TweetDeck’s campaign to end the Twitter 140-character limit is a very bad idea

It seems only a matter of time before Twitter enables users to view 'long tweets' within, in the same way that users can view videos and photos within the site.


While Twitter is positioning itself these days as more of a media consumption service, with the expectation that many more people read Twitter than write to it, the tone of the service will continue to be set by users who actively tweet. If Twitter drops the 140 character limitation, I think Twitter producers will adjust and only post longer tweets occasionally. Twitter will need to monitor that somehow, but - barring a drastic change in user behavior - Twitter users won't stop producing short tweets just because long ones become available to them. They'll use the long tweets sparingly, because they've been habituated into doing short tweets.

ReadWriteWeb, Why Twitter Must Expand Beyond 140 Characters, February 16, 2011, a 'long post' feature invented by TweetDeck, an Adobe AIR-powered Twitter client which I personally find clunky, buggy and ugly, was launched about a fortnight ago and is generating a great deal of buzz. Many commenters are giving in to the facile temptation to think this would be a good idea.

Yet they would do well to think again. I actually started using Twitter very soon after it was founded, in 2006 [i], at a time when most people were mocking the service, wondering what use it could possibly serve and dismissing it as a gimmick. It took about two years before it became established as a mainstream component of the social web, and today it is arguably one its most heavyweight players, along with Facebook, Google and Apple. Because of its massive adoption rate, Twitter is now being used by people who have no real idea of how to use it, and because of this, its defining characteristic as a 'pure' microblogging platform is being blurred.

Yet back when Twitter was only being used by geeks and the hoi polloi were left scratching their heads at the point of trying to cram a meaningful statement into 140 characters, the attraction of the concept was not immediately apparent, because so few people were using it. Now, it has been put in question again, for the opposite reason that too many people are using it. And because most people have short memories, they have forgotten what happened in the period in between those two points. Two factors that most observers hadn't anticipated initially combined to ensure Twitter was a roaring success:

  1. those carefully-crafted 140-word statements' main attraction was that they would add a lot of value while taking little time to read;
  2. as adoption of Twitter became sufficiently wide, the supply of tweets because sufficient to provide a comprehensive flow of information that could be fileterd according to taste and digested in a record time.

In other words, the whole point of using Twitter is that the 140-character limitation means you can subscribe to someone's feed while knowing that while that person may bombard you with updates (in which cas you can always unfollow them), you'll never be placed in the dilemma of following someone whose individual posts, while highly interesting, take too long to read.

ReadWriteWeb suggests that if the 140-character limit were relaxed, few people would take advantage of it because they have grown used to the droconian limit. I doubt this very much. People, starting with myself, are naturally verbose, convinced of their own importance and incapable of being naturally concise. Twitter, by forcing them to rise above this inbred inclination to mediocrity, has provided the social web with an exceptionally useful tool—which would be inevitably first diluted, and then ultimately destroyed if TweetDeck's bad idea were allowed to run its course.

  1. I posted updates to my first Twitter account in French, at a time when I was still blogging in that language. In May 2007 I opened a second Twitter account, @donaldjenkins, and subsequently discontinued the initial one.