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140 Characters Are More Than Enough

Allowing longer tweets will grind Twitter to a halt

Bethany Clarke/Getty

Since its founding in 2006, it has been difficult to separate Twitter the platform from the 140-character limit that defines it. At its inception, blogs were the norm, and the idea of a service that deliberately compressed writing so that it could fit in a single SMS text seemed both absurd and controversial. Which, of course, was intentional. The "140" that counts down with each keystroke has prefaced every criticism of Twitter’s superficiality, every celebration of breakneck pace, and every flash of wit.

Today, Twitter is a company struggling to find both growth and a sustainable business model, and is considering its nuclear option: expanding the character limit. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Twitter is internally testing ideas to blow up the tweet, weighing everything from adding 10 more characters to extending the size of tweets considerably. The company has already dropped the character limit on direct messages, saying it made them "more powerful and fun"—and it apparently feels doing the same for the core experience might have the same effect.

The change is not without its proponents. Earlier this year, Ex-Flipboard and Amazon executive Eugene Wei made a compelling argument for removing the cap, claiming that the power of Twitter lies in its network and not a single tweet’s length; he said that longer tweets would make conversations easier to follow, and discussion more fruitful.

Wei is correct that the network is Twitter's strength—but he is wrong in saying that removing the character limit will improve the platform. Twitter's character limit is more than a pragmatic concern—it’s an aesthetic and cultural one, too, and it defines the tone and nature of the platform itself. Twitter is a thing constantly in motion, and changing the nature of the tweet will correspondingly change the nature of the tweetstream for the worse.  

The aphoristic nature of each brief message, after all, is what makes them potent—a kind of crowdsourced Wildean wit. Moreover, capping each tweet at 140 characters has produced the linguistic culture of Twitter. The clipped pace, the strange abbreviations, the sometimes brilliant attempts at poetry or fiction—all of these began as adaptations to constraint but have since emerged as stylistic expressions in themselves. As the rigid structure of the sonnet elicited the creativity and profundity of Italian and English poets, Twitter's limit has similar effects, being not only responsible for a written style, but also features like replies and retweets, which were conventions invented by users that are now standard parts of the service. The tone of Twitter’s users—their skepticism, their performativity, their productive refusals to engage—comes from the limit, which demands concision and precision.

The length of tweets has created a particular sort of culture that was and remains very "now"—both in the sense of being contemporary and in the very temporal nature of the prevailing conversations. In a world of 140 characters, it is always the present. (This culture is perhaps exemplified in the humor of weird twitter, a highly referential subculture of non sequiturs, jokes, and absurdity that works as a dip into an ocean of tweets, and the seething cultural mass those exchanges represent.)

Written forms aren't just a product of constraint; they are also reflective of their times. The rise of the novel in the nineteenth century, for example, was a reaction to the flourishing of ideas: you needed a form you could hang new, contrasting perspectives from, while keeping them in dialogue with one another. Writers found a way to do it.

Twitter has a similar function. A tweet is not a soundbite because the culture that bore it is shallow; it is because fragments of information placed in a stream are the raw cultural matter of a post-print society. When you have a surfeit of both information and interpretation, writing needs to be clear and succinct to be read.

And perhaps that is why futzing with the character limit of Twitter is about more than the literary culture of the tweet. Twitter has a unique temporal quality. It is a flow, a continuous stream that provides a flood of information. The in-time experience of Twitter—the rapid reaction to contemporary events, the flood of jokes and charming ephemera, the instantaneous commentary on political debates or award shows—is a function of the timeline as the root of the experience. To change it would be like watching a film where each frame was torturously long.

Flow, then, is Twitter’s other defining characteristic. If the character limit expands, Twitter will slow, becoming more like a wide, imposing, but gently-moving river than the torrent it is today—and one that would be filled with large chunks of debris, too. Twitter would lose its greatest advantage: Its speed.

It is probably unwise to get too attached to online networks. They explode in great flashes of light and hype, then slowly fade. Twitter, too, will one day seem quaint and archaic, either too slow or too fast for what the we’ll need. But today, there are very few services that offer the same immediate, insistent now-ness. And while, as a company, Twitter’s motivations are clear—they are desperate to have people spend more time on the platform and to give both new and former users reason to try it—changing the length of a tweet would create a fundamentally different product. It would be a thing that didn’t reflect the pulse of the world, a place a little less vital and bright.