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Summary:

Maybe it’s the influence of Google+, but suddenly everyone seems to be talking about what’s wrong with Twitter. First, blogger Robert Scoble said it was “boring,” and now Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo says it needs to lose the 140-character limit. Both are missing the point.

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Maybe it’s the influence of Google+, but suddenly everyone seems to be talking about what’s wrong with Twitter. First it was the quintessential social-media early adopter, Robert Scoble, complaining that the arrival of Google’s social network has made Twitter “boring,” and recommending all kinds of things the service needs to do to change. Now Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo has jumped into the act, arguing that Twitter needs to drop its famous 140-character limit in order to be more competitive. Both are missing the point. Sometimes, a social network that just does one thing well is much better than one that does a whole lot of things poorly.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things that Twitter could do better. Scoble is right when he says that the initial experience with the service — what product managers love to call the “onboarding process” — is not great, something that the company itself has effectively admitted a number of times. The single most popular question I get from people when they first start using Twitter is “What do I do now?” It’s not clear how to follow people, whom to follow, how re-tweeting and other features work, and so on. Even some long-time users are confused by things like why some followers can’t see certain messages when they start with the @ symbol.

But these are growing pains that lots of companies have — they are not about pivotal or crucial flaws in the product itself. In many ways, Twitter is a classic example of a service that fills such a need for people they will continue to use it even while they complain bitterly about how unusable it is.

Falling into the “feature-creep” trap

But wouldn’t it be better if Twitter offered better video and image embedding like Google+, or included engagement metrics with each tweet like the kind you can get with Topsy, or made it easier to follow conversations, as Scoble says they should? Not necessarily, no. In fact, some of those things could clutter up what has become a great example of a simple service that does something useful really well — namely, allows people to post and distribute their thoughts and links quickly and easily. As Costolo put it in an interview at a recent tech conference in Colorado:

If you just look in the sideview mirror at what are particular companies doing, and then you start to say Twitter is going to be the world in your pocket — now with video chat! — then you lose your way… we’re going to offer simplicity in a world of complexity.

The trap Scoble has fallen into is what’s known as the “feature-creep” problem, and it’s something tech executives and product designers are prone to: instead of focusing a on one or two things, they constantly add to the list of features, so that a great and simple product or service eventually becomes a dog’s breakfast of competing doodads and gizmos. As more than one person has pointed out about Apple, great design often consists of figuring out what not to include, and stripping a product down to its simplest form — or “saying no to 1,000 things,” as Steve Jobs has described his approach to product design.

Manjoo’s piece suffers from a similar problem, which is comparing the service in question to every other service, and then wondering why it doesn’t have those features. Why doesn’t Twitter let you post videos right in the stream? Why doesn’t it let you post messages that are longer than 140 characters? If only it did that, it would be perfect.

The 140-character limit is crucial

The point the Slate writer misses (or hints at, and then discards) is that if it did this, it wouldn’t be Twitter any more. As far as I’m concerned, the 140-character limit is one of the most brilliant things Twitter has ever done — and might even explain why it is still around, let alone worth a reported $8 billion or so. Not only did that limit feel comfortable to many users who were familiar with text messaging, but it restricted what people could post, so that Twitter didn’t become a massive time-sink of 1,000-word missives and rambling nonsense, the way so many blogs are.

I’m not the only one who has noticed that on Google+, things often stray more towards the rambling-nonsense end of the spectrum than they do on Twitter. Does Twitter encourage a “sound bite” kind of culture, as Manjoo argues — or what Alexis Madrigal describes as a “call-and-response” approach, rather than real conversation? Perhaps. But a long and rambling post followed by hundreds of comments on Google+ isn’t really much of a conversation either, when it comes right down to it.

In the long run, it’s good that Google+ is providing some competition for Twitter. Maybe the ability for users to share comments with different “Circles” of friends and followers on Google’s network has Twitter thinking about how it can make better use of groups and other features. That’s a good thing. But throwing out some of the core aspects of what make Twitter useful, or cluttering it up with all kinds of other features of dubious merit doesn’t really make any sense at all. And I think Twitter knows that.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user zert sonstige

  1. Well said +1 here :)

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    1. Thanks, David — appreciate the support :-)

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  2. The 140 character limit is (just a little) too short as it doesn’t include addressing (@), categorisation (#), linking (urls), metadata (/by /cc /via), etc.

    I’d be tempted to exclude these details from the count…

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  3. Wasn’t the point of the 140 character limit that you could fit the @username+message into a single sms message ?

