An 800-word tribute to 140-character tweets
Don't double their length, Twitter. It’s like telling Shakespeare to ditch the sonnet structure
There are some of us who strive fanatically to stay within the 140 rule and who regard the leaking of an argument into a second tweet as a sign of intellectual decline. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.” That’s In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound. It’s a lovely poem that you can publish, title and author-namecheck, in a single tweet.
Let’s not be madder than Ezra. Little of Twitter is taken up with elegant imagist verse that leans towards the form of haiku. But brevity and discipline are part of the medium’s appeal.
That may change. Twitter is planning to double the character limit from 140 to 280. You’ll now be able to tweet William Carlos Williams’s “This is just to say …” with space left over for racist remarks about Strictly Come Dancing.
Twitter wouldn’t be Twitter without a dose of whataboutery. “Twitter increasing the character limit rather than addressing the constant abuse that happens on here is why no one wants to invest in them,” CJ from Chicago tweeted.
A few others wondered how they had found time to make this change when they had done nothing to curb the increasingly deranged rants emerging from the White House lavatory.
Twitter’s record on curtailing abuse is hugely unsatisfactory. The administrators do need to deal more severely with racist, sexist and homophobic filth. But it seems unlikely they have failed to do so because they’ve been tweaking the character limit.
No whataboutery is required to demolish the new strategy. Imagine if the earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, had told the poet to stop bothering with the sonnet structure.
Those neat verses would have given way to rambling chaos. Yards of extraneous foliage from less interesting months would have clogged up the darling buds of May. Is that what you want to happen? Is it?
Twitter argues that the medium currently offers unequal opportunities to users in different territories. I sense your liberal guilt tensing up. Fear not. Apparently we in the West are the ones at a disadvantage.
“Our research shows us that the character limit is a major cause of frustration for people tweeting in English, but it is not for those tweeting in Japanese,” Aliza Rosen, the company’s product manager, told the world.
Suits me. Let the Japanese have their extra elbow room. They don’t get much of that in Tokyo. I’m happy trimming to the current template my complaints about the number of ravioli in a can.
There was, in Twitter’s public places, little enthusiasm for the change. But, over the past year or so, a quiet fight-back against the character limit has been under way.
No regular user can have failed to notice the irritating rise of the “thread”: long, sometimes essay-length piece in the form of linked, 140-character tweets.
Because I’m an unreasonable person I am going to mention only fleetingly the sometimes important, often personally revealing content in such streams and caricature thread people as self-indulgent bores who belong on another medium.
“A thread on the Social Justice Warriors’ attempt to make Doctor Who a black woman. What if someone made Malcolm X a white woman? 1/8872,” is the sort of thing they don’t say very often.
Don’t mind me. There is often vital material in these threads, but this is not what Twitter is for. It thrives on the punchy rhythms of the three-minute pop song rather than the slowly disentangled themes of the symphony.
I don’t want to wade through 20 tweets to discover whether I’m listening to a reasoned debater or a Holocaust denier. I demand to be insulted now.
It is often forgotten that, in its early days, Twitter was referred to as a “microblogging” site. The phrase was as much a gag as a worthwhile description.
By 2006, when the medium launched, blogging had become the default medium for posting longer musings online. Twitter was closer to a public version of an SMS message (something acknowledged in the company’s announcement last week).
Over the past year or so, however, Twitter threads really have come to stand in for ye olde blog. Facebook has captured the market for longer wittering, but its clumsy sharing mechanisms inhibit its use for public banter.
The blogger is in danger of becoming a vanished tradesman like the chandler or the fletcher. We shall visit folk parks and see them tapping at iMacs for the amusement of tourists.
The new 280-character tweet doesn’t do much to fill that gap. It will only serve to break up the pulsating rhythm that Twitter users so enjoy. There are some of us who strive fanatically to stay within the 140 rule and who regard the leaking of an argument into a second tweet as a sign of intellectual decline. There are worse ways of filling in the looming hours.
If you want 280 characters, tweet twice, pal.