What if Twitter ends up letting you make 10,000-character tweets? Well, why not?
At last, we’ll have plenty of room to couch our situational comments in actual context. We’ve all been there before: two years ago, you livetweeted a movie. And yet, today, you get a baffled reply to one of the two-year-old livetweets from a stranger, who didn’t get your joke, or who didn’t understand what you meant. They might not even realize that you were watching a movie! Who are these people? Your tweet had a context, once. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had enough space, enough characters, for it to have a context forever?
Do people even livetweet anymore? It feels like when Twitter populations were thinner, and we all generally followed fewer people and had more control over the things we were exposed to, livetweeting a film or a season finale was a thing to do. Social viewing! But now the online population is so vast and raucous, if you went to, say, Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening day and livetweeted everything you saw, you would probably be widely considered A Bad Person. Spoilers are everywhere, and moment-to-moment participation tweets seem less fashionable.
People also like to use Twitter to have arguments, and up until now those arguments generally have always concluded with someone saying: “Twitter is a terrible discussion format.” I mean, of course it is; you are whittling your outrage into tidy packets and firing each salvo out into the universe before – let’s be honest – you even read your opponents’ replies. You aren’t really interested in a discussion format – you are performing your argument for onlookers. Surely the act of bombarding strangers with furious snippets – asynchronously – while you drink half a bottle of wine in front of Netflix would be vastly improved, as discussion formats go, by the ability to type out an entire full-length screed. Right? Why not lay out the complete screed before you refresh your replies?
I mean, people on Twitter LOVE screeds. We all have one or several people in our timelines who do that thing – you know the thing, where their first tweet of the evening is something like, “a thought.” And then about 32 seconds later, according to the timestamp, they follow up with “and I’m going to get ranty, here, so feel free to unfollow or mute,” and then 42 seconds later, “especially as I know a lot of you definitely do NOT watch Sherlock, but bear with me,” and then you’ll have your timeline peppered intermittently with their strongly worded ideas. Every few tweets will be from this one person, a finely carved holiday slice of whatever potent thing they are thinking or feeling in front of their instantaneous platform. The 140-character limit has created for this user a kind of punctuation, but has not engendered in them any respect for brevity, nor the carefully chosen word.
Isn’t that the common argument in favor of the value of writing in 140 characters? That it’s an elegant limit that forces us to truly meditate upon each word we float gently into the global conversation from moment to moment? That after years beset by the sprawls of journals and weblogs, the 140-character limit has brought a kind of modern artistic minimalism to online communication? If you have ever spent any time trying to compose The Perfect Tweet (come on, stop rolling your eyes, even you have tried), you might even have appreciated the limitation, noting how it makes you, it must make you, a better writer, a wittier, weirder comedian.
But the ways we use Twitter must be beginning to pound at the retaining walls of 140 characters. It’s clear that so many of us have thoughts we need to complete. What if the character limit has created emotional distance between people? You start saving your intimate rants and your most elaborate personal disclosures for Facebook, where you can post as many words as you want in one whole serving, rather than shearing your gall into 140-character ribbons so that people can just grab hold of the juiciest ones and wave them around. When you carve your self-expression into portions and then some people are going to favorite – oops, I mean “like”, with the heart, as it is now – some portions more than others, you start to feel reserved, and under scrutiny, and then probably it’s just easier to post links to stuff or to quietly favorite – I mean “like” – other people’s tweets. And so you turn away from Twitter.
This considered detente on the character limit is Twitter’s way of asking us to open up to it, to come back, to get close, to say more. It wants to increase engagement by giving us more room to move. And it’s not like there would be massive walls of text to scroll through in your feed – the proposed scenario would still have 140-character blocks, but with a sort of “read more” option if you wanted to read more. As it is I spend a lot of glazed-eyed phone time thumbing through my feed refreshing and rereading the same half-thoughts; if there were full-length posts to read, it’s possible I might find the time more rewarding, rather than a partial activity whereby I just sweep fragments out of my own head by reading other people’s fragments.
