Brevity Isn’t Always a Bug

Yesterday afternoon I was shocked to see news circulating that Twitter was conducting a limited test allowing some users to post updates of up to 280 characters, double the long-standing limit. Twitter is billing this experiment as one that allows for more and deeper self-expression and one that takes into account the additional characters often needed in non-English languages.

Hints and rumors that Twitter would adjust the character limit have been circulating for years. Last year there were reports it would basically become a blog platform, allowing up to 10,000 characters. Similar rumors swirled in 2015 that a “new product” would break the 140 character ceiling. And just a few weeks ago people found hints of a new feature that would make Tweetstorms easier to post. On top of those rumors, Twitter has made adjustments to the character limit, including no longer counting images/videos or usernames in replies against the 140 max.

There are some good points to make about why “character count” isn’t the place for Twitter to be focusing its attention right now. Not only does it continue to be a haven of sexist, racist trolls (as well as straight-up Nazis) who circumvent TOS on technicalities, but it needs a damn “Edit” button, even if it’s only available for 60 minutes after a post is published or something. Also, stop showing me Tweets out of chronological order or so help me…

With all those points stipulated, there’s also just a craft reason why 140 characters has always been a value, not a bug to fix. Todd VanDerWerff put it well last night.

That’s been very true in my experience. More than once (a day) I’ve typed out a Tweet and found it’s well over 140 characters, especially including a link. So I’ve had to review my copy and edit it down, removing superlatives, unnecessary digressions and other instances of overt, showy verbosity. I’m a better editor and writer for being aware of these things, even if I don’t always practice them on WordPress, where no such character constraints are in place. At least I’m aware.

The thoughtful approach necessary to conform to Twitter’s limitations is just the latest iteration of that kind of on-the-job learning. I’m convinced I’m a better writer for my experience at AdJab and the other Weblogs, Inc. blogs I wrote for over a decade ago. On AdJab in particular the sweet spot was about 150 words for a post, something that would fit on the front page without necessitating a “Read More” click. So I became quite skilled in the art of summarization and distillation, able to pull out the key points of an important or interesting story and present them concisely.

I remember an interview I once read with Lee Loughnane, the trumpeter for the band Chicago. He was asked why the band stopped making double albums after the release of “Chicago IV.” That, as well as the first three albums, were both two-record sets but “Chicago V” began the shift to single records. He said the economics of the record industry had changed and the label, Columbia, was only willing to pay for the copyright on 10 songs maximum per record. So they had to change their songwriting approach and cut some tunes that might have remained if they had the extra disc available to them.

You can argue that the creativity of the band was stifled by these constraints. No longer was Jimmy Pankow able to write his seven-movement suites. Some of the songs on “Chicago Transit Authority” that are essential to establishing the band’s identity would have been the first cut to fit under the limit. But it also forced them to sort the wheat from the chafe, taking only the best shots and identifying which ones were the most essential both from self-expression and commercial perspectives.

The same can be said for 140 characters. With that limit in place, you have to get to the damn point, and quickly. Threads and Tweetstorms are fine, but as I’ve said before I’ve yet to see one that wouldn’t make a better (and more easily saved/referenced) blog post. If the 280 character expansion rolls out widely, we’ll complain and then adjust over time. Everything will be fine. A key tool to hone your thinking, though, will be gone.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.