Twitter and the Death of the Art of Brevity

Last week, Twitter killed its 140-character limit, turning the art of brevity into a social media sacrificial lamb.

Longer tweets are only available to a select group of users...for now. But Twitter has hinted at this change for so long, it's unlikely to die on the Vine

To be clear, I’m not part of the group Twitter views as its hardcore users. I hit the Twittersphere in early 2015, when some people were already predicting the demise of the one-time stock market darling. I sometimes go several days without checking my feed. I have fewer than 600 followers. 

But Twitter’s model of short, precise content was precisely what attracted me to it. Though I’m also an ardent supporter of blog posts running longer than 2,000 words (as long as the author makes every word count), I viewed Twitter as the one place where I could easily catch up on headlines and connect with people and brands, all in the space of 60 seconds.

The 140-character limit isn’t easy, but that’s part of Twitter’s charm. Twitter makes people stop and think about what they want their words to achieve. If Facebook is social media’s free verse, Twitter is social media’s haiku[1].

In fairness, Twitter didn’t suddenly invite everyone to start publishing epics. It simply doubled the limit to 280 characters. 

Do you know how long 280 characters is? Well, consider that the average length of an English word is 4.5 letters, and that the average length of an English sentence is 15 to 20 words. That means Twitter users now have roughly three sentences to make their point, not counting images and GIFs.

Two hundred and eighty characters? These aren’t tweets, people. These are paragraphs. 

I get the change. After all, the Twitter user base has been shrinking for two-plus years, abandoned or ignored in favor of Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram and (gasp) Snapchat. Doubling the character limit takes the art and thus the effort out of tweeting. But at what cost?

(Note: the paragraph above contains exactly the same number of characters as the new, max-length tweet.)

The 280-character version of Twitter is no-thought-required Twitter. It’s selling out the loyal for the masses. It’s giving everyone a trophy. It’s telling people they can run marathons, even if they should stick to 100-meter sprints. It’s a cluttered feed.

I could be wrong. Maybe the expanded limit will be the antidote to Twitter’s longtime shrinkage. But if Ernest Hemingway can write a six-word story (only 33 characters including spaces)[2], I think we can all try to make do with 140-character tweets. And if I get bored with the 280-character monologues invading my feed, I’ll go write haikus. 

[1] A Japanese poem that’s famous for its strict form. The haiku consists of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of five, seven and five.

[2] The famous six-word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) is often linked with Hemingway but probably surfaced long before he became a writer

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