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

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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

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