Twitter’s 280-character tweets won’t fix the platform’s biggest problems

Twitter’s 280-character tweets won’t fix the platform’s biggest problems
Square and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Richard Drew/AP
Square and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Richard Drew/AP
opinion
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Rage, rage against the dying of the 140-character limit. Twitter is testing tweets that can contain 280 characters, or twice as much text. It will try out this service with “a small group of people before we make a decision to launch to everyone,” the company explained in a blog post.

Twitter knows the move will be controversial. Since the platform’s launch in 2006, Twitter has been defined by the brevity of its content: 140 characters, an “arbitrary choice based on the 160-character SMS limit,” CEO Jack Dorsey wrote in a (very long) tweet.

“We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters — we felt it, too,” the blog post reads. “But we tried this, saw the power of what it will do, and fell in love with this new, still brief, constraint.”

Users immediately had concerns. Twitter appears to be prioritizing what seems like another aesthetic tweak over commonly requested services like better harassment control, users noted. Won’t 280 characters just give Twitter’s army of actual Nazis more space to make the platform more unfriendly?

Why longer tweets?

It’s about user growth, Will Oremus writes in Slate. Expanding the number of regular users — rather than losing them by the millions — is the company’s white whale. “At this point, the company’s failure to substantially expand its user base represents an ongoing existential threat to its future,” Oremus notes. “In other words: It’s desperate.” The move may simply be a Hail Mary pass.

Possibly, Twitter is eyeing growth in a few specific regions, too. As the company’s blog post notes, “In languages like Japanese, Korean and Chinese, you can convey about double the amount of information in one character as you can in many other languages, like English, Spanish, Portuguese or French.”

Twitter has also likely noticed the growing popularity of threaded posts as a way to make a longer point, tell a great story or form little collections of jokes. With 280 characters, tweetstorms would theoretically require fewer separate posts — though it’s hard not to envision a more congested feed because of it. It’s possible that people will just treat Twitter like Facebook or Medium and bloviate more.

The real reason Twitter can’t grow its user base

The beauty of the ultra-tiny bloglets we’ve come to know is that they’re easy to skim until you find something that’s actually worth engaging with. With longer tweets, Twitter risks the same problem that makes Facebook so insufferable at times: lots of talk, little substance and more effort on the user’s part to find the good stuff.

With longer tweets, Twitter risks the same problem that makes Facebook so insufferable.

I’d posit that what keeps people away from Twitter isn’t the pain of having to abbreviate text when their brilliant thoughts don’t fit in 140 characters — it’s the toxic community and the substantial learning curve.

It takes months, maybe years, to find your niche in a service where most of what you’re adding is noise, or to follow the ideal collection of news organizations and journalists that might send you a breaking story an hour before you see it on Facebook, or to carefully cultivate a family of fellow users within a specific interest group that makes you feel good about using Twitter at all. And then, by the time you’ve built yourself a nice little home on Twitter, legions of goons will make your life hell because of the color of your skin, your gender or your Jewish name. Why bother at all?

I believe the next wave of online spaces will grow and prosper because they are intimate, not because they’re loud. On Facebook, for instance, small affinity groups are everywhere — safe, often private spaces where people feel free to be themselves.

Twitter is just getting noisier. But if there’s one thing that unites the Twitter community, it’s mocking Twitter itself. At least the long tweets will bring out some great jokes.