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Why changing Twitter’s 140-character limit is a dumb idea

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Maybe it’s the influence of Google+ (s goog), 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

33 Responses to “Why changing Twitter’s 140-character limit is a dumb idea”

  1. Barry Hollander

    Research shows that creativity is increased, not decreased, with constraints. Same goes with the 140-character limit. Like the old line: if I had more time, I would have written less.

    • Seriously. So if Twitter doubled the limit to 280, would you be half as articulate, and 50% as creative? If it was unlimited, would your creativity approach zero? Concise I’ll buy, that’s tautological. But I’m really interested to learn how by hampering my writing, my writing can improve in creativity and articulation. And being creatively concise doesn’t count.

      • “Being creatively concise” may not count to you or to most people, but some of the users are perfectly fine with being imposed with such limits. While posting tweets can hardly be considered writing, there’s obviously a certain challenge that comes with cramming your thoughts into small spaces.

        If I wanted to express my detailed reaction towards things, I would write an essay or maybe blog about it. I don’t see how you can’t be articulate in a Twitter kind of way.

    • Absolutely Anne. If you can’t say something useful, smart, and/or funny in 140 characters then I don’t want to talk with you on Twitter. Write a blog post instead.

  2. For the record, we did not “just start” to talk about what’s wrong with Twitter. Twitter crossed over to the dark side a good 13 months ago. Their charge to monetize, with poor strategy and their lack of ability to build solutions, to provide users with easy to use compartments, within a users own network, are Twitters biggest misses!
    Yes, it’s true – I still use it – but heh – what’s a girl to do. Still doesn’t take away from the fact that there is tons wrong with Twitter and it wasn’t a recent realization. Now going back to updating my Twitter feed…

  3. @Mathew Ingram
    Nice reading. First of all, I want to clear that, I am big fan of Twitter and have 800+ followers on Twitter account. Twitter have own concept like 140 characters to share your status. It’s really good concept and people like to do it. I checked too many status update on Facebook where they just update status with micro statement. People have no time to express emotions or status on long way. I agree with you, If Twitter focus more on user engagement so it’s quite good. Facebook have big concept to stay on page. You suppose to create long network over there by spending short time. I have big issue with Twitter. Bombarding of marketing and company’s profile are quite irritated things for me. Twitter have to work on it. BTW: 140 characters are quite good and enough to express your status. What you think about it?

  4. Yep, great post. There’s a lot of nonsense being written about Google+ at the moment but it will soon pass. The absolute worse thing Twitter can do is (a) make sudden changes because there’s somebody new on the block and (b) implement any features that will only have appeal to a very, very small minority.

    I don’t think they’ll do either. Google+ is a mirage, and it’s flattering to deceive. Twitter does one thing exceptionally well, and that’s provide bite-sized chunks of information at an almost real-time pace. More importantly, they’re the *only* people doing this well. Change that and they might as well turn off the lights.

  5. Twitter is so successful, mainly because of this limit. It forces people to be brief which cuts down on reading time and makes the value:character ratio very good indeed. You can plough through hundreds of tweets in the time it would take you to read through 10 or 20 facebook or G+ statuses and related comments. In short, it cuts out the BS.

  6. @MichWalkden

    Many great points here, but I can’t help commenting on onboarding. Let’s ignore for the moment that I hate the term in itself (I’m not onboard half the things that I am involved in/introduce to) I want to comment on consumer expectations.

    I’m a relative newcomer to Twitter and confess that I was out of my depth when I started. But I found out what I wanted to know by being active, taking responsibility for my experience. Just two days ago @TweetSmarter provide a link that answered the @ question. I immediately changed my behaviour accordingly.

    Thre are a million resources available (many coming directly into my Twitter feed) on how to use Twitter better, smarter, faster, more effectively. People need to stop whining and start investigating and educating themselves just as they do with other technology.

    And let’s face it, this lack of “onboarding” is not particular to Twitter. My new smartphone provides the most basic, and relatively useless tutorial exemplified by the advice that to prolong my battery life I should recharge frequently.

    Likewise the latest connected TV we purchased required searching the manufacturer and my broadband providers online Q&As and installation instructions to get it to connect properly.

  7. Amen, Matt! Twitter was made for mobile. While I haven’t used G+ on mobile yet, my desktop stream is already filled with these one page posts with +100 coments. Twitter is not social, it is call to action information. Twitter does need to respond to G+, but at the rate of 600k registrations per day, Twitter will experience minimal user drop off. Both FB and Twitter were thriving before,so why can’t all 3 grow together. This is a global market not merely a domestic one.

    I expect a strong response from Twitter and foresee vitality for the company.

  8. David Locke

    Tweets tend to be broadcasted with no intention to converse. But, there are those of us who do converse. Still, many times in a real conversation, our statements don’t logically follow from what was said. Many peeps expect otherwise of tweets. the lack of threading makes conversations difficult, because replies are asynchronous and usually don’t provide context.

  9. Well said. I’ve been using Google+ for a few weeks and like it, but Twitter is my poison and the only feature I’d add is the ability to have group discussions. Otherwise, don’t fix what isn’t broken. (Ok, sometimes twitter does break down which is irritating, but who doesn’t “break down”?)

  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.


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

  11. 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+.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. Farhad Manjoo

    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.

    • 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.

  15. 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 ;)

  16. 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……

  17. 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…