Out of Character(s)

Twitter’s known for brevity.

The clue is in the descriptor ‘microblogging’. No surprise, then, that howls of protest flooded the twittersphere when it doubled the character limit for tweets to 280 earlier this month. With 330 million monthly active tweeters, there was a fair chance that the update would be unpopular with some.

The platform was ready for the resistance with a robust response. They told us that they’d road-tested the changes in a control group and that they would improve our experience. I thought I’d ask my own followers for their reactions.

The question was simple: should twitter stay (at 280), or should it go (back to 140)? 400 responses to a twitter poll was pretty satisfying: an engagement rate of almost 10% from 6,600 impressions.

Okay, no straw poll gives credible research – but 4 out of 5 wanted twitter to revert to type. Why? It has to do with the power of succinctness.

As Blaise Pascal (crudely translated) said: I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

There was something charming, challenging and (positively) constraining about a tighter character limit. It made us cut to the chase. As a rookie journalist, my programme editor used to hack my copy to bits.

“Every word’s a pound” he told me pointedly (with a wry smile). My meagre wages would have been shredded if I’d paid him for every judicious, copy-improving edit. Churchill’s memo from 1940 is just as appropriate today:

Our wartime PM was swamped with messages – and today, we’re bombarded with even more.

Has twitter lost its differentiator? Is it a sign of panic from a business losing revenue and users (at least in the US) and making huge annual losses ($457million last year)? The short answer, I believe, is ‘yes’.

It’s an all-too-common error: when things aren’t going well, it’s tempting to adjust your positioning and follow the herd, rather than double-down on your distinctiveness. I fear that’s exactly what twitter has done: diluting its proposition, and disaffecting many of its core customers. The respondents largely agreed:

Enter the subversives: Mike Love (former chairman of Burson-Marsteller UK) is one of many who’ve installed a Chrome extension that restricts tweets to 140. Brutal, but effective. Weber Shandwick’s UK and EMEA CEO feels the same:

And some brands have used the character increase to add character to their posts.

Not everyone sees it my way, though. Twitter says just 1% of tweets in their test hit the 280 character limit. Their inference is that that’s a positive development. Neville Hobson agrees, arguing that although we’ll see “more worthless content” we’ll also “see more worthwhile thoughts that stimulate conversation.”

I’d love twitter to go back to where it once belonged. As Shakespeare wrote, brevity is the soul of wit, and Macbeth was very tweetable, with just 22 words on average per speech. Although – in his plays – Shakespeare used a total of 1,223 characters (at least the ones with speaking parts).

PostScript. I loved the response from Buzzfeed Books, but unless you’ve got half an hour to spare, please don’t search for ‘280 and Trump’…

 

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