Twitter has also been crucial to amplifying the voices of activists, providing a platform for experiences of violence and oppression that conventional media would ignore. But its fragmentary nature often means individual stories get chipped into tiny bits and scattered to the winds, and misinformation can spread in times of crisis. It would be good if there were more textual space for these stories. I mean, I’ve never tweeted from a crisis, unless you consider Pitch Perfect 2 a crisis, and maybe people who are trying to be heard and spread information in a crisis won’t really have time to post a long thing on Twitter, but if they want to, they should be able to.
I mean, 10,000 characters is a lot of characters. The Guardian has asked me to fill 10,000 characters here, and I am only about halfway there at this point. No one on Twitter is really going to use all 10,000, are they? The average user might only maybe want to add a couple extra lines, or a couple extra paragraphs, right? After all, Twitter can give us all the space in the world, but I’m guessing there will still be a fundamental resistance to change when it comes to user behavior. Twitter is a platform for of-the-moment information conveyed in small bites, for reaction gifs and weird, tiny jokes, and we all go elsewhere for our longreads and our deep dives. People usually go to Tumblr if they want to write 500 word one-shot rants about anything. So while this 10,000-character thing sounds like it would be a huge change, I don’t think users’ concept of Twitter nor their fundamental relationship with it will actually evolve much.
I mean, I bet (hope) there will be some kind of Twitter Fiction or Twitter Longform Roleplay community that emerges. And I have a perverse curiosity about what kind of bizarre black holes celebrities and subculturists alike will surely step into once they are presented with the irresistible lure of a blank field, theirs to fill with whatever has danced to the tip of their proverbial tongue. But for nearly 10 years now we have been acclimating to tweet-sized thoughts, and we have found their format useful, and I don’t think we will voluntarily deprogram just because the option is there.
I have not spent all my 10,000 characters yet. 10,000 characters is enough room to make a complete argument in favor of something, and then stretch your arms and legs into the remaining space so far that you double back on yourself, begin to make the argument against.
So on the other hand, is the impact of information we receive lessened if the density decreases? If we have the leisure to lengthen our thoughts and our arguments, will we necessarily? Will it take longer to take the pulse of the day? Separately from the issue of self-expression, what about Twitter’s utility? Will it be lessened in all of our self-indulgence? Even if most users carry on as normal, will even a little self-indulgence hurt the utility?
And anyway, it doesn’t matter. If Twitter is shedding users and seeing its stock fall, experimenting with character limits is not going to help. Twitter’s main problem is that it offers nothing in the way of user experience, provides no valuable way to isolate yourself from goons and has done nothing to ensure the safety of vulnerable users from harassers and creep campaigns.
It’s simply become unpleasant to expose oneself to other Twitter users. Interacting at any level of visibility on the service is perpetually stressful, and while the service has made plenty of room in recent years to shove sponsored tweets into your timeline, its curation tools are opaque where they exist at all. I’m not even looking forward to publishing this article, or any article, because of Twitter. What might have been a platform for discussion has become a place where most users cringe at the very word, and this 10,000-character limit business cannot possibly have any impact on these dire straits.
OK then, I’ve been around the entire issue. What to do with the remaining characters? I suppose I ought to think about it, because you know others will aim to use the space creatively. Glitch art, ASCII art, emotional song lyrics of the day? Wow, what if “signature pictures” come back in fashion? The elaborately formatted quotes and text-work people would sign off their Livejournal posts or their forum posts with? Filling digital space is its own kind of art blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah god 10,000 characters is too muc
And the case against...
Veteran commentator Jeff Jarvis is less keen on Twitter busting out of 140 characters. And here’s why – in 140 characters:
Articles (with ads) embedded in tweets a click & an instant away? Good. Tweets as endless essay? Bad, very bad. Very, very, very, very bad!!
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