280-character Twitter just isn’t Twitter!

A male linnet with brown and red plumage, sitting on a thin tree branchSo, last night Twitter announced that they are trialling a new 280-letter Twitter format, and that certain people had been selected to try it out (I wasn’t one of them). The company’s blog post says that the change is going to affect “languages affected by cramming”, i.e. those languages where a single character does not represent a whole word (as is the case in Korean, Chinese and Japanese) and is meant to alleviate the problem of having to trim down tweets to fit within the 140-character limit. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (plain @jack on Twitter) said in one of the new extended tweets that “140 was an arbitrary choice based on the 160 character SMS limit”. The announced change has met with a fair amount of derision, with some saying the 140-character limit is what made Twitter what it was; that doubling the maximum length of tweets will remove the brevity: “Normal 140 char tweets, you can spend a few seconds on and move on if that. This completely breaks up that feel to it … that easy, scrollable, bite size thing Twitter has going for it will be gone”.

From a technical point of view, I don’t see how they will be able to implement this so that people tweeting in Chinese, Japanese and Korean are excluded as they do not need it (only 0.4% of tweets in Japanese hit the 140-character limit compared to 9% in English). Some Tweets (particularly those which mention personal names and brand names such as Sharp and Sony) use both CJK and Latin letters, while some tweets in English may include CJK (particularly Chinese) characters but remain mostly in English, or another Latin-script language. Will users be expected to state which language they are writing in before they start? In addition, CJK writing is not all pictogram-based; Korean uses an alphabet like ours, albeit the symbols are arranged in a square to fulfil the aesthetic of a Chinese pictogram, and Koreans sometimes use Chinese letters but sometimes do not. Japanese also uses indigenous alphabets for when a Chinese character is not available, and for prepositions and the like. So it is not always true that CJK writing is “one letter per word”, and as Chinese letters are 4-byte Unicode characters while Latin letters can be 8-bit (one-byte), it is more true to say that they are four characters per word, not just one.

As a fairly early adopter of Twitter, I’ve mostly used third-party clients. There wasn’t always an official Twitter client for Android; the early ones were obvious rebrandings of other clients rather than original Twitter products such as the now-defunct Seesmic. Many of the third-party clients supported tweet-extending apps such as TwitLonger (such as Tweetings which I now use on Android), and many of us had been tweeting as if the 140-character limit did not exist as far back as 2010, at least; Twitter never supported these services. As a way of forcing all its users to see adverts and other promoted content via its official clients and website, Twitter decided to cripple these clients by introducing token limits a few years ago, which led to many of the developers ceasing work on their projects and a number of the clients either being officially discontinued (like Seesmic) or left to rot (like Tweetcaster). Yet the clients were always preferable for those of us who used them: they supported third-party services and they showed the timelines as we wanted it, in chronological order, not ‘curated’ with some algorithm I don’t understand and can’t turn off.

The 140-character limit is not ‘abritrary’. It’s based on the SMS (text message) character limit; the first 20 characters are reserved for the tweeter’s own ID. The whole point was that it could be accessed via SMS, especially for posting but some also got tweets texted to them. No doubt Twitter has no doubt decided that SMS access is less important than it used to be, at least in “First World” markets where smartphones are popular and most of those who do not have one (or a tablet) at least have a desktop computer; old-style phones are still popular in the global South, although whether most users there can afford the number of text messages necessary to use Twitter is doubtful. Still, when asked to describe Twitter early on in its history, I described it as text-message teleconferencing, or a way to send texts to an audience rather than an individual. Most phones can send multiple messages and then read them back as a single message; will new long tweets use this feature when used over SMS, or will they still be restricted to 140 characters?

And I do agree with those who say that the limit makes Twitter distinctive and that the brevity is a good thing. There are other platforms available for writing detailed statuses and blogging. Many of them in fact link to Twitter, so you can share your blog posts with a link and let them come and read it: everything from Instagram to WordPress and even Facebook. Twitter has been improving things over the years, right from the native retweet system to the more recent changes so that mentions and image links do not detract from the 140-character limit; now they are just going to scrap it. It allows you to thread tweets so that people can follow a series of tweets (although client support for this is a bit flaky and the follow-ups won’t post on Facebook if you set that up to auto-post tweets). Now they are just going to scrap the 140-character limit which we had all learned to live with and, when we really needed to post a long message, we could get around anyway.

Or, as my friend Paul Bernal put it:

Image source: Wikimedia.

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