Tall tweets: What is Twitter’s ‘thing’?

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Twitter offers connection across all boundaries and beauty in brevity. So will the rumoured extension of tweet lengths spoil Twitter’s ‘thing’? And just what is Twitter’s ‘thing’ anyway?

Are you ready for the era of the tall tweet? Coming this year, the rumoured increase in tweet lengths from 140 characters to perhaps as many as 10,000 has Twitterers aflutter (evidenced via the fervent activity on the #10ktweets hashtag). My friend Nicola Barber has come up with a great description for the new, longer tweets: “Tall tweets.”

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Is the world ready for the tall tweet? Or will the tall tweet kill Twitter’s appeal?

Creativity thrives on constraint
Twitter is a fundamentally odd medium. When you go to compose a tweet (via the basic Twitter.com client), you get a simple two-word question: “What’s happening?”

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There’s no reason why so many millions of us choose to share what’s happening in our lives via tiny written messages. But we do.

For many, the enforced brevity of expression required by Twitter would seem to be its unique selling point (USP).

Personally, I am very attached to Twitter’s strict 40 character limit.

Creativity thrives on constraint. Brian Eno has helped countless musicians generate extraordinary music by setting narrow parameters in which to work. Eno says:

“I try to provide constraints for people. I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of manoeuvre.”

Twitter’s 140 character limit creates a tiny area of manoeuvre. But this tiny area of manoeuvre is all you need for genius to blossom. There can be beauty in brevity.

Why 140?
But why 140 characters? The tight constraints on tweet length are a legacy of old technical limits on mobile phone text message length, Wikipedia explains:

“Tweets were set to a largely constrictive 140-character limit for compatibility with SMS messaging, introducing the shorthand notation and slang commonly used in SMS messages.”

Why bump tweets up from 140 characters (possibly as far as to 10,000)? It’s all about chasing clicks, reckons Sam Leith:

“What’s going on, we can bet, is that Twitter realised it was missing a trick: all those lovely, monetisable clicks are going off its site. This is a bid to change its model so that rather than constantly directing people off-site, they now keep all those lovely, lovely clicks on Twitter – and maybe one day, fingers crossed, that means it might make enough money to live up to its insane stock-market valuation.”

Fears that our Twitter timelines could be about to be swamped with epic ramblings could prove unfounded, however. Laurie Anstis says “reports suggest it is standard 140 chars + click/tap for more – kind of a built-in twitlonger.”

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So is Twitter’s ‘thing’ the 140 character limit? For me, Twitter isn’t all about the enforced brevity of expression (as appealing and creatively stimulating as that is).

The conversation that never sleeps
Twitter’s ‘thing’  is the way it enables conversation, interaction and the sparking of ideas off other people, often in the most unexpected ways. I think it is the perfect medium for “the conversation that never sleeps” (my friend Mervyn Dinnen’s excellent description of what social media in general is all about).

Communication via Twitter isn’t bound by geographical or time limits, by hierarchies, or even by a paywall. Should it necessarily even be bound by length?

Please get in touch and let me know: What is Twitter all about? What is Twitter’s ‘thing’ for you? What do you make of the prospect of tall tweets? I’d love to hear from you.

Update 1 (Saturday 9 January 2016): ‘The challenge can be stimulating’
My thanks to Mervyn Dinnen for sharing a link to an excellent FT article on this topic, entitled Twitter: for and against longer tweets. It’s interesting that even the “for” voice in this article doesn’t sound exactly wild about longer tweets. I really like this passage from the “against” voice (Sebastian Payne) on the appeal of the 140-character limit:

“Since Twitter stumbled on the 140-character limit, it has provided endless creative opportunities for users to express themselves in the shortest and clearest way — one of the reasons why journalists love it. When Twitter launched, it was this constraint that gave it the edge over other ‘microblogging’ platforms. Users quickly cottoned on to the joy of making the most of those characters as well as the ability to debate with others on equal terms. Everyone has the same limited space to make their argument and the challenge can be stimulating.”

Footnotes

  • Ostrichful image via Wikimedia Commons. And yes, I know that ostriches don’t tend to tweet. But they are rather tall.

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