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  4. As the kids say ‘True That’ – Great Post. The limit requires you to be concise, relevant, and more creative then typical. The origin for the 140 character limit was discussed (along with other things) by Biz Stone a few months ago on a appearance on the Howard Stern Radio Show… And also which you mentioned— the limit especially helps those of us who can be known to ramble……

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  5. I read Manjoo this morning and couldn’t help but feel that the article was a little half-baked. It was the “this thing should change because I don’t like it” argument, which is pretty lame. A good part of his argument rests of the fact that we are now in the age of the smartphone, thus making SMS obsolete. Really, this is not true at all. Only 38% of the U.S. has smartphones (though more than 50% of new phone purchases are smartphones in the U.S. right now) and the rest of the world has a much lower percentage of that. On last check, 70% of Twitter’s users were overseas (Facebook too). SMS is taking off in India as the country is flooded with feature phones and low-end smartphones (think Sidekick or Samsung BlackJack types). Twitter is an enabling service in places like this and even during the Arab Spring. Hence, the 140 character limit is crucial for Twitter’s global growth. Anyway, I like it ;)

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  6. Farhad Manjoo Thursday, July 21, 2011

    You’re right, Twitter’s short posts were crucial to preventing it from becoming a wasteland of rambling nonsense. That’s why I don’t call for the limit to be eliminated. I’m calling for it to be expanded to 280 characters. That would continue everything that you say is great about Twitter — at 280 characters, you wouldn’t have a long and rambling post followed by hundreds of long and rambling posts.

    But you’d have more room to express yourself without having to resort to txtese. It’s the best of both worlds.

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    1. @Farhad Manjoo I prefer 157.5 characters myself.

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    2. Thanks for the comment, Farhad — although, as I mentioned in our discussion on Twitter about this, you haven’t really made a case for why 280 would be any better than 250 or 350 or 450 for that matter. It’s still an arbitrary number. And if you can’t give any better reason than “it will be better because it’s a little longer,” then I don’t see why Twitter should change it.

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  7. Unless twitter makes some changes they will sink in the sand. Just wait until celebs start using the +1 . The 140 char limit is good. One of the limitations that makes twitter works. I would add threaded response to twitter

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  8. I personally like Google+ and Twitter more than Facebook because they’re both more lightweight. However, I think Twitter is more lightweight than Google+ so I like Twitter more. But the problem with Twitter is that it’s so full of bugs.

    1. When approving a follower request, the Accept and Decline buttons don’t disappear. They kind of just toggle, which is weird.
    2. You currently can’t upload or change a profile picture.
    3. Sometimes the Twitter bar on top loads but the webpage doesn’t.
    4. The changes you apply on your profile doesn’t appear immediately but only after a few hours.

    And lots more. So I guess they just really need a lot of cleaning up to do.

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  9. I imagine there are some very heated debates internally at Twitter on this argument. I fall squarely on the 140 side. If Twitter removes this limit, I will stop using it as there will be literally no benefit over Google+.

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  10. Remember pens with built-in calculators? Stupid idea, right? Because the extra weight of the calculator made it hard to write, which kind of subverted the purpose of the pen.

    Plus it was gimmicky.

    Always better to pare down, get to the nub of things: expose only the features you need to expose to offer the best possible service from whatever service your tool is offering.

    But Mathew, the ability to easily post your thoughts without having to resort to Twister-style word torture is not an add-on gimmick, it’s actually essential.

    What does Twitter offer? Asynchronous broadcasting. The size of the input is just a constraint that makes it harder for people to use the service. The fancy “unlimited” text-entry field offered by Google+ isn’t just an extra feature, it makes the essential service better.

    As does the ease with which you can share links. And pictures.

    Twitter is quaint, and we’ll remember it nostalgically like we do IRC, where many of us learned similarly torturous shortcuts and insider tricks. But there’s a far, far better asynchronous broadcasting service in town.

    The fact that some commenters here “love” dealing with Twitter’s idiotic and arbitrary limit reminds me of Stockholm syndrome: we’re held hostage, because this is (was) the only game in town, so now the 140-char limit is great and makes me more creative.

    Hogwash.

    And I think Twitter higher-ups know it too, which is why they’re jumping ship.

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    1. I’m not convinced that the length of Google+ posts and the endless comments and the photos and so on make it better, Tim — the jury is still out on that. Thanks for the comment, though.

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