minutes on Twitter. Even young people, who have supposedly fallen out of love with Facebook, spend more time on it.
That is one reason that Twitter's projected 2015 revenue is about 35 percent of Facebook's net income and that Facebook stock is so strongly outperforming Twitter:
Twitter, with its stagnating user base and slow revenue growth, is right to be concerned about increasing user engagement and convenience for newcomers. And there are ways to avoid diluting the experience for the hard-core users who treat a tweet as a perfect haiku. The company could keep the 140-word format as an obligatory feature in a post. Bloggers who contribute longer texts could use it to write a catchy headline or summary.
Purity is an attractive stand, but it's rarely the most convenient or profitable one. Twitter is a mass product. It cannot afford to stagnate and scare off potential users. As for the writers who loved the "beautiful constraint" -- well, we'll figure out what to do to keep our Twitter feeds dynamic and to the point. That's what our work is about, after all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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