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Twitter’s Test Expansion To 280 Characters Would Mark The End Of A Genre


Twitter’s executives announced Tuesday that they would begin testing an expansion of tweet length from 140 characters to 280. The change was met with the widespread howls of indignation with which Twitter users should be familiar—Twitter users hate most everything. But this time, the outrage was more than a reaction against changes to a familiar system. Lengthening tweets will alter Twitter’s format for the worse, and take away part of what makes the social media platform special and good.

Twitter’s 140-character limit created a unique genre of writing. The developers of Twitter likely had no intention of doing so. The original limit was not stylistic but technological, based solely on the limits of text messages on older cell phones. Those limits are long gone in texting, and Twitter has not relied on the SMS system for years. But the 140-character limit remained, and what grew up around it was a peculiar method of communication that Twitter users came to love.

We Love Twitter’s Odd Brevity And Wry Humor

Twitter humor valued brevity. Joke formulas and new abbreviations allowed writers to imply set-ups to their jokes that they did not have room to spell out. The addition of images, emoji, and gifs added more nuance to a sparsely worded thought. The quick hit of humor or insight in a well-crafted tweet is the perfect medium of expression for our hectic age. Users’ wryness matches the cynicism of our times and their brevity suits our busy lifestyles.

Nowhere is this more true than in what came to be known as “weird Twitter”. The bizarre brand of humor is a 21st century twist on the one-liner. Here at The Federalist, Rich Cromwell’s weekly roundups of Twitter humor give non-users a taste of the strange art form. People even screenshot tweets and post them to Facebook and Tumblr, places where more verbose posts are permitted. There is something about the odd brevity that people like.

Twitter Encouraged Limits, In A World That Lacks Them

Word limits focus the writer’s mind. The rise of digital publishing has led to a generation of writers who have never had to comply with strict length requirements. Established journalists still often write in the clipped patterns of the newspapers at which they once worked, but for the millennial longread writer, the sky’s the limit. That can be artistically freeing, but the loss of editing—especially self-editing—has led to a surfeit of flabby, verbose pieces that show the desperate need of a blue pencil.

In writing and in the world at large, the lack of limits can be interpreted as an increase in freedom. But the lack of formal limits just transfers the requirement to the individual. The phrase “too long; didn’t read” (or simply “tl;dr”) became internet jargon for a reason. It is hard to be brief. It is hard to stay within the guidelines when no one is forcing you to do so. So writers bang away at their keyboards and readers’ eyes wander to the next article.

Comparing a tweet to a Facebook post is like comparing a sonnet to a blank verse epic. Blank verse can be excellent, but it is much, much harder to write. Unconstrained in length, meter, or rhyme, it takes a supreme effort on the part of the poet to differentiate his work from something that is simply prose with odd spacing. The best do it exceedingly well, but most amateurs fall short.

A well-written fourteen-line English sonnet, on the other hand, takes a greater initial effort to write, but is far easier to complete because its own rules define it so rigidly. Those rules might constrain the artistic vision, but they also sharpen the mind. They force the poet to cast off what is not needed and shape his thoughts to conform to the style. In other words: they make you work for it.

With The Loss Of 140-Character Twitter, We Lose A Genre

To compare Weird Twitter’s work to Shakespeare’s sonnets might seem irreverent—perhaps the limerick is a better analogy—but all new art forms are derided in their time. To call someone a “sonneteer” was once considered an insult. But it is hard to deny that what has arisen out of the 140-character limit is a unique genre, one that would not otherwise have been created.

Established comedians like Conan O’Brien and Patton Oswalt adapted their efforts to the format flawlessly. It also gave voice to pseudonymous weirdos like Dril, Chuuch, and Breakfast Haver, whose humor gives millions of people a quick laugh when it pops up in their twitter feed. Could these people still be funny with twice as many words? Almost certainly. But it would be a flabbier, slower humor, a less functional version of Facebook.

Twitter is not a perfect medium or a perfect corporation, but most of their efforts to improve themselves have taken turns that users find baffling and wrong. Changes commonly requested, like an edit function or different typefaces, are ignored. Better monitoring of harassment would benefit many users, but would cost the company money in hiring employees to process complaints, and so is unlikely to happen. The few good changes, such as threading responses and adding gifs, make it easier to communicate at length if you want to, eliminating the need for increased character counts.

This latest change sounds like innovation for innovation’s sake, a symptom of the Silicon Valley mania for disruption. Twitter stumbled early on into something people loved; since then, their corporate leadership has tried steadfastly to innovate themselves back into irrelevance. Innovation is the tonic of the tech economy, but Twitter ought to take a lesson from the rest of America and remember the old, 31-character phrase: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.